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Georgians share their library stories

Every day, libraries in communities across Georgia are transforming lives as they offer opportunities for people to build new job skills, pursue degrees, stay active, learn to read, meet friends, and much more.

Here are a few of their stories.

elmer ivon

Elmer Ivon

Giving back through the library

Elmer Ivon remembers visiting the library for the first time: He was a third-grader and didn’t know a word of English. Everything was new to him. His mother took him and his younger sister to the Vidalia-Toombs County Library to get to know their new community after moving from Mexico.

“It was a welcoming and diverse environment,” he said. “The library was its own community. There was a librarian named Dusty Gres who did storytime in English and Spanish, and we had access to bilingual books. Eventually, we were able to read fully English books.”

The Ivon family also took part in PRIMETIME family reading at the library, a program that emphasizes the importance of families reading together to discuss significant cultural and ethical themes.

Elmer became a volunteer and founding member of the teen group at the library. A developing artist, he also created puppet show backgrounds and even a teen puppet show.

“When I first met Elmer he was very shy,” said Martha Powers-Jones, who led the library at the time. “As the family got more involved at the library, he became more social and I realized – Elmer is growing up! We are so proud of how he has grown as a person using art for advocacy. He has made an impact at the library.”

As a staff member for his last two years of high school, Elmer gained a personal insight into how libraries help their communities.

“I remember seeing kids who were learning English come to the library,” he said. “I would reflect how I was in the same situation growing up. It was nice to see the impact I could have by giving back.”

Cameron Asbell met Ivon when she took over as director at the library. “I have never seen Elmer without a smile on his face and a kind word for everyone,” she said. “I knew him as a teenager, and I could see that one day Elmer is going to be someone who makes a big difference in the world.”

Currently pursuing his degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Southern University, Elmer still visits the library to find a good book and learn new things.

“As a kid, I checked out books to learn how to make puppets for library programming,” he said. “Even now, when I want to develop a new skill, I go right to the library. Libraries provide a safe space to access information, engage with the community, and learn. Now that many people are working and learning remotely, the library provides vital internet access.”

Powers-Jones kept in touch with Ivon when she became the director of Okefenokee Regional Library System, and she recruited him to draw caricatures for the library’s annual OkeCon festival.

Ivon also creates art for advocacy. Most recently, he created graphics to use as a fundraiser for the NAACP in response to the killing of George Floyd.

“Elmer and the entire Ivon family are shining examples of a library success story,” said Martha Powers-Jones. “I’m proud to have known them for so long.”

nyisha key-cook county library manager

Nyisha Key

Making an Impact in Cook County

Sometimes the best librarians never intended to be librarians. They transition from other careers and use their training and experiences to mold the lives of the people in their community.

Nyisha Key, manager of Cook County Library in Adel, Georgia, is an example.

”I’m a certified teacher with a degree in middle grades education, and I come from a family of educators,” said Key. “I spent about seven years in the classroom teaching middle school, mostly seventh and eighth grade. I knew I didn’t plan on retiring from the classroom, so I always had my eyes open for opportunities outside traditional education.”

After spending time around the school media specialist, a light bulb came on for Key.

“I thought to myself ‘wait a minute; I’ve always loved libraries. Why don’t I become a librarian?’”

Not only did Nyisha pursue a master’s degree in librarianship, she started working as a circulation assistant at Houston County Library. She felt this would be a good opportunity to get hands-on experience while earning her degree.

That’s when her career began to take off – quickly.

She began working at Houston County Library in 2009, shadowing the branch manager until he left for a new position and she took over in early 2010.

Although Key transitioned into management quickly, she drew from teaching experience when it comes to leading and developing her team.

“I’m a positive person, and being positive is about always looking for solutions instead of focusing on what’s wrong. That’s what helps you progress and move forward,” said Key.

Her classroom experience also influences her commitment to childhood literacy programs.

“The research tells us that the prime time to teach kids to read is the first five years,” she said. “I’m passionate about any program that’s pushing children to develop their literacy skills in that period.”

Key embraces all opportunities to uplift all people in her community.

“I tell my staff that we are not a small town library; we are a library in a small town. Our service is not restricted by where we are located. We’re always looking for ways we can serve better, serve with excellence, and we can be an example of good service and teamwork in our community.”

Barrow County commissioner Rolando Alvarez

Rolando Alvarez

Alvarez is a county commissioner in Barrow County, Georgia, and a real estate investor.

