On a recent Monday morning, the citizens of Kanawha County, West Virginia, came to check out a new chapter in the life of an old institution. After more than two years and $32 million in renovations, downtown Charleston’s public library reopened to the public – less a warehouse of books, and more a marketplaces of ideas.
Inside, visitors discovered a brand-new cafe, a tool-lending library, and an “idea lab” full of the latest technology. From podcasting booths to computerized sewing machines to augmented reality screens, the facility has been updated for the modern age.
There was an excitement you could see AND hear – which is exactly what the librarians were hoping for. Erika Connelly, director of the Kanawha County Library, said, “Librarians from time immemorial, like, you’re ‘Shh’!”
Correspondent Conor Knighton asked, “Are we beyond the age of shushing?”
“We’re beyond the age of that, yeah!”
“I tell you what I’m not seeing here; I’m not seeing a ton of books.”
“No! We have 3D machines, we have robotics, we have 3D pens.”
While there are still plenty of books, the redesign allowed the staff to rethink how they were displayed.
“It was more about the engagement, how we wanted our public to engage within the library,” Connelly said. “And it wasn’t at the shelves. It wasn’t just grabbing a book and then leaving. We wanted them to stay.”
Across the country, library attendance has declined 21% from 2009 to 2019. But borrowing has actually increased; it’s just moved online, as collections have shifted from physical to digital material. That’s caused libraries to shift their thinking in terms of what might bring people through the doors.
Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks begins each day greeting patrons as they enter the downtown branch. The 200,000-square-foot building fills up fast.
Knighton asked, “You’ve been open for all of nine minutes at this point, and it’s bustling already.”
“It’s always like that!” Weeks replied.
People come to Austin’s library to play board games, video games, even games of giant chess.
Alongside the actual books, there are Chromebooks and MacBooks to check out. The teen area hosts jam sessions featuring the library’s collection of guitars.
Knighton asked, “What do you think is the most unexpected physical item that you can check out at the library?”
Weeks replied, “Seeds. If you want to plant a garden, we have seeds that you can check out.”
“So, that’s not something you have to return, right? There’s no late fees on seeds?”
“The ‘return’ is, come show us what you got from your garden.”
When Austin’s Central Library opened in 2017, it instantly became a community hub. Visitation increased in subsequent years. Weeks described opening day as “one of the most glorious days of my life. We had 17,000 people waiting to get into this building.”
The building itself is part of the draw. Bright and open, full of spaces to lounge and meet, modern libraries are attempting to meet the needs of today while staying flexible for the future.
“More and more of these libraries are being built so that they have very open floor plans,” said Miguel Figueroa, former director of the Center for the Future of Libraries. “And I think part of that is that vision of long-term. We don’t know what the next thing might be.
“It’s really easy to think about the future as exclusively technological. And I think a lot of libraries are keeping pace with that. At the same time, I think we’re starting to see that there’s a really great future for these institutions as place – the value of having an open, public place in your city, in your neighborhood.”
In 2009, the city of San Francisco became the first in the country to hire a full-time social worker for its main library. Dozens of cities across the country have followed suit.
Figueroa said, “A lot of the social safety nets have been underfunded or removed. And unfortunately, that often means that there’s a crunch on other public institutions, like public libraries. They are very trusted institutions, and people feel welcome within them.”
People like Andrew Constantino, who, for a time, was a daily visitor to the downtown Seattle library. “The library is like your grandmother’s house,” he said. “If you’re homeless or living in poverty, that’s exactly what it’s like, when you are allowed to be at the library. Whereas, you know, if you’re homeless, you’re not allowed to be many places.”
Years ago, Constantino was living on the Seattle streets and in shelters. The library was his refuge, a place to get out the rain and get back on his feet.
Knighton asked, “You mentioned the importance of feeling welcome here. What was it like to not feel welcome elsewhere?”
“Oh, it sucks!” Constantino replied. “It’s like everywhere in our society you have to buy access, you know? If I want to use your bathroom, I have to buy a soda pop.”
Public libraries are public – a place where everyone can come together. In one room, recent immigrants practice English. In another, first-time computer users learn how to navigate the internet.
The internet – an always-on, limitless hub of information – didn’t replace libraries. It may have made them more essential.
Miguel Figueroa said, “The side effects of some of the technologies, where we do become so focused in on online information or online discourse, that we forget how to connect with other people? Libraries retrain you, I think, to be a member of the public, to be part of the civic discourse.”
While COVID made those connections challenging (most libraries closed during the height the pandemic), there’s been a recent slew of grand openings. Newly-renovated libraries have popped up everywhere from Flint, Michigan to Fayetteville, Arkansas … from Spokane, Washington to Washington, D.C.
Andrew Constantino said, “I really think that far from any idea that some people might have that the library is somehow obsolescent, you know, or, irrelevant, it is actually the opposite. I think that our society as a whole needs more institutions and public areas that are like the library. It’s much more a model for how we should treat other people than just an artifact of the past.”
For more info:
- Kanawha County Library, Charleston, West Virginia
- Austin Public Library
- Seattle Public Library
- Center for the Future of Libraries
Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Mike Levine.