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Public Libraries as Critical Spaces for Convening

From The Ceo June

Written by Brooks Rainwater, President and CEO, Urban Libraries Council

ULC member libraries look to the future with every new initiative, project, and event. Libraries must anticipate and plan for the future of technology, community need, intellectual freedom, and funding — just to name a few. This type of work requires constant adaptation and innovation, two things public libraries excel at tremendously.

We see this clearly in the work that was submitted to ULC’s 2023 Innovations Initiative. ULC libraries shared nearly 200 projects from the last year showcasing increasing community civic engagement opportunities, initiatives for intellectual freedom, building more equity in workplaces and collections, and innovative ways to connect communities through digital tools. Of all submissions, 16 member libraries — 8 Top Innovators and 8 Honorable Mentions — made up the best of this year’s Innovations.

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Pictured: Cambridge Public Library's Valente Branch. Read more about the Valente Branch Library.

ULC libraries grow and change with the community. Take Cambridge Public Library’s Valente Branch as an example. In response to the city’s goal to be Net Zero by 2040, the library system not only built a branch with this goal in mind, but built one that holistically promotes the health and wellness of each visitor. Five play spaces, a reading garden, and a bocce court support immediate physical and emotional wellness. And that is before considering the long-term wellness that a Net Zero community will bring.

What about the community’s ability to be heard? Louisville Free Public Library saw that certain areas of the city – especially those with more diverse populations – were often underrepresented in local media coverage and, as a result, were less comfortable reaching out to a reporter or editor. So the library introduced “Mobile Newsrooms” to improve positive coverage of the city’s many diverse neighborhoods and foster greater civic engagement by amplifying the voices within these communities.

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Pictured: Louisville Free Public Library's Mobile Newsroom program. Learn more.

What is evident from these themes is that the public library is increasingly valued as a place of convening, a physical space that connects the community. Perhaps this feeling of connection is one we had all been lacking in the wake of COVID-19. It is clear that as public spaces come back to life in this “post-pandemic” era, libraries continue to adapt to what the community needs.

We also see the library’s value as space on a more individual level — through the remote worker. The library is growing in popularity as a “third-place,” a flexible, high-quality space that allows patrons to complete deep work or other intended actions. ULC’s newest white paper, “Libraries as Spaces for Innovation and Productivity,” explores the importance of libraries as places of congregation, and offers recommendations for ways to emphasize the value of libraries as spaces for innovation and productivity.

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The remote worker may find they are most productive at a place like Richland Library Main in Columbia, South Carolina, which is located in the city’s business district and offers free access to flexible workspaces, creative spaces, meeting rooms, desk spaces and a cafe. Or a teleworker on a business trip to New York may turn to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in the center of Manhattan. New York residents and visitors can instantly get a library card and access resources such as virtual interview spaces and advanced computer workstations. This location is an example of a highly convenient working location.

It is increasingly evident that communities must consider the library space itself as one of the most valuable resources a library has to offer. As public libraries innovate and look to the future, the uses of library space will only grow. Libraries are the premier public space in all of our communities.

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