Winter Park has always been a bookish sort of place. Now, with a new director in place, the town’s intellectual epicenter is poised to grow, change and remain relevant.
If you’re driving west along Fairbanks Avenue headed toward downtown Winter Park, the first city landmark you’re likely to spot is a somewhat incongruous brick structure with odd, pointy angles and seemingly random windows.
Only three stories high, the Winter Park Public Library nevertheless towers above most of its neighbors. And its position — just off a major thoroughfare with a steady stream of cars rushing by — lends it an additional prominence.
If you’ve traveled that stretch before, the sight of the library tells you that Park Avenue and Rollins College aren’t far away. But even if you haven’t, the building signals that you’ve crossed an invisible barrier.
You’re now entering the heart of Winter Park.
In a city where history is highly valued, the library building on New England Avenue, if not the 129-year-old institution itself, is something of a newcomer. Its first two stories went up in 1979; the top floor didn’t settle in until 1995.
An even newer newcomer is Shawn Shaffer, a Windy City transplant who has been the library’s CEO and executive director for about a year. She replaced Bob Melanson, who retired in 2012 after 25 years on the job.
“When I came down for the interview, the next day I went to the Briar Patch for brunch,” recalls Shaffer, a woman in her fifties with two grandchildren and two degrees in library science. “I sat outdoors and looked at Central Park and watched people walk up and down Park Avenue. I just loved it! It’s such a charming town.”
From an early age, Shaffer knew her career would be in books.
“I came home from the public library when I was 8 years old and said to my mother, ‘I want to be a librarian,’” she says. “I loved to be at the library because it was just a place that called to me. It felt like home.”
She never wavered from her goal except briefly, in college, when she flirted with acting and music. You’d never know that from her reserved, librarian’s demeanor. But there is something faintly theatrical in the way she dresses — an array of pastels set off against pearls and silver flats. And, oh yes, her office contains a photograph of her dancing with singer-songwriter Barry Manilow.
“We’ve had a lifelong love affair,” she jokes.
Shaffer came to Winter Park from a library director’s job in suburban Chicago’s Elmwood Park. She was “ready for a new challenge” and no longer had strong ties to that area. Not only did Winter Park charm her, but so did the library itself.
Still, she wasn’t so impressed that she was content to leave everything as it was.
“We’ve moved things around quite a bit in the last year,” she says. “We took a look at all of the floors and all of our collections and all of the space we had. We talked to patrons and looked at how they use the library. Sometimes how librarians want you to use the library and how you actually use the library are two different things.”
Mary Gail Coffee, the library’s community relations coordinator, said a good example is placement of the DVD collection.
In the past, television shows were on one floor while movies were on another. Now, because patrons apparently don’t make such distinctions when searching for DVDs they might enjoy, everything is shelved together.
Another example has to do with the large-print books, many of which had been on the second floor.
“If you’re seeing-impaired, you might have other mobility challenges,” Shaffer explains. The large-print books were in a very remote area that was very difficult to get to if you used a walker or a cane. Now, they’re all easily accessible on the first floor.
Then there’s the furniture issue. “Librarians might arrange it in a very structured way,” says Shaffer. “But students come in and they want these chairs over here and these chairs over there.”
Librarians used to spend a lot of time putting the chairs back where they had been. Now, she adds, not so much. A recent survey undertaken by the library has revealed other information about patron preferences.
“They want to be empowered, not so much lectured to,” Coffee notes. Rather than taking a class at the library, she adds, they often want individual instruction on topics such as, say, how to use new electronic tablets.
“So, since Shawn joined us, that’s something we now offer,” says Coffee. “It’s one-on-one, just you and a reference librarian who’s an expert in tablets and software.”
Of course, in recent years there’s been an increasing emphasis on ebooks. While some librarians may see this as revolutionary, Shaffer views it as part of a continuum.
“When we buy any book now, we buy the hardback, we buy the paperback and we buy it on CD because people love to listen to books in their cars,” she says. “And now we buy it in ebook form. So we’re still buying the same item. All these years, it’s come in different containers or different formats. Ebook is just one more in a long line for us.”
Technology is also making the library more user friendly. Last year, for example, as part of its “Innovation 127” campaign, funds were raised to implement self-service circulation.
Five new self-serve stations allow patrons to check out and renew their own materials and pay fines using their credit cards. These days, about half the transactions once handled by staffers are now completed by patrons using this process, which rarely involves waiting in a line.