I have lived in Winder, Barrow County, for my whole life. I grew up in a family of limited means, but with lots of love. My Dad is a Cuban immigrant, and we grew up in a one-bedroom trailer. My sister and I shared a room, and my parents slept in the living room. We didn’t have access to many luxuries growing up, but my mother made sure we had access to the local library.

My middle school, Russell Middle, was next to the Winder Library. Going there started my love of reading, my love of knowledge. The first time checking out books I remember being concerned – was there a limit on how many books could I take?
I would walk there after school to work on group projects, check out books (as many as I could tote!), and use the computers. In fact, the first time I ever used a computer was at the library; I remember typing a paper and printing there.

Back then and continuing to now, the library afforded me access to technology not readily available or affordable to individual families like mine. From word processing and microfilms in the 90s, to high-speed internet and 3D printing today. My library is important to me because of the doors it opened in unfamiliar, yet valuable places.

As an adult, I used PINES to reserve so many books to learn about how to start a real estate business. Much of my success in starting a small business was learned through resources at the library, some 15 years ago.

Coming from a family with limited means, it is apparent I owe so much of my success to libraries. There’s no other way to say it. Libraries continue to provide access to critical resources and lifelong learning to many people across our state today. I am proud to say the story of my life has many co-authors, not the least of which has been the Winder Library.

Anthony Jones:

“The last five years, the library has seemed like a second home as I used it to complete my master’s degree and start work on my doctoral degree. I have developed friendships and received help from total strangers.”

Desiree M:

“I came to this library as a child and loved to read. Now that I am older, I took a Microsoft Word class here, and it has helped me for my senior year in high school. This library gives you many opportunities.”

woman smiling while holding a yoga mat

Keirha Whitley

“The library is my peace, and it resets my kids. I visit almost weekly, either for an activity or just to check out a new book. Yoga at the library was thought of by a genius. It’s cozy and relaxing, and what a great area to meditate. I have always felt at home when visiting any Georgia public libraries.

photo of GLASS services patron Miracle

Miracle Wiley

“GLASS (Georgia Libraries for Accessible Library Services) has helped me in my career. I can read along with my students and introduce them to different types of books.” Miracle used GLASS to access assigned reading as she pursued a degree in education. Now that she teaches elementary school, she uses audiobooks in her classroom with students.

Cindy High:

“I’m so thankful for the exercise class at De Soto Trail Library. We are a retired group of ladies very much concerned with staying active and healthy. We look forward to sweating together and sharing a common bond. This shows what an asset our library is to our community.”

Ruth Payne:

“I have attended Medicare and driver’s education classes at the library. These classes are so helpful for senior citizens, and the library is close to my home.”

Kandis Mingo:

“Internet access at the library is a lifeline for many residents of Douglas. I used my library’s computers, printers, resources, and internet to obtain my master’s degree in criminal justice.”

Zetta Nganga

For as long as I can remember, I have always considered the public library as my sanctuary or place of refuge.

I grew up in South Louisiana in the very challenging environment of public housing. Though we never owned an automobile, that didn’t stop us from going to the library on a regular basis. My beloved mother would escort me on foot on that mile-long journey to the library so that I could read and check out my favorite books. Even when the temperature soared to triple digits in the hot summers that Louisiana is known for, we would politely open up our umbrellas to shield us from the searing sun, and we would make our way, one step at a time, to the closest library to my neighborhood, where I would gleefully devour numerous books.

I have resided in Georgia since 2006, shortly following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged my birth city of New Orleans. The public library is still a very meaningful l part of my life.

I visit the library quite often, and I always leave there filled with great satisfaction and joy. If you haven’t visited your local public library lately, then I strongly urge you to do so. Although most libraries have evolved technologically to keep up with the times, I still feel a strong nostalgic connection there, taking me back to the memories of my innocent childhood. I have always felt at home when visiting any Georgia public library.

Marion Manigo:

When I was growing up, the Live Oak Public Library Carnegie branch was the only library available to me. The Carnegie branch was established for and by African Americans in Savannah, Georgia, during the segregation era. Many of my classmates also frequented Carnegie, and daily discussions during recess alerted me to new books I didn’t know. Fast forward a few years, and I now work part-time at Live Oak Public Library Port City branch. Once again, patrons are making me aware of books that I want to read!  I have remembered some authors that I haven’t read in a long time. The Covid-19 quarantine has given me time to revisit them; most notably, Nikki Giovanni’s poems remind me that words can tell a truth that will sting, but  with an unintended wit.  Prescient in my selections, reading Giovanni’s new poems restores my soul and remind me of the joy of good writing promotes the satisfaction of reading well. Libraries offer access to life-long learning avenues that nurture our growth and soothe the expansion of our time on the planet.