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‘We’re not just books anymore’

As director of the Demopolis Public Library, Lindsy Gardner fields her share of questions from patrons addicted to playing the occasional game of stump-the-librarian.

“You’ll hear all kinds of strange questions in this job,” Gardner says diplomatically. “We have people call in and ask for the answers to the crossword puzzle. And we get a fair amount of people who say something along the lines of, ‘I read this book when I was young. It’s about a girl. She’s lost in a forest. You know the one I’m talking about? …’ That’s not a lot to go on.”

If we are living in the Information Age, then librarians are the ones charged with keeping track of all those bits and bytes — and, more importantly, with being able to lay their hands on any given one of them at a moment’s notice.

While Gardner may not have the answer to every question that ever

kept you awake at night, she does have a solid grasp of what’s available in the 25,000 or so items available for check out at the Demopolis Public Library.

The library’s 4,500 cardholders check out nearly 1,000 of those items each week.

Even the most cursory glance around the historic East Washington Street building that houses the DPL will confirm that this is not your mama’s library. The library offers audio books, CDs, tapes, videos, DVDs, Internet access, and computer classes to its patrons. “We’re not just books anymore,” Gardner points out.

As libraries have evolved so, too, has what patrons demand from them.

Gardner gestures toward the bank of computers situated along one side of the main floor. “They’re empty now,” she says, glancing at the clock, “but in an hour or so they’ll be packed. People today are more likely to turn to the Internet for the information they need than to copy it from a reference book.”

Still, this is a library and books have not been rendered completely irrelevant. At least not yet. “I’d say our fiction bestsellers are still our most popular item — your John Grishams, your Danielle Steels, that sort of thing,” Gardner says.

Gardner had been a tentative pre-med student when she had one of those sudden life-changing epiphanies that college students sometimes have. “I realized I was not going to be a very good doctor,” she recalls with a laugh.

After some late-night soul searching, and a few helpful suggestions from fellow students, she switched majors, earning her masters in library science from the University of Maryland in the late ’90s. The field is changing so rapidly, however, that even that designation is being displaced in favor of degrees with titles like library and information management.

“Library science is all about organization,” explains Gardner.

Not everyone with a library degree ends up in a library. Some find themselves in museums or art galleries. Others work preserving and cataloging historical artifacts. Or sifting databases. Or bringing order out of chaos to hospital files.

Gardner did an internship on the team that helped to build the U.S. Postal Service Web site. “I sat in on a lot of meetings about the strategy they wanted to use, where they wanted to go with it, that sort of thing. It was fascinating,” she says.

Gardner’s fascination with libraries began much earlier as a child growing up in Linden.

“I was really interested in history as a child,” she says. “I loved bios and anything about Indians. I remember standing in front of that rack of bios and wondering, which one? I wanted them all.”

Today Gardner still feels a little bit of that same sense of wonder and excitement each day she goes to work.

“One of the things I love about my job,” she confides, “is that it’s never the same thing for very long. You can go from geography to politics to art history. It keeps things challenging. I guess you could say I know a little bit about a lot of things.”