Expanding the definition of library

My mom taught me to love libraries. As a toddler, I’d attend puppet shows and book readings. In elementary school, I participated in the summer reading program and won prizes for reaching my reading goals. After each visit, Mom and I would head home with a stack of books each.

I grew up defining the library as an all-about-books kind of place. I could enjoy listening to someone read to me, and I could take home as many books as I could carry to read myself. This, to me, was a special gift that I probably didn’t deserve.

Today I’m a card-carrying member of two library systems. If one doesn’t have what I want to read, the other usually does. That’s how I use the library. I check out books. And I read them.

I never envisioned any other services a library could offer. But the pandemic opened my eyes to how libraries quickly pivoted to meet the needs of their communities. When they were forced to close their doors, they immediately opened their digital communications. And when they returned to normal business hours, they redefined their missions and goals with out-of-the-box services that truly made a difference.

Last year The Atlantic magazine featured a story on how libraries responded to the COVID crisis by fulfilling the needs of their hurting communities. Most of their creative offerings had nothing to do with books.

I revisited the story this week and conducted a little research. I learned that many libraries, including several around me, are continuing their non-book related programs even though COVID cases have decreased.

Here’s a slice of what I discovered. Libraries are:

  • feeding hungry children through the summer.
  • offering therapeutic sessions in art, conversation, and writing to work through the death of loved ones.
  • providing 24/7 Wi-Fi access and hotspots.
  • using their 3-D printers to print shields for health care workers’ masks.
  • holding job skill seminars and career fairs.
  • hosting blood drives.
  • maintaining a robust online presence with resources for children’s activities, hobby ideas, and tips for sleeping better and lowering anxiety.
  • partnering with shelters to transport food in library vehicles to those in need.
  • allowing the homeless to camp in their parking lots. Some even brought in portable toilets.

Spread the word. Libraries are our new town squares, our new community centers, where the public can enter clean, safe buildings managed by staff and volunteers willing to help meet unique needs. Libraries have turned into one-stop-shops for local information and connections to appropriate non-profits. Hats off to the decision-makers who expanded the scope of library services.

Please consider lending a hand at your local library. You truly can make a difference.

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