Northeast Ohio has, perhaps, more than its share of problems - but it also has some very impressive assets, such as a world class symphony and the world's best heart clinic. It's also home to some of the best libraries in the country, according to the national ranking known as the HAPLR Index. That was a surprise to ideastream's newest reporter Dan Bobkoff, who's taking up the education beat. He went to find out what makes them so great.
It may be the coffee. That grinding noise you hear is a cafe mocha brewing in the lobby of the library here in Strongsville. In designing this branch, planners clearly set out to compete with bookstores and coffee shops by installing comfy chairs and free wireless internet.
Sari Feldman: Unlike Starbucks, you can get a cup of coffee, but we're not going to charge you for the connection.
Sari Feldman runs the Cuyahoga County Public Library, a network of more than two dozen local branches like Strongsville. For those keeping score at home, Cuyahoga County is the number one rated library system in the country, serving more than a half million people. Feldman took me to Strongsville because it's one of their newest branches and she says an indication of where libraries are headed.
Sari Feldman: We used to be a very passive organization. People came in and if we had what they want, they took it, and if not, they took something else.
Now she says libraries are about education and customer service. You can still get your standard library fare like books and periodicals, but it's now also a place to take a class, see a puppet show, surf the web on a laptop, or just shmooze with friends. You don't even have to be quiet any more, which caught me by surprise.
Not convinced I really could speak up, I decided to test the policy with a librarian.
If I were talking at one of these desks at this volume, would it really be ok? You wouldn't tell me to shush?
Librarian: Nope, wouldn't tell you to shush.
The Strongsville Library looks like a TV news set. A glass wall etched with the image of globes is illuminated by lights that change color. Behind the wall are scores of visitors working on computers. And while there are still rows of books, there is also an expansive selection of music and DVDs - and there's plenty to choose from, as Branch Manager Cindy Bereznay showed me.
We have everything here from MTV's Newlyweds, to Monty Python's Flying Circus to Hogan's Heroes, so quite an eclectic group here.
Cindy Bereznay: Quite a range of things.
Cuyahoga Library's Sari Feldman says all the entertainment doesn't mean the library is getting away from its educational mission.
Sari Feldman: We're not snobs about who we are or what we do as a library. We want to have the pulse of the community so our collection reflects that.
Successful libraries are trying all sorts of ways to appeal to their communities. At Lakewood Library, Director Kenneth Warren even does market research to learn what library visitors are looking for and then he creates targeted sections just for them.
Kenneth Warren: If you look at stuff for hipsters collection, or living with animals - these are all collection clusters that we use to connect to people who are single, young families, under the age of 44.
On the shelf this month is a book called "You Can Do It," in the "Girl Power" section. The hipsters get Kerouac.
Of course all these innovations and fancy buildings cost money. Whereas libraries in other states sometimes have to close down due to lack of funding, that's not the case in Ohio, which has a long tradition of quality public libraries.
You could even trace the foundation of library support in Ohio back as far as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which established that schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. In the 20th century, Ohio became one of the few states to provide significant state funding for local libraries. Feldman says that makes a big difference.
Sari Feldman: By having a stable funding base, libraries in Ohio have been able to be innovative, have strategic plans and carry them through, and really recruit top-notch staff.
That's not to say there aren't challenges. More than three-quarters of the state's libraries rely solely on state funding, and that's been frozen since 2002. Still, most are holding their own and are able to focus on the future, rather than mere survival.
At Wickliffe library, which is also highly ranked, Director Nancy Fisher says libraries will always have one selling point that no coffee shop or bookstore can boast.
Nancy Fisher: It certainly is the last place that is absolutely free. Where you can ask anything or find out anything and it's the best place to be.
And that's something this newcomer can appreciate. Dan Bobkoff, 90.3.