As librarians, we know the value of our community services, and our patrons appreciate their importance as well. But in an increasingly digital world, we see the role of libraries as community and cultural centers at times undervalued, and occasionally under fire. When shrinking municipal budgets combine with the nonstop technological revolution, public library services that focus on building community face-to-face, inspiring and educating patrons about art, literature, and music, and helping patrons engage in civil discourse can seem quaint. But it is precisely those shrinking budgets and the onslaught of technologically mediated life that make public libraries’ cultural and community offerings more important than ever.
David Morris wrote a stirring piece last May in which he argues for the value that public libraries bring to their communities. More than just books and banks of computers, libraries are still places where individuals gather to explore, interact, and imagine. We decided to take a look at some of the specific ways in which libraries add value to our communities and serve as cultural centers for our patrons. We separated library services into five very broad categories: (1) libraries as community builders, (2) libraries as community centers for diverse populations, (3) libraries as centers for the arts, (4) libraries as universities, and (5) libraries as champions of youth. Under each of these we highlighted specific ways in which libraries serve in these capacities, and included examples of unique or exemplary library services that support the notion that libraries are about more than just information.
In building this list we had two goals. First, we wanted to highlight some of the incredible work in which libraries are engaged. From tiny public libraries to huge city institutions with multiple branches, libraries across the United States are building community and supporting local culture in exciting ways. Take a look, the examples are inspiring. Hopefully, they will encourage librarians interested in community services and cultural outreach to make connections with each other, share ideas, and build partnerships. We believe that reading these examples will spark some new ideas for public librarians and prompt them to try a new program or service, or to expand upon the great services that are already in place at their libraries. Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a strong supporter of libraries as community builders, addressed librarians saying, “Unless you are out there changing neighborhoods, you are not completing the work you are to do.”Strengthening neighborhoods and championing the cultural lives of communities are big responsibilities. We think librarians are up to the challenge.
Second, we hope that this list will not only inspire librarians to become more active in creating services and programs that are community focused, but will give them some tools with which to advocate on behalf of public libraries. As we said, we all know the value of our libraries. It’s time to take the value we add and use that to advocate for better funding and more resources. Those who argue that libraries are becoming obsolete don’t know what public libraries do in the twenty-first century. We hope you use the examples that follow to help educate stakeholders, making them aware that libraries are more than books and technology. Libraries build citizens. They educate individuals and foster thoughtful communities. They are essential components of communities—worth fighting for and worth funding. Hopefully, the presentation of these examples to city governments, library boards, and the community at large will help us demonstrate our worth and become increasingly valued partners in our communities.
Libraries as Community Builders
- Libraries help revitalize struggling or depressed neighborhoods and downtowns.
- Place-based economic development stresses the importance of offering attractive, functional, and community-based places, such as libraries, in town squares and depressed neighborhoods. Like a major department store in a mall, libraries attract large numbers of people, creating economic opportunities for a myriad of businesses and organizations in the surrounding area. Large cities (such as Chicago), medium-sized ones (Hudson, Ohio), and even small towns (Putney, Vermont) have successfully transformed their libraries into the hubs of vibrant neighborhoods.
- Libraries are important partners in sustainability.
- As key municipal agencies, and focal points for community education, libraries are major players in creating livable, environmentally friendly cities and towns. The Urban Libraries Council released a report detailing the unique ways in which libraries can further sustainability at the local level. Beyond ensuring that library construction projects consider environmental impact, libraries can take a lead in supporting local foods and artisans, like the Peabody (Mass.) Institute Library’s (PIL) partnering with local businesses to pioneer a farmers’ market in their courtyard, or the Richmond (Calif.) Public Library’s (RPL) seed lending library which “nurtures locally-adapted plant varieties, and fosters community resilience, self-reliance and a culture of sharing.”
- Libraries’ special collections grow out of specific community needs.
- In addition to RPL’s seed lending library, there are other examples of libraries that provide circulating collections of everything from cake pans to fishing rods to bike locks. The Iowa City (Iowa) Public Library circulates framed posters and original artwork through its Art-to-Go collection. The Temescal Branch of the Oakland (Calif.) Public Library literally builds the community through its Tool Lending Library, which was created in 1991 to help rebuilding efforts after a disaster. Libraries that start such unique collections show how locally responsive and flexible a truly community-centered library can be.
- Archives preserve historic artifacts, oral histories, digital history projects, and monographs relevant to the community, including minority groups.
- Communities lucky enough to have archivists have a great advantage when it comes to organizing historical records and artifacts. An organized archive is a place where people can research genealogy and immigration history, do environmental research, and more. An archivist is an advocate for preservation who, among other things, coordinates the restoration of maps and paintings, the digitization of vital records, and the creation of oral history projects. With projects like the Mass. Memories Road Show and the Veterans History Project, evidence of the importance of archives is everywhere.
- Libraries are places where people come to know themselves and their communities.
