Library as Community: A Physical Vision of the Branch Library
“What is the role of a library when it no longer needs to be a warehouse of books and when users can obtain information without setting foot in its doors? (p. vii)” There are potentially two ways to look at the previous question: one as a doomsayer and the other more optimistic in nature. The doomsayer would note that doing a search on Google for the phrase ‘demise of libraries’ turns up over a half million returns, clearly a popular topic that would not surprise me leads back to the Library of Alexandria and people wondering what would happen to a library when scrolls were no longer in fashion (joke).
On a more optimistic note, libraries in the United States have survived two world wars, a depression, and drastic societal changes that have moved information from scrolls to scrolling text on a computer screen. In all these societal upheavals libraries have remained. So what do libraries continue to do well in serving the public? And that is the key point—serving the public.
In what role does the public wish to be served by the local branch library? Rephrased, how can libraries position themselves in the communities served to strengthen the communities within current staffing and physical limitations? “After years of living in isolation, where the basic activities of daily life—living, working, shopping and playing—are connected solely by ribbons of highway [sidewalks in urban areas], many Americans express a desire for neighborhoods that offer a richer variety of experiences and help to simplify their complex lifestyles…where a broad array of activities and destinations create the conditions that attract people, and where residents and visitors alike feel comfortable, welcome and safe.”
As life’s fast pace continues, social networking sites like Facebook are used to build communities, and Twitter is used to bring people together, people want and desperately need a place to come to that allows for an in-person one-stop shopping of needs met.
So what are the needs that patrons bring to a branch library? The answer can be summarized in one word: community. Parents of newborns need the community of other caregivers meeting in baby time to share parenting skills with and gain guidance from children’s librarians in early literacy efforts, thereby helping the community from the youngest age begin to learn and grow. The same parents continue raising their children in toddler programs where young children begin their possible first foray into social interactions, community building, in a learning setting with the safety of caregivers on hand. As children grow and parents return to work, these very children come to the library after school for the safety and support that dedicated library staff offer rather than forcing kids to return to empty homes or roam the city streets looking for companionship.
Any library after school will be bustling with kids and teens looking to find a public space where anyone is welcomed in without regards to socioeconomic background or political/religious affiliation. No place else provides such an inviting free space for people to congregate. Coffee shops desire people to purchase food and drink. Parks are great but have limited areas for sitting and are highly weather dependent. Stores balk at groups of teens hanging around to talk. Where else, but a public library, not only welcomes children and teens but stocks movies, music, and books that also serve as recreational and educational avenues of exploration.
As teens become adults who are seeking educational training or find themselves out of work, the library is a dry, clean, and warm/cool (in summer) place that serves as a destination for those not wanting to be alone, those looking for opportunities, and those who need information.
Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and libraries reflect that. People of all ages gather to discuss books that have moved them and who want to talk with others that might feel similarly or differently. People from young to old come to watch movies they either cannot afford on their own or because watching movies with others is a social outlet that allows community members to meet each other and interact.
At any age, the reality is that libraries strengthen communities by their very existence, and as we move forward into a more digital and computer age, it is important to remember that what libraries have to offer physically is just as important as books—it is the brick and mortar building for communities to gather in and prosper.
To read more about community and public spaces, check out these books from your local branch:
- Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford
- Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by Sharon Zukin
- Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller