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Cuyahoga County, Cleveland libraries transform into community service, job training hubs


CLEVELAND, Ohio - Residents will be able to apply for food assistance, cash assistance and Medicaid at any Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Public Library in a one-of-a-kind partnership with county government announced Tuesday. Literacy experts will also be on hand in every library to help people earn GEDs and gain jobs.

The programs are the latest for the award-winning libraries, which have evolved from institutions that lend materials to nerve centers of communities, aiming to serve as convenient one-stop locations for families.

"Libraries have transformed," Cuyahoga County Public Library Director Sari Feldman said. "Collections are important, but it is more about what we do for and with people in our community. If we do not recognize the role we play -- education, employment, entrepreneurship, empowerment and engagement -- we are destined to be like video stores and Radio Shack."

The libraries all offer the ASPIRE literacy program and benefits sign-up. They serve free lunches and dinners from the Cleveland Food Bank and offer homework help for kids. They offer English language instruction and help with citizenship, computers.

Some offer online training toolsinnovation stations where entrepreneurs can use 3D printers.

"We do not know of anyone that has this comprehensive approach in any other library system," Feldman said. "We bring access and take away barriers to service. We are the trusted friends in the neighborhood."

She and Felton Thomas, executive director of the Cleveland Public Library, are working with Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish on the partnership, which Budish said enhances the county priorities of putting residents on a career path with a family-sustaining wage and making county services more easily available.

"This new collaboration brings county services into neighborhoods where people live," he said.

The library systems have or will provide three major services:

Adult literacy, GED courses and skills to find jobs

Aspire programs, formerly called ABLE, are offered through the Ohio Department of Higher Education and provide free education services in reading, math and tecnology -- all skills to be successful in post-secondary education and advanced employment.

The goal is to "create a seamless continuum of adult basic literacy, high school equivalency, English as a second language and citizenship services," Feldman said.

Cuyahoga County employees will refer people to the programs at the library, which will be led by trained staff, funded by the state. 

A 24-hour help line -- 1- 833-ASPIRE2 -- will connect people to their most convenient Aspire service, whether it's near their home or work.

About 150,000 Cuyahoga County residents do not have a high school diploma, Feldman said. The Aspire programs currently serve about 2,500 people.

"We hope to double that quickly," she said.

Benefits assistance

Many residents need medical, food or cash, but find it difficult to travel to county offices downtown or in a few neighborhood locations, Budish said.

Librarians will help people fill out necessary paperwork and fax it to the county, where it's converted to an email and saves information in a database.

County librarians have already been trained, and the training is in the works in Cleveland. County staff hopes to have services available at every library in the county, including independent libraries and the Heights system, next year.

Providing a safe environment for families 

All city libraries and 11 county libraries provide brown bag lunches during the summer from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. 

During the school year, dinner is offered at every city library and seven county libraries.

"If you're a stressed out mother who is struggling to work a full job, keep their kids in school and keep their benefits you can come to the library near where you live and bring your kids," Feldman said. "You can work with a staff member who will help with you on the computer, your kids can be in an after-school homework center and get fed. We have really reduced a lot of stress. It makes a huge difference in accomplishing family goals."

Last year 150,000 meals were served at the libraries through the food bank, Thomas said.

Computer access is also important, since many residents don't have computers and internet at home. More than 30 percent of patron computer use is for job-related work, including filling out applications, he said.

The libraries also offer free access to online educational services.

"So often the libraries are overlooked," he said. "We are not where you come in get something and walk out. We are becoming a transformational force."

How the digital evolution occurred

Free public libraries were established in the 1800s to provide access to books, periodicals, newspapers and a quiet place to study and read.

But in recent decades, as public funding decreased and technology exploded, the role of the library had to change.

Public libraries had to reorient themselves around access to technology and services and reinvent their role in the community. Libraries in the 21st century are less about books (and magazines and DVDs) and more about the services librarians provide to their communities.

In 2014 The American Library Association Center for the Future of Libraries was created to identify long term trends that may affect libraries and their future.

It is highlighting trends relevant to libraries and librarianship and asking for input.

The Cleveland and Cuyahoga County systems have taken a national lead in some of those trends, including offering programs in career and college readiness and coordinating programs with Cuyahoga County.

"I have been been a librarian for 40 years and this is dream come true," said Feldman about the innovative partnerships with the county. "Having a county that recognizes the way they can work with libraries is a moment in time for me professionally that will make a huge difference."

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