Library as Incubator – The Patron Perspective, Part Two
Now reinvented, the public library operates with its own rules, culture and evolving purpose in a symbiotic relationship with its surrounding community. With the birth and growth of the e-reader, librarians came close to waving the white flag. Pundits predicted the end of libraries, as we knew them, or at the very least, books. Publishers panicked and authors examined options.
But libraries have proven their adaptability. Because of their close ties with the areas they serve, libraries have identified new opportunities and assumed a broader identity. They have learned, in an age where bookstores are no more, how to remain relevant.
And they’ve done it in some pretty interesting ways.
Makerspaces, a new phenomenon that has elevated the library scene to “hip” and “cool”, are creative do-it-yourself spaces where people gather to create, invent and learn. With the idea that in all art lays beauty, experimentation and expression are encouraged. These cooperative workspaces include 3D printers, software, electronics, crafts and hardware supplies. Whatever tools can be used to advance the pursuit of knowledge, the embracing of culture and freedom of expression are now shared in a single community space. With no hard and fast rules, makerspaces are customized to the specific communities they serve and provide access to groups that otherwise have none.
The arts are often the first to fall victim to budget cuts by communities with limited resources, including space. But artists, of varying types, have become one of the greatest benefactors of the contemporary library.
Once only showcased in museums and galleries, art installations are now in full-view at public libraries. A democratic space with available wall square footage, the library has become a welcome home for the local scene. Simple art shows and grand cultural exhibitions are now accessible to a huge cross section of people—young and old, poor and wealthy, of every race and religion, in small towns and big cities.
Libraries don’t just provide space for artists, they actually buy local art. And writing. And music. Take the Yahara Music Library, an extension of Madison Public Library. The program licenses music from local acts. Residents can download full albums—and own them. It broke boundaries by integrating band bios, social media feeds and news on future concerts. A reservoir and purveyor of local music, the impact has been tangible in reflecting and preserving community culture.
Offerings of live plays and stage readings also pop up in library back rooms and open areas. Plays are often tied to literature, but not always. Directors find creative solutions for lighting and sound, and audiences have appreciated their use of imagination. Controversial plays can be seen during American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. A celebration of the First Amendment, alive and well.
Princeton Public Library has developed the Page to Stage series, with great appreciation from local audiences. Literature from shelves is transformed by the spoken word: as a reading, a one-act play or by a full theatre troupe, costumes and all.
And for those with no interest in painting, sketching or with no ability to deliver a great one-liner? No mind. Many libraries offer a rich calendar of hands-on programs, catering to the novice. Bird watching, digital photography, storytelling, computer applications, even coding. Don’t see what you’re looking for? Libraries take requests—bastions of learning, core to their mission.
And area writers, of course, have a home in this new world. The I Street Press at Sacramento Public Library, for example, provides workshops that teach writing, editing and marketing work. With their very own Espresso Book, a print on demand machine that prints, collates, covers and binds a single book in minutes, workshops use the machine to publish both public domain and patron-produced books. The program has enabled the Sacramento Public Library system to build a robust Local Authors Collection. When a patron decides to self-publish their work through I Street, they have the option of donating a copy to the library. The donated book is made available to patrons of the Sacramento Public Library.
Provincetown Public Library, in that same vein, has launched their own public press and added new platforms to create e-books. A jury chooses new books to produce and sell on Amazon and through Apple. Library as publisher? Who da thunk.
Many residents turn to the library system with more acute needs. Sources for job hunting, libraries now offer free resume help, job coaching, career workshops, databases and employment strategies. Millions without jobs and looking for employment have sought help through their local library.
Libraries have worked hard to develop employment partnerships with institutions and organizations on a local, state and national level. The Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (ETA) and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) have developed a partnership that enables public libraries to work with state and local workforce agencies and “One-Stop” Career Centers in providing career services. The American Job Center Finder, a database sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, connects job seekers with recruiters and differentiates the “must-do” from the “should-haves”.
This all sounds well and good, and absolutely necessary, but it’s far from a solution. Library resources are tight and many—especially in the urban areas—fall short of what they need to meet demands. Staff and workstation shortages translate to fewer residents served and fewer jobs landed. Stakeholders must continue to embrace innovation and creativity in the quest to ensure the future of the public library.
So, yes, libraries have taken on a greater role to address the needs of communities they serve. They have embraced creativity in a more palpable and literal sense. But if libraries continue to move further from
their primary focus, will they still be libraries? Will lending books, recommending resources, still be their “real” job? A tug-of-war between remaining relevant (however that may look) and the library’s much needed and underappreciated traditional role—as caretaker to history—is still in progress. In a society without traditional libraries, who would safeguard our culture? Our ancestry? Who would preserve our past, the bad parts and the good?
Be on the look out, next week, for a final installation of this three part series on the Future of Libraries, a Patron Perspective from Amy Burns and Allyson Ruscitella. Part one can be found, by clicking the link, here: Part One