‘Palaces for the people’: Osceola County libraries celebrate 30 years of lifelong learning

A library patron is helped by staff at the Hart Memorial Library in downtown Kissimmee.

An escape room inside a library?

It may sound unconventional but it’s one of the many unique offerings at the Osceola County Public Library System.

Staff wants residents to know the library is about much more than just books – especially as the local institution celebrates its 30th anniversary this week.  

“Traditional escape rooms may be out of people’s price range, but the library makes things accessible,” said Library Director Amy Jones Lee. “We’re all about learning and offering resources people might not experience otherwise.”

Andrew Carnegie, a businessman and philanthropist in the early 1900s, referred to libraries as “palaces for the people,” or places available to the common man built on pillars of sharing, cooperation and lifelong learning.  Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant, so for him, libraries were places where everyone - from factory workers to tenement house dwellers - could go to read, think and achieve something greater then themselves.

The accessibility of libraries is something Jones Lee and her staff strive to provide at Osceola County’s six branch locations.

They’ve partnered with the Adult Literacy League and others to offer English as a second language (ESOL)classes free of charge, as well as computer skills classes for senior citizens.

“Education is the great equalizer, we’ve all heard that, but it’s harder for some people to attain that than others,” Jones Lee said. “We’re here to fill that gap.”

They’re also evolving how they communicate with residents, utilizing various social media platforms and even launching an online podcast with more than 50 episodes.  

Another big focus is on childhood education, from toddler storytimes to STEM-focused summer programs like Coding for Kids. The library’s large open space, ample parking and centralized location make it ideal for a variety of functions, said the library’s director.

The first Osceola County library was built more than a century ago, but an organized system wasn’t formed until 1969, when Orange County began providing services on a contractual basis.

Ten years later, county commissioners created the current library district. Libraries receive funding through a percentage of property taxes to serve as a steady funding source that can grow with Osceola County’s population.

By April 1, 1989, the Osceola Library System began independent operations separate from Orange County.

Much like the rest of Osceola, the library has grown and changed a lot in 30 years. It’s expanded from three locations to six and increased its resource collection from 70,000 to 275,000 volumes since 1989. The system now serves more than 120,000 customers and employs about 70 people.

A few interesting events are happening this month to mark the big milestone anniversary, including a special retro-style commemorative library card available throughout April. And a special prize will be handed out to the first 30 patrons to sign up for a new library card for the first time.

A special storytime in honor of the library’s birthday will occur for children at different branch locations, with the St. Cloud branch featuring specially-themed times all month long. And for the adults, weekly puzzles and challenges created by library staff can be completed and turned in for a different prize each week.

Looking to the future, Jones Lee said she would like to see more branches open to serve Osceola County’s growing population.

The newest branch, the West Osceola location in Celebration, opened in 2013, but has since struggled to keep up with demand, Jones Lee said. Some funds from the library millage rate are being saved to pay for future locations, which could be beneficial in places like Four Corners or the Narcoosee Road area, Jones Lee said.

The library is also exploring new technology like 3D printers. County Commissioner Viviana Janer donated one to the Buenaventura Lakes branch recently, and it processes about 30 orders a month.

“This is another resource people may not have access to because it’s expensive,” Jones Lee said.  

A palace for the people looks different today then it did when Carnegie coined the term a century ago. But for Jones Lee and the staff at Osceola libraries, the mission remains the same – educate the people in a place everyone can enjoy.