A Library Renaissance

The recession reminded a lot of us that we don’t have to pay for books, movies, or Internet access–that most libraries have all those things for free. Consequently, library usage is up more than 20 percent from 2006, according to the American Library Association’s 2010 State of American Libraries report.

Unfortunately, the same economic factors that are sending people into the library are also conspiring to keep them out: Over the past year, nearly 15 percent of U.S. libraries (and 25 percent of those in urban settings) had to cut their hours. It is, the report suggests, a “perfect storm of growing community demand for library services and shrinking resources to meet that demand.”

The way we seek knowledge has changed; the Internet permits more paths to discovery than any one collection of books can. So while the library is still in the business of housing and preserving information, it is increasingly embracing its role as a space for community and discussion–no shushing allowed.

“The Internet has done a lot in the way of isolating people,” Sandy Horrocks, an administrator at the Free Library of Philadelphia, tells Miller-McCune (March-April 2010). “We find when we have programs, the attendance is extraordinary. . . . People want to come together and have dialogues and conversations, and libraries are providing that place.”

At the extreme end of this spectrum is an ambitious new library in the works in Aarhus, Denmark. This high-tech “urban mediaspace” is being designed to function as a city center: It will have books, but it will also house government-services offices, artist studios, start-up businesses, space for performances, a café, a tram station, and other 21st-century amenities. Aarhus’ multifaceted structure symbol­izes the library of the future, Miller-McCune reports, “a mixed-use, multimedia complex that is meant to foster social interaction and creative ferment as much as reading and research.”

On a smaller scale, more and more institutions are using space creatively to attract broader swaths of their communities. Salt Lake City’s seven-year-old library shares a building with the local public radio affiliate, which has a glass-walled studio so that gawkers can watch live radio on their way to check out books. It’s the second-most-visited building downtown, after the Mormon temple. The proposal for a new 500,000-square-foot San Diego central library includes two stories dedicated to a charter high school.

In Osceola, Wisconsin, the library’s planned move to a larger 10,000-square-foot building will leave room for gallery space and live music. The remodel is a boon for the small community (population 2,700), and will allow for more kids at story times and for an independent film series in a town without a movie theater. Libraries in Monterey County, California, took the advice of their teen advisory groups and began offering young-adult classes in crocheting, scrapbooking, and origami. And the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library in rural Nova Scotia teamed up with local groups to provide meeting spaces and a community kitchen.

The spread of the DIY ethic means that people are often as interested in creating content as they are in consuming it, and libraries are responding in a number of ways. The John Steinbeck Library in Salinas, California, hosts a digital arts lab equipped with software for creating music, video, and websites, reports the Monterey County Weekly (Jan. 14, 2010). The New Orleans central library hosts one of the world’s handful of operating Espresso Book Machines–big, photocopier-esque beasts that can print a book on demand in just a few minutes. Librarians plan to utilize this “ATM for books” as a community resource for locals, according to The Gambit (Sept. 8, 2009). Fledgling writers will be able to self-publish books, and small presses can use the technology to mass-publish local authors for a fraction of what it would cost to work with a commercial printer.

In Helsinki, Finland, patrons have access to guitars and keyboards from the central library and can book a small recording studio to produce a music video; or they can hop onto a stage, which comes equipped with a sound mixer and lighting gear.

None of these sexier initiatives diminish the more traditional, and still vital, work that libraries have always done: meeting the information needs of who­ever walks in the door. A recent study by the University of Washington Information School found that one-third of Americans, about 77 million people, use library computers for everything from Facebooking to job hunting.

According to the American Library Association, nearly all of the nation’s libraries provide specialized support to people seeking jobs. In Minneapolis, the downtown central library’s New Americans Center offers classes for English language learners and other resources for immigrants and refugees. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Public Library became the first in the country to hire a full-time social worker, stationed on site, to help connect homeless patrons with social services.

By virtue of being “one of the last public spaces around that don’t require you to do something or buy something,” as a professor who blogs anonymously at Not of General Interest recently wrote, libraries are essentially everything to everyone. They’re taking a leading role in figuring out how to tell and share stories in a changing information environment, they’re serving as gathering places for community groups and curious wanderers, and they’re stopping some of the gaps in our frayed social safety net. To serve these myriad masters, they need continuing support, innovation, and investment, but what they’re getting in cities and states across the country are furloughs, layoffs, and cuts.

“People started losing their jobs, they didn’t buy books anymore. They came to the libraries,” Donna Bensen Kennedy, a branch manager with the Gloucester County library system in New Jersey, tells the Gloucester County Times (April 6, 2010). “They didn’t rent DVDs anymore, they came to the libraries. And when they began looking for jobs? They would come to the libraries.”

Libraries have been there for us–for a couple of millennia, actually. It will be a shame if we let them down now.

This is my last column for Utne Reader. I’ve spent nearly four years happily immersed in the independent press, working with some of the most talented, discerning brains in the business, and now I’m shifting gears entirely: I’ll be entering graduate school for library and information science.

I’ll take with me a deep and abiding appreciation for alternative journalism, which has not faltered even in these most difficult of economic times. When I’ve described my job, people have often asked me, What, at a time when you can throw anything online for free, is the point of having all those magazines? And it would be easy to launch into a corporate-media rant, or point to any number of examples of bias or sensationalism or the digital divide, but there’s a much simpler answer: The fact that all those magazines survive speaks for itself. And you, readers of our publication and countless others, are the ones who keep them alive–so keep sending in those subscription cards. I know I’ll be taking a huge stack of ’em with me on my way out.

Danielle Maestretti is the Utne Readerlibrarian. She manages the magazine’s library of 1,300 alternative periodicals, including magazines, journals, alt weeklies, and zines.

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