Rethinking libraries in a digital age
Andrew Chanse had been the executive director of the Spokane Public Library system in Washington for about six months when he got a call in 2013 from Judge Mary Logan proposing an unusual idea: Would he consider opening up the main downtown library to host a new community court she wanted to establish? The court would hear cases involving low-level offenses — charges like trespassing and other “quality-of-life” issues — and connect arrestees to community-based services such as mental health and drug treatment in an effort to keep them out of jail.
Chanse was skeptical. Was a library the best venue to help people in crisis? Logan certainly thought so. For one thing, many of the same people arrested for low-level offenses already spent time in Spokane’s central library, as it was a free and accessible space. Further, it was a neutral location, without the negative associations a courthouse can conjure. Given research showing an association between literacy levels and incarceration rates, developing a route to avoid jail time straight through the library seemed a fitting intervention. The question was whether Chanse would agree.
Across the country at the Brooklyn Public Library, Chief Librarian Nick Higgins was already working with people who had been arrested. Starting in 2007, his team rolled out a series of initiatives to help incarcerated people and their families navigate the reentry process, with links to jobs, healthcare, housing and educational opportunities available in neighborhood branches and on book carts wheeled into state prisons and the jails on Rikers Island. Meanwhile, a program called TeleStory allowed inmates to visit with their families via livestream from their neighborhood library, eliminating travel and other barriers to visitation (all this in the days before the widespread use of Zoom).
Increasingly, libraries are building community services into their operational models.
In Brooklyn, most of the borough’s 2.7 million residents live within half a mile of one of the Brooklyn Public Library’s 61 locations. In addition to serving incarcerated people and their families, the library system has also embraced other unique populations, including working with ActionNYC and the Immigrant Justice Corps to assist the borough’s large immigrant population with multilingual legal services and resources. Higgins says the credibility of library staff is crucial to the success of these programs, as many staff live in the neighborhoods they serve. “They see themselves as community anchors,” he explains.
Increasingly, libraries are building community services into their operational models. As arguably the most public of public spaces, libraries are open to — and used by — people of all backgrounds. Unlike parks, libraries are comfortable for extended visits year-round. And places like recreation centers generally require membership fees and come with the expectation of activity, whereas sitting quietly in a library is exactly the point. Their accessibility perhaps helps explain their reach: A 2019 report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services found that U.S. libraries were visited over a billion times in 2016, with more than 50% of residents entering a library at least once.
According to Paul Negron, director of communications at the Urban Libraries Council, “libraries have always been generally viewed as the most trusted institution in a community.” In recent years, and especially since COVID, they’ve moved beyond being “just about books,” expanding to provide community resources that “help patrons move their lives forward.” For example, a local entrepreneur who wants to start a business can use the space and computers in a library as a starting point; many libraries also offer training on relevant topics such as how to write a business plan.
In Helsinki, a library includes fully equipped facilities for cooking, recording, gaming and photography and video, all of which can be reserved at no cost.
These kinds of offerings represent a crucial evolution as print readership declines. Today, many library patrons prefer to check books out digitally. E-book readership was increasing before the pandemic, and once COVID-19 hit, the movement was turbocharged from two directions. First, people began reading more during their time at home. And second, even after libraries reopened, people were often reluctant to visit and take home shared materials. Add the decade-long growth of audiobooks to all those e-readers, and there’s a lot of room to reimagine what libraries could do with shelf space they may longer need.
In Helsinki, a library called Oodi, opened in 2018, has been exceptionally creative in this regard. When the 185,000-square-foot building was constructed, the space prioritized the needs of people over books. Libraries are so important to Finnish culture that they’re written into the law; nearly 100 years ago, the country passed legislation outlining their responsibilities. Among other objectives, libraries promote “active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression,” making Oodi’s location across the street from Finland’s parliament all the more fitting.
Harri Annala, a librarian in Oodi’s international unit, says that community input shared during Oodi’s planning process indicated the public wanted access to free, flexible spaces downtown. In response, Oodi’s architects designed private spaces that can be “checked out” for almost any use, including meeting rooms and workspaces. There are also areas that facilitate community interactions, including fully equipped facilities for cooking, recording, gaming and photography and video, all of which can be reserved at no cost.
'This doesn’t need to be a warehouse of books.'
A relatively modest lending collection of 100,000 books is stored on-site, supplemented by materials patrons can request from the city’s other branches and pick up from Oodi. “It’s the most expensive square meters in probably all of Finland,” Annala says, “so this doesn’t need to be a warehouse of books.”
In Spokane, Andrew Chanse has also reimagined the use of space in libraries across his system. One underutilized location was transformed into an artists’ studio space called The Hive, where local artists complete creative projects, including everything from canoes built using traditional Indigenous methods to large-scale public art. As for that community court? It opened in late 2013 and has been hearing cases ever since.
Judge Logan saw the community court as a chance to fix a broken system. In her years in the justice system, she’d seen the same faces too many times: “It was jail and then probation, and when probation failed — which it always did — then it was more jail. There was no use of any alternatives whatsoever.”
Yet the decision to convert a library conference room into a courthouse once a week didn’t initially go over well with downtown businesses. “We got pushback from some of the local businesses, basically saying we were bringing criminals into the downtown area,” Chanse said, “whereas the reality was we were … working with people that had been charged with offenses and getting them to a different path that they might not be able to get otherwise.” Chanse’s team began holding weekly meetings with the business community to address their apprehension.
Of course, concerns about their clientele aren’t the only questions looming over libraries these days. Higgins, of the Brooklyn Public Library, cites “growing censorship and book ban campaigns” as an acute threat. “These campaigns and actions, primarily driven by a small but aggressive minority of people, are largely targeted at books written by or depicting people of color and LGBTQ people,” he says. “There is a need now for libraries to be prepared to collaborate with others on pushing back against this growing trend.”
Professor Richard Florida and Brooks Rainwater of the Urban Libraries Council recently made the case in Bloomberg that libraries can do this and more, arguing that they have a key role to play in “reknitting” society in the wake of COVID-19. By leaning into the fact that crucial learning takes place outside of books and seeking creative new ways to serve the public, the library systems in Spokane, Brooklyn and Helsinki are accomplishing libraries’ original goal of supporting an informed citizenry. Even with all the technology they offer, libraries’ analog attributes — the meeting spaces, the classes and the librarians themselves — may be their greatest assets.
Protecting the Commons