- In the words of Robert Putnam, “People may go to the library looking mainly for information, but they find each other there.” New moms connect at baby story-times; elderly people, often facing difficult life transitions, attend events and find that they make new friends; teenagers meet up in libraries’ teen spaces after school; and readers discuss current events in the periodicals room. In libraries, community-building connections are happening all the time.
- Libraries serve as catalysts for addressing social problems.
- Public librarians know their communities firsthand, and are often the first to recognize a pressing local need, simply because they interact on a daily basis with patrons from all walks of life. This puts libraries and librarians in the best position not only to bring local issues to municipal governments and social agencies, but also to partner with local governments and agencies to address the needs of a community. PIL’s “Library Lunches,” part of the Summer Food Service Program, is a compelling example of how a library recognized a social need, brought it to the attention of the community, and partnered with local agencies to address an important issue—how to provide meals for hundreds of hungry kids.
- Libraries, which champion, promote, and reflect important democratic values, are a part of the community’s political life.
- Libraries can, should, and do play an important role in the political life of a community. From Banned Books Week displays, which combat the perils of school and community censorship efforts, to programs such as the September Project, which gathers community members and encourages them to talk about issues of freedom, justice, and democracy, libraries are pivotal in encouraging informed political involvement. Libraries also help citizens learn how to become advocates for themselves and their communities.
- Library buildings as architectural structures are culturally relevant.
- From gorgeous old Carnegie buildings to modern marvels like the Seattle Public Library, library buildings are rich in symbolism and meaning. Whether it is architecturally grand or the simplest of rooms tucked into a city government building, the physical space of the library communicates to the public our underlying values: that libraries, information, and shared community space matter, something that the American Library Association (ALA) recognizes each year with its Library Design Showcase in American Libraries.
- Libraries provide important business resources, especially for small local businesses.
- With the recent collapse of many big corporations, it has become more widely acknowledged that small businesses provide most of the new jobs in our current economy. Libraries have a long history of serving local entrepreneurs and businesses, but some, like the District of Columbia Public Libraries (DCPL), are taking their business services to a new level. The Urban Libraries Council report, “Making Cities Stronger,” describes several library initiatives, including DCPL’s Enchanced Business Information Center (e-BIC) project. Located at the main branch library, e-BIC includes not only business resources, but also a state-of-the-art video conference room, full-time librarian, and staff-training workshops.
Libraries as Community Centers for Diverse Populations
- Libraries help to ensure that non-English speakers see themselves represented in their communities.
- Multilingual library websites, like those at the San Francisco and Queens (N.Y.) public libraries, are just one of the ways in which libraries help non-English speakers see themselves represented in their communities. Public libraries often collect books in languages other than English, incorporate appropriate signage, and hire librarians and staff members who are multilingual. Additionally, some libraries offer bilingual book clubs. Services like these help all community members recognize the depth of diversity that exists in their communities.
- Libraries provide immigrants with helpful information about, and opportunities to connect with, their new communities.
- Not only are libraries gateways to the community, they provide a place where new immigrants and their families can connect with resources, learn new skills, and meet new people. The San Diego Public Library offers a specific webpage highlighting area and library services for new Americans. The New York Public Library (NYPL) offers English As a Second Language (ESL) classes, provides citizenship information, and celebrates Immigrant Heritage Week. PLA offers an online learning module for librarians interested in providing new or improved services to new immigrants. Services like these make libraries essential for new immigrants, as they provide services and information about their new community and government while at the same time meeting the needs of these new patrons in an accessible and appropriate way.
- Libraries provide information, resources, and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, and questioning (LGBTIQ) patrons.
- For gay teens, libraries are much-needed safe spaces and supportive librarians are allies and mentors. NYPL offers programs for LGBTIQ adults and teens, including an annual anti-prom designed for high school students who may not feel welcomed and included at a traditional school-based prom. The NYPL also maintains a blog that connects readers with LGBTIQ resources and information.
- Libraries provide information, resources, and support for patrons with disabilities.
- Recognizing that diversity isn’t just about ethnicity, language, or culture, public libraries provide unique and adaptable spaces and services for patrons with disabilities. In 2001, ALA adopted a policy on library services for people with disabilities, and many libraries, including the Denver and Chicago public libraries, offer a variety of tools and services, from software and equipment to special collections and homebound programs. The Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library has “several staff members fluent in American Sign Language.” Going one step further, some libraries develop creative programs to partner with patrons with disabilities. For example, PIL’s Bookworm Café, a partnership with a high school life skills program, allows the library to offer a morning coffee cart to patrons, while providing valuable work experience for students with special needs.
Libraries as Centers for the Arts
- Libraries provide access to nonmainstream points of view and give voice to local artists.
- Public libraries strive to provide collections and services that represent various points of view, and often work closely with local artists to do so. In many communities, local authors seek out public libraries as places to promote and make their new books available, and library services like Overdrive allow local musicians to upload and distribute their work. From the art gallery at the Newton Free Library in Massachusetts to NYPL’s collection of zines,local arts abound in public libraries.
- Libraries provide opportunities for free classes that encourage art appreciation as well as art participation.
