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Libraries shift focus from physical collections to community hubs

With a public library branch headed to Longboat Key, Sarasota County staff highlight the ways in which libraries have evolved to offer a full suite of resources and events.

Emilia Kalev reads to Olive, a pug, during the Read with the Dogs program at Gulf Gate Library.
Emilia Kalev reads to Olive, a pug, during the Read with the Dogs program at Gulf Gate Library.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Longboat Key’s public library, operated by Sarasota County, won’t open its doors until late 2026. By then, there might be even more advances in the library system.

The project will bring the first county-operated public library to Longboat Key and expand Sarasota County’s library system, which currently has 10 libraries. Though books and historical resources continue to be a staple of modern libraries, the 21st century has brought with it advances in how libraries operate. 

“I think it’s really evident that libraries used to be much more focused on books, that’s our bread and butter, and we love books and reading,” said Director of Sarasota County Libraries and Historical Resources Renee Di Pilato. “I recognize the importance of literacy over the course of a lifetime … but libraries have become much more than book depositories and warehouses.”

Director of Sarasota County Libraries and Historical Resources Renee Di Pilato speaks at a community input session for the Longboat Key location.
Courtesy image

Di Pilato has been involved in libraries for about 20 years and has witnessed the shift firsthand. While people may first visit a library to check out a book, Di Pilato said that users might find themselves staying for something different, like attending an author talk or using a sewing machine in the Creation Station. 

“We really are a community hub where someone can come throughout their lifetime,” Di Pilato said. “And when you look at all the services we provide, you can really see, from infancy to becoming a retiree, how the library has different uses depending on where you are in your life,” Di Pilato said.

In fiscal year 2023, there were 1.3 million visitors throughout the Sarasota County library system. There were also 2.3 million items borrowed from the collection and about 2 million wireless sessions (people logging onto Wi-Fi), according to Di Pilato.

On top of that, there were about 1,500 people who took advantage of the county’s one-on-one technology training. While that number doesn’t seem large on the surface, Di Pilato said that number reflects a lot of time for the county employees. It’s also a program she said continues to grow. 

Di Pilato also said that the digitization of family photos and videos is a newer service that is becoming increasingly popular. 

Bigger picture

According to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), libraries have embraced technology since the start, and the technological changes in recent years changed how libraries connect with users. 

“A crucial part of contemporary library services is access to the Internet, as well as free use of computer equipment. Public libraries also often subscribe to online research databases, which patrons can use. Other services like library websites, remote access catalogs, and ebooks have become central to the community's library experiences,” a DPLA virtual history exhibition stated. 

The way library spaces are used has also evolved. What used to be silent reading spaces are now more collaborative spaces like meeting rooms, genealogy research centers and Sarasota County’s Creation Stations, which allow patrons to use things like sewing machines and 3D printers. 

Creation Stations in Sarasota County libraries give patrons the opportunity to use 3D printers, sewing machines and more.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

This shift began in the early 2010s, as libraries welcomed modern-style “makerspaces,” according to American Libraries Magazine. Librarians now foster these types of creative spaces, host workshops and sometimes offer one-on-one technology training.

Di Pilato said programming and multiuse capabilities reinforce a library’s role as a community builder.

“What’s interesting about libraries, public libraries in particular, is they are places where everyone is welcome,” Di Pilato said. “It really is the crossroads for people.”

The meeting rooms of many of Sarasota County’s public libraries are used for homeowners associations, nonprofit organizations, business groups and more, according to Di Pilato.

More than 350 people attended the One Book, One Community presentation March 1 at Selby Library.
Photo by Kat Wingert

Aside from that, Di Pilato also sees libraries as a way for community members to get to know their neighbors while utilizing resources or attending events. 

“I think that really solidifies the library’s role as a community anchor and a hub where everyone can visit and feel welcome,” Di Pilato said.

Modern evolution: Selby Public Library

Before entering the doors of the Selby Public Library in Downtown Sarasota, guests notice the curbside pickup sign. Upon entering, there are several self-checkout devices where people can check out books on their own using the digital library card — two newer ways to utilize the physical collection. 

Inside, there is plenty of space for guests to sit down and utilize free Wi-Fi, meet up with neighbors for games and, of course, read. 

At the Selby Public Library, an aquarium archway guides children to the designated children’s area. Next to that is the teen area. Books, movies and internet access are all tailored to the age groups in each of the areas.

An aquarium archway acts as the entrance to Selby Public Library's children's area.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

As for programs, teens often enjoy things like Lego Club and Anime Club, and the Writing Boot Camp can be fun for everyone, said Marketing Coordinator Merab-Michal Favorite. Author talks in Selby’s auditorium are also a popular attraction, according to Favorite. 

Upstairs are things like the genealogy research center, music archive and the Creation Station. The Creation Station is utilized in all of Sarasota County libraries in some way, Di Pilato said. At Selby, there’s a dedicated room with sewing machines, 3D printers, glowforges for wood burning and more. At other locations, these machines may be used on an on-demand basis. 

When guests get back home, the use of a library card follows. Users can use the smartphone app to download electronic books, audiobooks and movies. 

“We’re so conditioned to see libraries as a place for books,” Favorite said. “Most people don’t realize all the services we provide.”

What’s next for Longboat Key’s library?


The Longboat Key Foundation will be in charge of raising $3.5 million for an enhanced version of the library. Sarasota County will contribute the $11.1 million estimated construction cost and operate the building. 

But if residents want the enhanced version — a larger meeting room and outdoor terrace — the foundation will need to find donors before the end of August. The enhanced meeting room will cost about $2 million, and the terrace will be $1.5 million. 

Draft rendering of the enhanced library that shows the front entrance.
Courtesy image

Naming rights are also on the table if a donor is willing to contribute a minimum of 25% of the total project cost of $14.6 million.

After the fundraising period, the county will be able to finalize designs and get started on shaping the programming.

At any library in the Sarasota County library system, Di Pilato said the department tailors the programming around the community. For example, she said the Betty G. Johnson North Sarasota Library has a younger demographic, so the library has a dedicated after-school program. 

“We’re really hoping our fundraising will be successful and we’ll be able to offer the enhanced library,” Di Pilato said.

Until then, ideas for the Longboat Key branch are preliminary, but Di Pilato said people can expect all the core library spaces, including a collections space, community gathering space and a children’s nook.



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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