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Washington District Library serves one community across two branches

Sunnyland resident Lorena Cary looks over the shelves of books at the Sunnyland Branch of the Washington District Library.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
Sunnyland resident Lorena Cary looks over the shelves of books at the Sunnyland Branch of the Washington District Library.

A library is often the beating heart of a community, and Washington District Library Director Lexie Walsh says it's not just about books.

Over the years libraries have grown and adapted to fill the changing needs of a developing world.

“We have e-books, we have audiobooks, we have streaming tv and movies, we check out Rokus and hotspots and computers and projectors and all sorts of other things,” she said.

Coming out of the pandemic, many industries and services saw changes. Libraries were no different.

“I’d say our door counts, like the number of people walking in the door, is still not where it used to be before COVID,” said Walsh. “People got used to accessing things online and they haven’t changed their habits back.”

The exterior of the Washington District Library main branch at Five Points Washington.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
The exterior of the Washington District Library main branch at Five Points Washington.

Patty Kweram is one of those library users who has a habit of accessing her content online. She says, when she had children in the house, she'd frequently visit the Washington libraries for various programs. Now, she devours the district's online selection of audiobooks.

When she's not frequenting library services as a patron, Kweram is actually helping facilitate a library consortium across Central Illinois as her job. From her perspective in the industry, the Washington system is unique for a community its size.

“Washington is one of the Big 8,” she said. “The fact that they have a branch, too. So they’re one of our big libraries. Their circulation is high, number of patrons, active patrons, is high.

Director Lexie Walsh in the Children's section of the Washington District Library Main Branch, standing in front of shelves of picture books.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
Director Lexie Walsh in the Children's section of the Washington District Library Main Branch, standing in front of shelves of picture books.

The branch Kweram mentions is the second library location in Washington. While the first is attached to the city's Five Points building, the second is nestled in the Washington Plaza shopping center.

That's in Sunnyland, a neighborhood sandwiched between Washington and East Peoria that touts its own unique sense of identity.

Director Walsh says, around two years ago, the library board considered shutting the branch down. The number and types of services the library provided were growing, but costs were growing as well.

“Because, just like everybody and their personal budgets, things are getting more expensive. And as a tax-capped entity, our budget can only increase so much per year. It cannot necessarily keep up with inflation and the needs of our patrons,” she said. “So we started looking at, can we provide all of these things and operate two locations?”

A group of library patrons that Walsh describes as "small but very vocal" lead to the board deciding to keep the branch open. Today, a Facebook group called "Forever Our Sunnyland Library" has more than 500 members.

Lorena Cary is one of those Sunnyland residents that are passionate about the branch.

“We got involved. We started going to board meetings, we talked to the board members, we emailed them,” she said. “We did different things to try to make them aware of the fact of how important it was to continue to keep the branch open.”

Sharon Watson is another patron of the Sunnyland branch. She's a senior and lives with a disability. She says the branch fills an important niche in the community.

“We have housing, apartments that are over here where most of the people are disabled in some way. And they can walk to the library or they can catch a bus to the library here,” Watson said. “They can’t do that to Washington. But that keeps them involved.”

The exterior of the Sunnyland Branch in Washington.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
The exterior of the Sunnyland Branch in Washington.

Watson says increased activities at the branch following the decision to keep it open means her community has an easier way to stay involved, to get internet access, attend book clubs and more.

According to Director Walsh, foot traffic did step up for a time at Sunnyland following the possible closure. But, it's leveled off since then.

“We’re back to those levels from before. We’re trying to add some unique things that we don’t have at main,” she said. “Like, we added a seed library at the branch. Where patrons can come in and if you need five tomato seeds, but don’t want to buy an entire packet of them, you can get them from us.”

However, Walsh says there has definitely been an increase in programming, as they've added events like a Homeschooling Program and a Pokemon Club run by the Washington hobby store Zeek's.

Cary sees a lot of value in the increased program offerings and driving attention to the Sunnyland branch.

“I just really like it here,” she said. “And I think it’s important to keep it open because we need to keep encouraging children to read. Because readers will go on and do more things later on.”

Back at the main branch, Walsh says the annual summer reading program kicked off with a carnival earlier this month. She estimates an attendance of as many as 700 parents and children.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.