- Providing opportunities for children and adults alike, library arts programs range from the simplest of crafts to the finest of fine arts. Picturing America programs, with their focus on American art and art history, creative writing workshops, and painting classes, are just a few examples of the ways that libraries offer a wealth of opportunities to explore and understand art.
- Libraries provide access to the arts for all, not just those who can afford them.
- As Keith Richards said, “The public library is the great equalizer.” Despite the rising costs of concert and theater tickets, public library events (including concerts, author visits, and gallery displays) are often offered free of charge, enabling people of any income level to attend. In addition, library book groups allow people to explore and discuss the literary arts, and the Great Stories Club introduce at-risk youth to literature. The best part: it’s all free and open to the public.
Libraries as Universities
- Libraries serve as the “people’s university.”
- In a time when education is increasingly expensive, public libraries provide information and educational opportunities free for all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Offered by libraries across the county, ALA’s Let’s Talk about It programs are wonderful examples of scholar-facilitated learning opportunities in libraries. In addition, many libraries present classes and discussion programs, and some even provide online continuing education courses such as the Universal Class database.
- Libraries offer opportunities for remote access, making it possible for those who can’t get to the library to still access the library’s cultural and educational offerings.
- Libraries go beyond providing content to enabling patrons to create their own content.
- Librarians know that patrons aren’t just information consumers, they’re information producers. Patrons use the library to gain knowledge in order to create their own new and independent works. Increasing numbers of libraries provide spaces and services that meet the needs of people who want to learn how to edit Wikipedia, set up blogs or podcasts, create their own zines, and so much more. Many libraries offer art or writing workshops and groups, and some provide music practice rooms for patrons. Programs like ImaginOn in Charlotte (N.C.) provide exciting models that take community partnership, creativity, and creation to a new level.
- Libraries promote civil discourse.
- The decline of civil discourse stems in part from the fact that it is so easy for people to watch news about, buy products from, and engage—in both the virtual and real worlds—only with those of similar backgrounds and ideologies. Public libraries, through such programs as The Human Library and Socrates Café, can help build small communities of difference that encourage people to interact with and learn from each other through dialogue. By both actively promoting civil discourse through these programs, and by modeling and upholding the principles of free inquiry and expression for all, libraries help individuals rediscover the importance of and increased need for civil discourse in American life.
Libraries as Champions of Youth
- Libraries teach teens important life skills.
- The skills that teens pick up from teen advisory boards, volunteer opportunities, programs, and jobs can prepare them for success in high school, college, and the workforce. Brooklyn Public Library’s Multicultural Internship Program provides teens with positive work experiences, while also providing the library with a diverse staff that more closely mirrors the demographics of its community.
- Free tutoring, homework help programs, and summer reading programs for kids and teens help bridge the economic divide that impacts students’ academic performance.
- The cost of hiring a private tutor is well beyond what many library patrons can afford, so libraries offer homework help and tutoring online, by phone, in person, and even through social media and homework apps. Annual summer reading programs also have a positive impact on student performance and, according to a 2010 study conducted by Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, students’ reading skills get a boost from these popular nationwide events.
- Libraries are important partners in child development.
- Through library collections, programs, and physical spaces, children learn to share, to be engaged in their communities, to participate in the arts, and to explore their immediate world and the world at large. There are surely endless examples of innovative library services for children, including the Middle Country Public Library’s (in Centereach, N.Y.) Nature Explorium, which engages children in learning about the natural world.
These examples are just a few of the many amazing things that public libraries around the United States (and the world) are doing to build and maintain strong community connections. We encourage you to try some of these ideas in your own libraries, and we hope that these ideas will help you be better able to convince your community leaders of the important role that public libraries play in communities large and small.
 David Morris, “The Public Library Manifesto: Why Libraries Matter, and How We Can Save Them,” YES! Magazine, May 6, 2011, accessed June 17, 2011.
Robert Putnam, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 42.
William M. Senville, “Libraries Bring Value to Our Communities,” Planning Commissioners Journal 75 (Summer 2009), accessed June 7, 2011.
Urban Libraries Council, “Partners for the Future: Public Libraries and Local Governments Creating Sustainable Communities,” 2010, accessed June
Richmond Public Library, “Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library,” accessed June 15, 2011.
Iowa City Public Library, “Unique Collections: Art,” accessed June 6, 2011.
Oakland Public Library, “Temescal Tool Lending Library,” accessed June 7, 2011.
University of Massachusetts Boston, “Mass. Memories Road Show,”accessed June 7, 2011.
Library of Congress American Folklife Center, “Veterans History Project,” accessed June 7, 2011.
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———, “Let’s Talk About It,” accessedJune 7, 2011, www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/ppo/programming/ltai/letstalkaboutit.cfm.
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Homework NYC homepage, accessed June 6, 2011.
Susan Roman, Deborah T. Carran, and Carole D. Fiore, “The Dominican Study: Public Library Summer Reading Programs Close the Reading Gap,” Dominican University Graduate School of Library and Information Science, June 2010, accessed June 7, 2011.
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