Opinion
Performing Philanthropy

Not Your Grandparents' Library: How Community Libraries Have Evolved

The neighborhood library is now a global information hub and community connector.

Not Your Grandparents' Library: How Community Libraries Have Evolved

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to use the library more than I have been. When you can buy new books and have them delivered to your home with a single click and so much data and information are accessible at our fingertips (Just Google it!), the library may seem to be increasingly unnecessary. But that’s only if you haven’t been to a library—or a library website—lately. 

Libraries have been transforming for some time now, as librarians dedicate themselves to serving the public’s information and resource needs. Libraries are providing access to tools and equipment and developing learning opportunities for people new to technology or those who want to improve their skills. They are offering live events with authors and follow-up discussions for book clubs and reading groups, creating space to convene community conversations, and supporting job seekers, business startups, and entrepreneurs with information, skills training, and networking to connect with people, information, and funding sources. 

Today’s libraries are definitely in the innovation business as they navigate the digital and the physical, working to be relevant in both realms. They offer interesting examples of continuous improvement for students of leadership and change management. Keep an eye out for new programs and services that libraries are offering, and you’ll be watching an industry sprinting to stay on top of its public service mandate.

What’s one reason libraries provide such a great example of innovation? It turns out that librarians see their work as a calling. Their sense of purpose runs deep. And the public trusts libraries more than other information sources to help them navigate the facts and determine what is true. In its ongoing research on library usage, public trust, and community aspirations for libraries, the Pew Research Center shows that 40 percent of survey respondents trust information from libraries “a lot,” topping the list of information providers. (Financial institutions and social media are at the bottom of the trust list.)

Minnesota is home to some 355 libraries, where citizens made 24.5 million visits in 2016, according to the most recent data from the federal Institute of Library and Museum Services. That amounts to 4.41 visits per person in the state. 
 


 

So what can you find at libraries in the Twin Cities region? First of all, library websites are free, but for access to some features you’ll need the bar code from your (free) library card for full digital access. Once you’re inside, a treasure trove awaits you. What’s there?

  • Read articles from behind the paywall of dozens of newspapers, and read the full current and past issues of subscription-only magazines like The Economist, The New Yorker, and Yoga, to name a few. 
  • Search for information using research databases that include source materials such as company and industry profiles, market research reports, and a host of specialized trade publications. 
  • Download thousands of e-books and audiobooks (who needs an Audible subscription or Amazon’s e-books?).
  • Access online encyclopedias, such as the full digital edition of Encyclopedia Britannica; for many entries, a double-click provides the Spanish translation.
  • Locate foundation funding resources via databases.
  • Find links to classes, tutorials, and online educational resources to learn new skills and study subjects you’re interested in.
  • Use your library bar code for access to free and reduced-price tickets to area arts activities.
  • Of course, libraries are also physical spaces, often beautiful ones, and they’re staffed with librarians, and open year-round (think about school holidays, snow days, or days when you’re just looking for something new to do). 
  • The Homework Help Center, part of the St. Paul Public Library, is a physical and digital resource where students can get help for everything from daily homework assignments to resources for science fairs, History Day projects, and back-to-school preparation. 
  • Most libraries have comfortable rooms you can reserve for off-site meetings and free or low-cost parking. 
  • Libraries have computers, high-speed internet access, and help available to learn computer skills and locate online resources. 
  • Around the Twin Cities metro, several libraries have established small business and entrepreneurship centers to help people gain access to tools and information needed to establish and grow their enterprises.

Best of all, libraries are a prime example of a democratic institution, with their free, open-access policies, support of freedom of information, and commitment to public service. It’s no wonder that so many individuals, corporations, and foundations support the “friends” organizations that help bring volunteer and financial resources to their local libraries, and help preserve policies of access for all.

Another thing you can do to support libraries? Use them. Nothing would make a librarian happier.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.

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