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

Public libraries are constantly doing more than they were before. Not only is it a theme throughout the history of this incredible institution, but also a necessity of keeping 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. Some people say that with the advent of the internet and growing technology that the library is going extinct. I beg to differ – keep reading to find out why.

Now, our libraries are doing even MORE. They’re shifting from information centers to community social hubs. Think cafes and bars. Think loaning out ski and snowshoe equipment. Think providing services for the homeless. Think outside the box – that’s what our public libraries are doing, and you have reason to be pretty excited about it.

Arts and Science Services

Let’s start with one of my favorite examples of libraries doing more: the Chattanooga Public Library in Tennessee. At the Downtown Branch, they have a fully equipped recording studio available to library card holders. The Studio has three live rooms; vocal booth, drum booth, live room and the main control room. Patrons can reserve the room for 3 hours at a time, and also receive instruction and guidance on how to use the equipment properly. How cool! Or dare I say…groovy.

Anytime our public libraries support creativity in their programming or services, it helps the community express themselves and become more open minded. Equally as important and exciting is programming and resources geared toward STEM subjects. More and more libraries are purchasing 3D printers, allowing kids to experiment with design, and adults to pursue certain hobbies that otherwise might not be accessible. Below is an interactive Google map of all libraries that have a 3D printer. Search and zoom to find one near you!

Many libraries 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 Pourde River Public Library District recently debuted their seed library, which include 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.

Social Hangouts

By transforming into community hubs, libraries encourage socializing and meeting new people. Cafes are becoming more popular, some libraries have playgrounds, a library in Finland even has a cinema in it. The Boston Public Library recently announced they are launching a tea-inspired cocktail bar on the premises (which, by the way, I already have reservations for in May!). The Map Room Tea Lounge has limited hours, but is a way for the Boston Public Library to appeal to the busy, working, “don’t have time for libraries” crowd. 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.

A sure-tell sign of libraries focusing more on being a place for people to be, rather than simply providing information and resources is the Hunt Library at North Carolina State. While remodeling in 2012-13, 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 – imagine that. To create more gathering and seating space, they moved their books into a non-public warehouse and let robots take it from there.

“Hunt uses a robot called bookBot to deliver books instead of housing them on traditional bookshelves. Someone who wants to check out a book makes a request in 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.”

– Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz in “A robot-filled, architectural marvel in North Carolina is the library of the future” published by Quartz.

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.

The Hunt Library – source: Clarknexsen

Stewards for People that are Homeless

As we know, public libraries have become one of the last places that people can go to just hang out indoors for free. No purchase is required for access to wifi, restrooms, tables, heat, water fountains, and computers. Libraries are embracing their responsibility to the community to be a space for anyone and everyone – including and especially the homeless.

People that 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 counselling, job training, legal assistance, domestic violence support, medical help, food aid, and securing housing.

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). Their office is housed on the 2nd floor of the library and provides a variety of services and resources for people that are homeless. In addition to helping out with the basic necessities like hygiene kits, and winter hats, gloves, and blankets, the NACH helps out with more complicated tasks as well. They assist in applying for subsidized housing, food stamps, family assistance, obtaining copies of birth certificates, social security cards, and voter IDs.

The Seattle Public Library – source: The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology

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, but it keeps them in contact with their friends and family members that don’t live nearby.

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, but it keeps them in contact with their friends and family members that don’t live nearby.

Not Extinct, But Evolving

The countless stories of libraries going above and beyond to remain relevant and embrace their new role as community social hubs is amazing. There are far too many to name in this article. There’s the Dallas Public Library that gives away hundreds of free prom dresses to high schoolers saving 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 for checkout for free (check out the video below).

Like I said, too many to mention here. Our public libraries continue to innovate and morph into what our communities need. Information, recording studios, books, free wifi, countless resources, winter recreation equipment – remind me again how libraries are going extinct?


3 thoughts on “Public Libraries Aren’t Going Extinct, They’re Evolving

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  1. Thanks for a great post. I work in a public library and am amazed at how creative they’re being as far as drawing people in. We have recently acquired 3D printers and they’re fascinating. We have social programs for teens, crafts, pokemon trading card groups, and one of the favorites – Read To a Dog. That said, I’d never heard of some of the ideas you mention here and will share this post with my coworkers.


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