Libraries have been a part of American culture since 1731, when Benjamin Franklin and a group of his friends founded the Library Company of Philadelphia.
That program eventually evolved into the public library as we know it today. This week, libraries across America have been celebrating "National Library Week." The theme of this year's celebration is "Libraries Transform," a reminder of just how much Franklin's original idea has changed.
Benton's Public Library is celebrating in several ways, according to library director Susan Stickel.
"We will have refreshments throughout the week," she said. "We're also having a free drawing and will give away three books." Those titles are "The Whistler" by John Grisham, "To Capture What We Cannot Keep" by Beatrice Colin, and "Christmas in the Lone Star State" by Jason Manning. The drawing will take place at 5 p.m. Friday.
Friday will be a big day.
"That is our amnesty day," Stickel said. "From 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., we will waive library fines." Stickel said the amount of the fine doesn't matter, but the amnesty does not apply to fees for lost or damaged items.
The library will also host an Easter egg Hunt for children ages 2 to 10 from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Children must bring their own baskets.
Libraries today are not just about borrowing books.
"We have about 50,000 volumes," Stickel said. "If we don't have it, we can usually get it within a week. That goes for audio books and DVDs, too, and it's free."
Today's libraries now offer online resources and computer access, business centers, and even 3-D printing. They have become places of creativity where people can meet to share a hobby, edit a video, or record their own music.
Benton is no exception. Along with the various children's programs, patrons can get help with technology-related questions.
"Joe DeVillez is available to help with technology," Stickel said. "He can help with Kindles, computer-releated issues, pretty much any technology question."
Stickel said the hours vary and are posted on the library's website and Facebook page.
According to the American Library Association, one of the goals of this year's theme is "to increase funding support for libraries.
Stickel learned that Benton's library has been awarded a mini-grant.
State Representative Dave Severin announced the funding in press release this week.
"I am happy to pass along the news that the Benton Public Library has been awarded a grant from the Live and Learn Construction Grant Program," Severin said. "This investment will go towards refurbishing the interior of the library."
"We're very pleased," said Stickel, who is waiting on the paperwork.
The library will be receiving $8,849 from the Illinois Secretary of State, which Stickel says will be used to purchase and install sun-controlled window shades throughout the building.
"It will make it a more comfortable environment," she said, adding "it will protect the books, carpeting and furniture."
It's unclear if the funding will be held up by the state's budget impasse.
To generate additional funding, the library holds raffles and depends on contributions from the public.
"Jeff and Paul Shockley just donated $40 from the Saturday Night Hot Rod Cruise," Stickel said. "They are also going to hold raffles at the car shows to benefit the library."
The library is currently holding a raffle to run through July 14.
"We had an anonymous donor give us an American Girl Doll," Stickel said. That doll and a set of Legos will be included in the raffle.
A journey of 1,000 books
When you've read 1,000 books in a year, it might be difficult to choose a favorite. But for one Benton 5-year-old, the answer came easy.
"I think my favorite book is "The Bear Candy," said Sofiya Stotz. Sofiya is the most recent recipient of a custom-built bookcase, her prize for reading 1,000 books.
The program, sponsored by the library, is just one of many activities that encourages children to read.
"This was actually started by Debbie Appleton, the former program director," Stickel said. "I guess you would call it a reading challenge."
As the children conquer the reading challenge, Stickel said they are rewarded in various increments. The final prize is their very own bookshelf.
"My husband, Henry, makes the bookshelves," she said. "I have a plaque that I special-order and they get to take home a bookshelf as the end reward."
Vickie Simpson's granddaughter, Caroline Simpson, was the first child to complete the program. "The advantage of programs like this is that they have tremendous impact on reading development," said Simpson. "It gives reading a real purpose for children."
Simpson is well-qualified to judge that, having spent 34 years as an elementary school teacher. She now enjoys taking her grandchildren, Caroline, 5, and her younger brother, Xavier, 3, to the library.
"Reading with my grandchildren is one of the greatest joys of my retirement," she said.
While the Simpsons learned of the program during "Story Time with Miss Norma," a weekly program on Wednesday mornings, Sofiya and her parents, Nadezda and Robert, discovered it last year during the summer reading program.
"She loves to read," Nadezda said. "We read a lot of books to her. My husband reads in English and I read in Russian."
Nadezda, who has been in the United States for about 16 years, said that reading in both languages has helped Sofiya to become bilingual. "
She understands everything I say," she said.
While Sofiya and Caroline both completed their quests in a year, Xavier will turn in his completed folder this week, having read his 1,000 books in just under two years.
"Xavier began his 1,000 books at the same time, but it took him about ten months longer than Caroline," Simpson said. "He's younger and won't sit as long."
Simpson has nothing but praise for the library and staff, finding everyone "very patient and caring."
She said her grandchildren retain the lessons and stories they get from reading.
Sofiya's purple bookshelf is almost ready, and Henry will begin working on Xavier's.