Booked til Tuesday

Life, Law & Libros

Discussion: Re-imagining Libraries

I love libraries. I loved perusing the shelves, searching for hidden story gems as a kid and an adult. Some libraries are fortunate enough to reside in literary communities full of like-minded readers. Others...not so fortunate.

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I wrote a little over a year ago about a somewhat depressing conversation I had with my local librarians. Cliff notes version: almost everyone's there for the computers and hardly anyone ventures beyond the new books shelves into "the archives." It's had me do you increase the use of libraries in communities that don't use them?

As I understand it, the primary purpose of (public) libraries is to make information accessible to the public and, historically, to provide a place for the community to assemble and discuss ideas. That sounds a lot more like a school or university library these days. I raid the nonfiction section now and then, but I'm usually checking out fictional stories. And checking out books, I'm probably in the minority at my local library; the majority come for the computers alone. But that's just it: "making information accessible," in the form of books, isn't relevant to most of this library's patrons. Essentially, they just want (and use) a free internet cafe.

On top of the lack of interest in books, fiction and non-fiction, public libraries are funded by government. Their budgets are determined by what the government gives, which (correct me if I'm wrong) I believe is affected by how much "business" they do. They can also be subject to some of the government's bureaucratic limitations and unnecessary expenses (such as paying double for a computer due to City contracts).

You guys are all readers. You love books. I know librarians talk about this stuff all the time, but I'm interested in your thoughts. What are your ideas for making libraries relevant in communities that don't utilize them? Here are a few brain kick-starters:

  • How would you draw in non-readers and get them, not just excited about reading, but excited about reading for the rest of their lives?
  • Would you target families as a whole? Just parents? 
  • Ideas to make libraries more cost-effective or cost-efficient? What do you think of a possible public/private hybrid system for libraries?
  • I know no one likes to talk about libraries being anything but free, but your tax dollars already go to them, so what about instituting a subscription model? Would library services be more valued because you know exactly what you're paying for them?
  • What about more meeting spaces or driving more conversation about hot topics? Libraries were houses of debate and discussion back in the day. Do you think that would appeal to people now? Would more discourse lead to a more informed public?
  • Do libraries need to offer "information" in more tangible forms? More classes on practical skills perhaps?
  • Do the libraries just look old and need a fresh set of decor? Comfier seating? More seating? A full cafe like Barnes & Noble? Would that bring more people in or get them to stay longer?
  • Or a new set of rules, perhaps? Maybe people don't come because they want to chat, not whisper while glancing at the librarians in fear.
  • Is increasing readership a lost cause? Are people who prefer movies and video games and TV just never going to be interested in more than 30-minutes on the computer? And if that's the case, should libraries adapt to that type of consumer and change their premises and services accordingly?

I know that's a lot of questions, but you guys are a bright bunch, so I'm hoping to hear a lot of ideas. It can be along any, all or none of these thought trains. Just, how would you revitalize libraries not getting used?


  1. Fantastic questions! I love when my library system hosts different events. They have speakers come in to talk about local history, or puppet shows for the kids. Storytime is a big draw for me with a little one. She is learning to love the library at a young age!
    Decor I think does play a part. The big city's main library got a makeover about 3 years ago now. The decor reminds me of an Apple store, but it draws a lot of people in with its nooks, crannies, and 'newness'

    1. Events can definitely be a draw. And I think you're right about the decor and, perhaps more importantly, the atmosphere it evokes. After all, there's a reason why people spend hours hanging out in Starbucks but as little time as possible in classrooms, right? ;)

  2. This is such an interesting discussion - one that I think we as readers have sort of been putting off. One thing I'm so, so proud of my local library for doing is basically taking charge of the literary and writing communities in our area. They regularly host bookish events, writing workshops, author visits, storytime for the younger kids, etc. - that helps a lot with drawing in readers who perhaps would stick to bookstores otherwise.

    Another thing: I realise this is a bit frivolous, but library design is way more important than we give it credit for. This will probably vary depending on weather conditions, but fireplaces and cushy chairs and caf├ęs help with that - or, in more hot/humid climates, just installing little nooks and crannies for readers to explore & curl up & get lost in would really help invite new people in.

    1. It sounds like your library has done a good job of bringing in the existing literary culture. Now, how to drag the rest of the population in? :) But yes, the decor and atmosphere can play a big role in how people feel in the space and how they interact with it.

