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Folks popped into the James City County Library to grab materials, but they didn’t always stay long. All that changed in 2021 with a pioneering new project that improved how people used our space, attracted more visitors, and increased checkouts significantly, too.

The idea that became the Kiwanis Kids Idea Studio began with Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) Director Betsy Fowler’s gut feeling that it was time for a fresh approach to integrating play and reading that would make people want to spend more time in the library – specifically in the children’s area.

The James City County Library branch is spacious and more modern than the system’s other building, but it was not getting as much traffic as the smaller downtown branch. Assistant Library Director Sandy Towers and the WRL staff worked together to help reimagine the children’s area as an engaging space focused on the twin literacy skills of reading and play by adding elements of a modern children’s museum to the existing collection.

Betsy mapped out the space with an eye for creatively blending the collections and hands-on, interactive play elements. When the Kiwanis Kids Idea Studio had its grand opening in June 2021 (delayed due to the pandemic), WRL became the first library system in Virginia to have items like its interactive digital play table and Awesome Air Tubes. Other hands-on learning features include an interactive floor projection play area; a giant, illuminated pixel peg wall; a LEGO wall; a moveable magnetic gear wall; and a ball wall that allows for exploration of advanced concepts including kinetic energy, friction, and inertia.

The Idea Studio Village includes a Pet Vet (provided by Noah’s Ark Veterinary Hospital), a house with furniture and accessories (provided by Carolina Furniture), and a market stocked with plastic groceries (provided by Publix Super Market; this partnership was the first time the company has supported a market play area in a library). Many features of the space were chosen for their appeal to children on the autism spectrum, and activities available support a wide range of learning styles.

This project is an excellent example of public and private partnerships supporting innovative ideas for the library. Funding partners included James City County, WRL’s Board of Trustees, and a major fundraising effort by Friends of WRL Foundation that brought together three local Kiwanis clubs as well as the regional Kiwanis organization, local businesses, and private donors.

Beyond being a wonderful space of joy, literacy, and learning, the Idea Studio is also a relaxing gathering space for children and their adults. Families visit on a regular basis and stay for long periods of time, which leads to book and material browsing and increased circulation of the collection.

The data corroborate what our eyes told us: in June 2022, the Idea Studio had 13,981 visits. From the period of January through June, checkout of the children’s collection increased 31% over the same period before the pandemic.

In our area, as in the rest of the country, the pandemic dramatically changed how people use the library and how often they visit. Now more than ever before, it is important to provide people with innovative services, programs, and collections that will keep the library a vibrant public space. WRL didn’t just reinvent the children’s area to provide educational opportunities and support early literacy – we also did it to help the library stay relevant in a changing modern world.

Desiree Parker, Marketing & Communications Manager, Williamsburg Regional Library

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