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Public Libraries Aren’t Going Extinct — They’re Evolving

These venerable institutions are far more than a musty collection of books — they’re now everything from recording studios to nightlife hotspots

An exterior shot of the Seattle public library building.
The Seattle Public Library. Photo: N i c o l a via flickr/CC BY 2.0

SSome may be tempted to think the humble public library is going extinct. I beg to differ. Throughout history, this incredible institution has constantly evolved to keep up with the times. Before they were public, they were exclusively membership-based. Before there were online catalogs, there were card catalogs. Before there were free streaming services, there were (and still are) physical movies and audiobooks.

Now, our libraries are doing even more. They’re shifting from information centers to community social hubs. Think cafés and bars. Think loaning out ski and snowshoe equipment. Think providing services for the homeless. All this is what our public libraries are doing, and there’s a lot to be excited about.

Arts and science services

Let’s start with one of my favorite examples of libraries doing more: the Chattanooga Public Library in Tennessee. The downtown branch has a fully-equipped recording studio available to library cardholders. The Studio has three live rooms, including a vocal booth, drum booth, and the main control room. Patrons can reserve the studio for three hours at a time, and also receive instruction and guidance on how to use the equipment properly.

Anytime our public libraries support creativity in their programming or services, it helps community members express themselves and become more open-minded. Equally as important are resources geared toward STEM subjects. More libraries are now purchasing 3D printers, allowing kids to experiment with design and opening access for adults to pursue new hobbies.

Other institutions have “seed libraries” for gardeners. These repositories of vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds can be checked out by patrons to use in their own personal gardens. The Old Town Fort Collins branch of the Poudre River Public Library District in Colorado recently debuted its seed library, which includes seeds ranging from kale and corn to sunflowers and sprouts. After harvesting the yield that the “borrowed” seeds produce, patrons are encouraged to “return” seeds taken from the harvest to be used in the next year’s seed library.

Modern social hangouts

Libraries are rapidly transforming into modern community hubs that encourage socializing and meeting new people. Cafés are becoming more popular, while some libraries have playgrounds. A library in Finland even houses a cinema.

The Boston Public Library recently announced it is launching a tea-inspired cocktail bar on the premises, a novel attempt to appeal to the busy, working crowd who feel they don’t have time for libraries. On “Wisdom Wednesdays,” guests will be able to partake in tea readings, while “Treble Thursdays” will feature local, classical musicians. I can’t think of a more enjoyable evening than sipping a cocktail named after a book, in a library, while listening to classical music.

The Map Room Tea Lounge at the Boston Public Library. Photo by author.

The Hunt Library at North Carolina State is also working to challenge assumptions around how public libraries can and should operate. While remodeling in 2012–2013, the Hunt Library administrators were faced with a difficult situation. They needed much more seating for patrons, and that space was being taken up by books. To create more gathering and seating space, they moved their books into a nonpublic warehouse and let robots take it from there.

As Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz explains in Quartz, the library uses a robot called bookBot to deliver books after a patron checks them out via an online catalog. “The bookBot (which students named Jona) then retrieves it from a five-story shelving system where the books are stored, and delivers it to the library’s front desk — all within five minutes,” Singh-Kurtz writes.

The Hunt Library put such an emphasis on communal gathering spaces and public seating that it houses over 80 different chair designs. Some NC State students even created a tumblr account titled “Chairs of Hunt Library,” where they feature and review the different seating options throughout the building.

Stewards for the homeless

Public libraries are now one of the last few places where people can simply hang out indoors for free. No purchase is required for access to Wi-Fi, restrooms, tables, heat, water fountains, and computers. Libraries are embracing their responsibility to the community to be a space for anyone and everyone — especially the homeless.

People who are homeless have few shelter options, few resources, and even fewer places to go during the day, as most shelters don’t open until the evening. Urban city libraries have started to staff social workers and provide resources for mental health counseling, job training, and legal assistance. Increasingly, institutions are offering everything from domestic violence support to medical help and food aid.

Our public libraries continue to innovate and morph into what our communities need.

The Downtown Huntsville Library (part of the Huntsville Madison County Library system) in Huntsville, Alabama, partners with the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless (NACH) to provide a variety of resources for those who are homeless. In addition to providing basic necessities like hygiene kits, and winter hats, gloves, and blankets, the NACH helps people navigate a complicated network of federal assistance programs. They assist in applying for subsidized housing, food stamps, family assistance, obtaining copies of birth certificates, social security cards, and voter IDs.

In Seattle, the city with the third-largest homeless population in the country, the Seattle Public Library has a program that provides 50 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for tent cities and homeless encampments across the city. Not only does this allow users to access crucial resources for housing, public assistance, and applying for jobs, it keeps them in contact with their friends and family members who may not live nearby.

Novel approaches to serving locals

Countless public libraries are completely reimagining their roles within local communities while finding new, and increasingly novel, ways to remain relevant and embrace their new role as community social hubs. There are far too many to name here.

There’s the Dallas Public Library, which gives away hundreds of free prom dresses to high schoolers who need to save their money for college. Or the several California libraries that stayed open during last year’s wildfires as regional assistance centers, shelters from poor conditions, and community gathering places. Then there’s the Millinocket Memorial Library in Maine that has ski and snowshoe equipment available to checkout for free.

Our public libraries continue to innovate and morph into what our communities need. Information, recording studios, books, free Wi-Fi, countless resources, winter recreation equipment — remind me again how libraries are going extinct?

Examining life and all its wonders. Self-reliance, sustainability, resiliency, and questioning societal norms are my things.

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