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Changing Expectations: New Ways to Entice the Public

by Katherine Knox on September 7, 2022

Is your library quiet or noisy? Are the patrons reading, playing a board game, or getting
documents notarized?

Public libraries are evolving. As the focus (and access) changed from providing original sources
for academics to providing materials to teach kids how to read, adults are thinking of
libraries differently. Now they are more likely to remember story times than shushing librarians.
Now many libraries include sensory rooms, video game stations, piano practice rooms, and
maker spaces. Some also provide government services like passport renewal, mental health
services like onsite social workers, and community spaces for gatherings, art exhibits, and
classes.

Why? A Pew Research study from 2021 determined that “roughly a quarter of American adults (23%)
say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year” and almost half of
respondents wanted libraries to provide free meeting spaces (49%) and interactive exhibits
(47%). [1] In other words, historic library spaces and services are no longer sufficient.  So, how do we make libraries more engaging? What services can we provide to draw people in and what else can we offer to keep them there? How do we appeal to everyone?

Use of Space
Around the world libraries are incorporating maker spaces. The Hillsboro (OR) Public Library started on this journey by considering their story time rooms flexible space and moving STEAM and Maker Carts in and out as needed. Later, when funding improved, they converted an underused reading room into a full maker space with 3D printers, sewing machines, and a laser cutter. Other libraries offer recording studios (Charles County (MD) Public Library); theater rental (Toronto (Canada) Public Library); and rotating art exhibits (Hoover (AL) Public Library).

Partnering with Micro Enterprise Services, in 2021 the Tigard (OR) Public Library began hosting start-up businesses in a 400 sq. ft. cafe space. According to their website, a new entrepreneur will be invited into the space every two years.

San Francisco Public Library created The Mix, a space designed by and for teens, which includes
a video lab, performance area, and interactive touch wall. “It is the only free space of its kind
exclusively for teens in the San Francisco Bay area,” says The Mix manager, Catherine Cormier.
[2]

Even without a big budget, though, libraries can still entice teens. Librarians at the Monroe
County (IN) Public Library were “pleasantly surprised with the popularity of low-tech
items, such as a sewing machine, button maker, and other arts and crafts materials.” San
Antonio (TX) Public Library discovered the same. Boston Public Library saw a 45% increase
in attendance since the teen council suggested simple changes in seating and the gaming area.

By offering teen-only spaces and activities planned by teen committees (as well as homework
help and clubs), libraries can provide what Judy Nelson at the Pierce County (WA) Public Library
System calls “a safe place for teens to congregate.” [2] It is also more appealing.
The focus on teens is an important one. Youth programs between the ages of 12-18 years
receive the least financial support from the government and nonprofits even though,
according to the Young Adult Library Service Association, over 14 million teens are on their own
after school and that time frame (3-6pm) is “the peak for juvenile crime and experimentation
with drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.” [3]

Types of Service
Historically, each government sector offered different services to the community. The public
would need to go to separate buildings to get a passport, have documents notarized, and talk
to a social worker. Libraries are trying to change that expectation by merging services.
Alexandria (VA) Library, St. Charles (MO) City-County Library, and Marlboro (NY) Free
Library are among the many libraries that now offer passport and notary public
services. Libraries in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Connecticut, Indiana, and
Missouri all host USPS Village Post Offices.

In 2020, Christiane Lambert wrote in Social Work Today magazine that at least “three dozen
public libraries across the United States have social workers as either part-time or full-time
staff in various models.” [4] Considering that the library has long been struggling with how to
provide safety and equity, the socialLi worker model is an exciting development. As Skye Patrick
from the Los Angeles County Library said, “libraries are not about books, they’re about people…
there’s a tremendous amount of comfort and safety for people experiencing mental health
issues. When they’re here, they’re not on the street.” [5]

Not all libraries will be able to remodel their space or accommodate increased services. The
common thread between all of the libraries making changes is their focus on listening to the
community and trying to change expectations of what a library is and what it can be.
“They always say time changes things but you actually have to change them yourself.” — Andy
Warhol

References

[1] Pew Research Center. January 22, 2013. Library Services in the Digital Age. Part 4. What People Want from their Libraries.
[2] School Library Journal / slj.com. “New Teen Spaces from Coast to Coast” by Ryann Udenn. 11/30/2015.  https://www.slj.com/story/new-teen-spaces-from-coast-to-coast
[3] YALSA. Teens Need Libraries. https://www.ala.org/yalsa/teens-need-libraries
[4] Social Work Today.  “Libraries and Social Workers — Perfect Partners”
By Christiane Petrin Lambert, MA, MSW, LICSW. Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 2 P. 20    https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/MA20p20.shtml
[5] Humanities – The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Complicated Role of the Modern Public Library – Something for Everyone by Jennifer Howard. https://www.neh.gov/article/complicated-role-modern-public-library


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