The libraries of my youth were filled with rows of tall shelves and drab furnishings. School projects required the use of card catalogs housed in wooden drawers and microfiche threaded through primitive projectors.
Nowadays, libraries are home to banks of computers and beanbag chairs. The books are still there, of course. But there are also children’s areas filled with hands-on activities, galleries featuring works of local artists and gift shops focused on raising badly needed funds.
Our three children, now in college, have been enjoying public libraries since they were toddlers. Over the years they have explored books, enjoyed craft demonstrations and collected summer reading prizes. Trips to the library continue to be a cherished father/daughter pastime.
Yet some are starting to wonder whether libraries can survive in the wake of e-readers and technology that delivers content on the go. Now that information flows so freely into our hands and homes, is there still a place for the public library?
Yes, says Canadian library futurist Stephen Abram, keynote speaker for the 2011 Arizona Library Association conference—but not for the reasons you might suspect. “It’s not about the books,” he says. It’s about reading.” Never mind that e-readers and computers are replacing traditional books for some readers. Libraries are evolving to offer these, too.
But libraries provide something more: a community setting where people can gather for all sorts of reasons—social time, study sessions, career workshops and access to the skills and support of librarians who are trained to meet shifting user demands.
My own local library, the Civic Center Library in Scottsdale, recently underwent renovations born of evolving reader interests and needs. Seating areas replaced big desks so patrons can read more comfortably or collaborate with others on school, community or business projects. And there’s a new café, the item most requested on recent surveys.
Public libraries are operated by city or county governments and every library features unique facilities and services. But those who visit various libraries in the Valley will notice several trends, all reflecting today’s “beyond books” mentality.
Changing collections. Libraries have more large-print titles for aging readers, more graphic novels for teen readers and more how-to materials on everything from car repair to gardening for cash-strapped families. Some “Deweyless” branches, including nine of 17 branches in the Maricopa County Library District (MCLB), group titles in bookstore fashion rather than using the Dewey decimal system. The district’s Perry Branch in Gilbert, which dropped the Dewey system in 2007, was one of the nation’s first to do so.
Color and comfort. Modern décor is replacing muted tones and merely utilitarian fare. The Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix features monorail track lighting, colorful stuffed chairs, multi-color shelves and bright neon signs marking special areas.
Children’s areas feature child-friendly colors and design, with child-sized furniture and computer bays. The MCLD’s Queen Creek Branch is home to the Mary Lou Fulton Children’s Center, which includes a giant wall mural with interactive elements like an igloo door through which little ones can crawl.
Education opportunities. Library patrons can enjoy classes on diverse topics such as tax form preparation, job-hunting skills, parenting strategies and learning a new language. Several have rooms patrons can rent for their own workshops or study sessions.
Some, including two of four Chandler Public Library branches and the MCLD’s North Valley Regional branch in Anthem, share facilities with local schools. Many offer online homework help. Patrons of the Mesa Public Library, for example, enjoy free 24/7 access to a homework support service called Tutor.com. And some offer bilingual programming or special collections like Spanish and Yaqui materials available at the MCLD’s Guadalupe Branch.
Outdoor elements. Today’s libraries are integrating more outdoor spaces, from gardens to courtyards. Some, including the Main Branch of the Glendale Public Library, feature collections of native plants and/or wildlife. Several feature outdoor water elements and sculpture. Large windows at Glendale’s main library allow patrons to enjoy more outdoor views. The Phoenix Public Library’s Agave Library in North Phoenix has a reading garden and the Peoria Public Library’s Main Branch recently celebrated Earth Day by engaging children in planting a library garden. Participants took starter seeds home for their own gardens.