  3. This is something I've thought about a lot. My town library is small and I grew up going there, but in the past ten years or so it's just gotten more and more people use it for computers, and even worse people just talk on their phones and everything and the librarians don't do anything about it. It's always been a spot too, where kids go after school to get tutored and research, and they barely are able to use the computers because everyone else is on them. They always try to make it look so friendly an inviting, but I can't help but think it's not worth it. If it was bigger it would be better. I also have the downtown library which is four stories and lovely, with research rooms, card catalog and all that, and people who actually use it properly. I love going there to research.

    My county actually does pretty good with library events (I just went to a multi-author event actually that was really nice) but I really don't know how they could do better. I sometimes just feel like I live in a not very literate area.

    1. Someone suggested the other day that some libraries may not have as many "book-focused" patrons because the readers get their books elsewhere. While I know some readers who don't like library books, or who only do electronic and borrow them remotely, I have doubts about that being a significant factor. I don't have stats to back it up, but I think the trend is more like what you described--people coming for computers or because it's a free place to hang out. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing--I readily admit to not using the library for research and other intellectual pursuits most of the time--but I feel like we need to clarify the purpose of libraries (individually or as a whole) and adjust them to best serve that purpose.

      It's a shame that your library doesn't have at least a couple computers set aside for school work/tutoring in the after-school hours. :( Maybe that's something they'd be willing to change?

  4. As a librarian, I just want to say that libraries (and the librarians who work in them) do a lot more than promote reading and books. The role of the library in society has been a moving target for years. A library’s service model has to change and evolve or risk being left behind.

    The idea that libraries only provide information is outdated. While it is a big part of what libraries do, it's only part of the story. A public library is a space to provide access to resources and information. It's a community space. Libraries have always provided a variety of services outside of books and will continue to do so for many years.

    In terms of computers being used in the library: what a wonderful privilege to not have to come to the library to have access to a computer and the Internet! That is something that is not true for many library patrons, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Libraries are based for the most part on the model of equal access, so to say that providing computers for patron use is part of the "problem" with libraries does a disservice to the people who need them and to the library itself.

    Furthermore the idea of qualifying how a person uses the library as more or less valuable based on how “literary" or “scholarly" their pursuits is, frankly, horrifying. The moment you start quantifying library use and ranking which uses are more salient/valuable is the moment the library falls apart.

    I am assuming these statements stem from having small libraries that cannot provide separate computer spaces for children and teens and adults. However, even then I would point out that public libraries provide community spaces; they have never been meant to function solely as research spaces. (There are research libraries for that. Similarly, there are subscription libraries for those who would like to pay for specific library services.)

    Libraries do not offer judgment. A teen looking at YouTube videos and Facebook has as much right to be on a computer as a guy looking for jobs or a kid doing research. And, in terms of libraries, the important thing is that they all have the option to do that whether they have computer/internet access at home or not.

    In terms of events, I’d also suggest anyone reading this post take a good look at their library’s events calendar before judging whether the public is making good use of a library. While not every library can provide author events or book clubs, those events are only a fraction of the programming provided by libraries. What about story time programs for babies and toddlers? What about craft programs for kids? What about gaming and computer programs for teens? What about introductory computer classes? What about English classes? What about resume and job search help?

    While I am positive this discussion comes from a good place with the best of intentions I’d also like to say that every library is different and applying experiences from one library to the world of librarianship in general is dangerous. That the idea of people chatting in the library is being discussed as a stigma or something to be fixed is also deeply troubling to me. The idea that people “glance at librarians in fear” when trying to have a conversation just seems to be playing into the worst stereotypes of librarians.

    Libraries provide a variety of services to patrons including some bookish ones and some not. Libraries provide public spaces and a sense of community. While I appreciate the desire to support libraries, I would make a simple suggestion: The best way to use a library is by going to one whether for materials/programs or just to hang out. That's it.

    1. You have a lot of good points! My first thoughts when writing this were about how to grow readership in communities (perhaps I should have said "increase readership" rather than "use of libraries"), but I definitely recognize that libraries have to adapt and offer many services beyond books. I guess that's where some of my other questions come from; for instance, would it be beneficial to rework a library whose main use involves computers to be more like an internet cafe with a smaller section of books on the side? What's the most efficient use of space and funds, and what will best serve and most benefit the community?

      While I'd love to see everyone get super excited about books, I know that probably won't happen; and I know that each library is different with a different membership and different needs. (I'm an ESL and computer tutor at my local library, and there are always waiting lists for both.) I like how you said "the best way to use a library is by going to one," so it's interesting to think of ways to encourage communities who don't use them as much to come in (and, if we're lucky, maybe convert them into reading nerds like us in the process ^^). Thanks for commenting! :)

  5. Libraries play important role for the education of students, it have many benefits for the students, countless books are present in libraries for the education of order the best essay student, we should always give respect to our books because these books are the true friends of a person.