STARKVILLE — Phillip Carter is finding new and innovative ways to reinvent the Starkville-Oktibbeha County Public Library System.
Libraries are essential to the literacy and education of a prosperous society, said Carter, who serves as director of SOCPLS. In a time where many materials and services are becoming digital, Carter said people all over the country still utilize public libraries systems. The Starkville Public Library alone sees 135,000 to 160,000 users per year.
“We provide a space for people to just ‘be,’” Carter said. “We’re the only space left in American society where democracy rules and you can just exist without the expectation of buying anything. Nowhere else does that exist anymore.”
Less than 2 percent of tax dollars go to public libraries in the United States, with even less to Mississippi libraries. SOCPLS’ current operating budget is $670,000 funded by a combination of city, county, state and federal dollars.
Carter said when he first assumed his role nearly two years ago, he noticed the prior administration did not prioritize funding objectives, so he made it a goal to acquire more funds for the library. In order to purchase more products and services for the library and hire more full-time staff members, Carter created a five-year plan to increase funding and enhance initiatives and programming throughout SOCPLS.
“When I approached the city and the county this time around (about funding), I presented them with a five-year plan to increase our funding and get us closer to increasing our staffing,” Carter said. “Thankfully the city and the county both agreed.”
SOCPLS provides a variety of resources for its users. Aside from print materials, the library also has an online collection of audiobooks and provides internet access for those who use the computers. With the increase of internet usage, Carter said he received a $37,000 grant from Appalachian Regional Commission to fund a new computer lab.
“We’re going to have 16 seats with an overhead projector, sound system. (It’s going to be a place) where we can hold workshops and training seminars and all sorts of other things. I expect it to go up very soon.”
The library also provides materials for homeschooled students to utilize. Parents can get materials and resources, such as the library’s online homeschool database, Magnolia, in order for their students to receive the same type of education as other students in the community.
SOCPLS is now fine-free, not requiring anyone to pay a fee for overdue books or materials. Carter said he believes this is a position change for the library because demanding fines cause people to visit the library less and does not actually encourage bringing books back on time.
“Overdue fines are punitive,” Carter said. “They are not encouraging. They actually discourage library use. … I know parents that would not get their children library cards because they were scared of the fines their children would accumulate, so those children did not get books from the library. That doesn’t work for me.”
To continue making effective changes to the library and help fund new services, Carter said SOCPLS is hosting its first fundraising event. Carter said this Prohibition speakeasy event, “The Grape Gatsby,” is a chance to build information and knowledge about the library for the public while also raising funds to increase programming and supplying needs.
“We want the community to come,” Carter said. “We want to get the community in the building. We want to get people who have not been in the library in decades to come back and see what we do and see that we’re different and see that we’re not the same library people used to think of when they thought of the library.”