Parenting resources. Parents who once did a quick “grab and go” for children’s books are instead taking time to linger and learn. Many libraries now host parenting classes, have special collections of parenting materials and help connect parents to resources outside the library on topics ranging from schools to special needs. Mesa Public Library branches offer on-site activities for children and parents or caretakers to enjoy together through the Mesa Parent University program. The Phoenix Public Library’s Cesar Chavez Library in Laveen has a First Five Years/Los Primeros Cinco Años program featuring an interactive space for families with young children (a great way to meet fellow parents) and its Burton Barr Central Library has a College Depot that gives families access to college-planning materials, workshops, software and support services.
Social areas. Because cafés are so much more appealing than card catalogues, many libraries, like the Mustang Branch of the Scottsdale Public Library and the Main Branch of the Glendale Public Library, have added coffee carts or small cafés with tables and chairs where patrons can gather to share a meal, read or watch television. A Phoenix Public Library branch located at South Mountain Community College boasts a juice bar. Several libraries feature seating areas for group study or quiet conversation—proving that the “hush, hush” mentality is behind us. Mesa Public Library’s Young Adult Advisory Council (which connects teens who like to read and volunteer) and Book Club Kits (featuring set of books with discussion materials) help foster friendships at and beyond library branches. And a Teen Center on the Tempe Public Library’s lower level gives teens a whimsical place to do homework or read together.
Shopping component. Gift shops featuring books, clothing, children’s toys, totes, beverage holders and more now sit inside many libraries. The Chandler Public Library has a café and gift shop called “Pages” at its Downtown Branch. Several libraries, including the Burton Barr Central Library in downtown Phoenix and the MCLD’s North Valley Regional library in Anthem, hold used book sales, often run by volunteer “Friends” organizations. Some have plastic crates patrons use to gather items to borrow.
Patrons of the Mesa Public Library can use the Mesa Express Library inside Power Square Mall, while those who borrow Scottsdale Public Library materials can return them at one of several free-standing drop boxes near local shopping centers.
Staff/patron interaction. Librarians are moving out from behind long counters near the library entrance/exit into spaces closer to patrons. At Scottsdale Public Library branches, smaller stations are placed throughout the library, encouraging librarians to rove so they can interact with patrons who need assistance. Often librarians are proactive, asking roving library users whether they need help, much like a bookstore clerk might offer to help a retail customer. Fewer staff members are needed at checkout as more libraries, like the MCLD’s Fountain Hills Branch, transition to self-checkout systems.
Technology tools. Rows or rooms of computers are prominent features of most libraries, and librarians are trained in teaching patrons to download and use digital materials on e-readers and other handheld devices. Think smart phone meets savvy librarian.
Many libraries offer tools that allow patrons to download audio books, e-books, music and videos. The Phoenix Public Library system, for example, uses something called the Greater Phoenix Digital Library. The Rocket Languages for Libraries program, used by the Mesa Public Library, gives patrons free on-site or remote access to online language classes (including English classes for Spanish speakers, American Sign Language, Hindi, Arabic, Chinese and more).
Works of art. Many libraries display permanent collections of paintings, sculpture and other works of art—and host touring exhibits or rotating works by local artists. Areas dedicated to youth often feature works created by young library patrons, and library programming sometimes includes art projects and film screenings. Some, including the Tempe Public Library, are turning library cards into works of art, offering patrons a choice of design. And many libraries participate in “Culture Pass” programs featuring free or reduced admission to area museums.
In some cases, art meets architecture at the local library. South Mountain Community College Library features a lovely combination of copper, concrete, steel, glass and cedar—and the wing-like roof at the Cesar Chavez Library serving Avondale and Laveen was designed to reflect the historical importance of the region’s flowering fields.
Public libraries are changing, but their essential role in building strong communities remains steady. “Libraries offer equal access to every single person in the community, no matter how much money they make or what their education level is,” says Scottsdale Public Library support services senior manager Karen Coster.
Coster sees a direct link between libraries and civic engagement. Kids who learn early literacy skills become better readers, and better readers make better students. Successful students make good citizens. It’s not just about the books. It’s about sustaining a thriving modern democracy.