The self-service technology has allowed the Youth Services staff to spend more time working directly with children, says Shaffer. In addition, she notes, the third floor has been transformed into a quiet space for studying and using public computers, which were previously located in a high-traffic area near the checkout desk.
Now, you can even check out a bicycle at the library. Thanks to a grant from Florida Hospital’s Healthy Central Florida Initiative of Winter Park, anyone holding a library card can enjoy free use of a bright yellow single-speed cruiser or a tandem-style bike.
The fleet of seven two-wheelers, each of which comes equipped with a basket, a helmet and a lock, is also available to students at Rollins College and guests at the nearby Alfond Inn.
Although the Winter Park Public Library is changing, it continues to provide traditional services to its 11,500 cardholders. You can, of course, still check out a book there. And you can still research local history by examining the documents and photographs in its extensive archives.
The library, which has a $2.8 million annual operating budget, continues to offer story time for children and to sell books at its volunteer-run New Leaf Bookstore. And, if the spirit moves you, you can still stop in at Beverly’s Cafe for a snack and a beverage.
Looking into the future, Shaffer senses bigger changes coming.
“Right now, in history, we’re kind of at a crossroads, and libraries need to have a foot in both worlds,” she reflects. “We’re still going to be this place where we collect information and we circulate it and move it out to people. But we’re also moving forward into the next generation, and the next century, where the library is going to become a place where you actually participate and make content.”
She’s thinking of, among other things, helping patrons to create self-published ebooks, video content, music and textiles. Meanwhile, in the near-term, she hopes to work more closely with Winter Park schools and, in general, to be an increasingly visible presence beyond that quirky building.
Speaking of the 35-year-old facility, the Board of Trustees has begun to discuss replacing it in the not-too-distant future. Members are already visiting state-of-the-art libraries elsewhere to get ideas.
“I want to get us more out into the community,” says Shaffer. “You shouldn’t always have to come to us.”
IT ALL STARTED ON A FRONT PORCH
The Winter Park Public Library’s official beginning can be traced to Dec. 9, 1885, when a group of “well-educated” local women met to discuss the idea at the home of Edward and Elizabeth Hooker.
Edward Payson Hooker was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park and soon to be the first president of Rollins College. His wife was a civic activist and community booster in her own right
The Winter Park Circulating Library, as it was then known, was first located on the front porch and in the hallway of an organizer’s sprawling home near the corner of Interlachen and Swoope avenues.
The woman who provided space was Evelyn Lamson, who was born in Jasper, New York, in 1855, and earned an art degree at Oberlin College. For health reasons, she moved to Winter Park in 1885 with her mother and brother.
The new library didn’t have a large collection. Some of the titles available were The Scarlet Letter, The Last Days of Pompeii, Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe and The Rise of Silas Lapham. There were also religious works such as Grace and Truth and The Blood of Jesus.
Membership was $1 per year. Members could take out only one book at a time, on either Wednesday or Saturday, and keep it for two weeks. Non-members wishing to check out a book had to pay a $1 deposit plus 10 cents a week. The library only operated from January to May.
A year later, the Winter Park Circulating Library Association accepted an offer to move its operations from Lamson’s porch to a room in a building occupied by the Winter Park Company, (now the Winter Park Land Company), on the southwest corner of New England and Park avenues.
In 1900, the estate of Francis Bangs Knowles, an early Winter Park founder, donated property on Interlachen Avenue. A one-room library building containing 1,300 books was opened in 1902.
Lamson, who in the interim had become the first librarian at Rollins, resigned her college post to run the community library. (She would marry Charles Lyman Smith in 1909 and die in 1925 while serving as president of the Winter Park Library Association).
In 1924, two new wings were added; by 1927 two librarians worked year-round at salaries of $50 per month. In 1928 and 1929, when Florida’s land boom went bust and the Great Depression swept the country, the library’s well-heeled supporters chipped in and kept the facility open.
In 1937, the Hannibal Square Library was founded by Edwin Osgood Grover, Professor of Books at Rollins College, in memory of his wife, Mertie, whose passion had been providing educational opportunities for African American residents. It operated until 1979, when the current library was opened.
In 1956, a children’s room was added, followed in 1959 by completion of an entirely new building, which was expanded in 1970. In 1976, the city bought the New England Avenue property where today’s library is located. The new facility was completed in 1979 and a third floor was added in 1995.