Think libraries aren’t relevant in the Amazon age? There are libraries doing more than ever before, from being a teen commons to lending seeds and tools.
When Amazon can deliver almost anything one could want in a few days, and so much online content is available for free, people have begun asking whether libraries are still relevant. If all they did was maintain a dusty collection of outdated books and periodicals, maybe not. Instead, you’ll find libraries doing more to serve their communities these days than you might have imagined. Around the world, libraries are becoming one of the last holdouts of the commons and the source of an amazing array of things you can borrow.
Where else can you hang out for hours without having to buy anything or being told to move along? No wonder a 2017 Pew research poll found that Millennials were more likely than other Americans to have used a library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months. However, they’re not the only demographic that craves a space to hang out and be themselves. While adults and little kids have their approved spaces in public, teens have fewer options. Libraries doing more to cater to teenagers, like these libraries in Manhattan (NY), Austin (TX), Billings (MT), and Dayton (OH), are finding that giving teens some say in design choices and providing rooms where they can meet, study, listen to music, and even eat, means that libraries are becoming more than relevant to young people again.
Being the neighborhood commons has a darker side, as well. In one year alone, 12% of Pennsylvania’s public libraries found themselves dealing with people overdosing on drugs. Libraries around the country have similar stories. As a result, there are libraries doing more to help combat the opioid crisis by stocking and dispensing Naloxone, an overdose reversal medication. Even in conservative Salt Lake City (UT), anyone can obtain Naloxone, “no questions asked.”
Libraries in Santa Monica (CA) have another crisis on their hands: the homeless. Being open to all-day visiting makes libraries a destination for people with, quite literally, nowhere else to go. As a result, this library is adding a social worker to their staff to help their homeless patrons find appropriate services. They’ve always been about pairing people with information, and libraries doing more to help those that need it the most fits right in with that mission.
Just as people in need go to libraries, libraries can go to people in need. After last October’s wildfires left residents of Santa Rosa (CA) destitute, a partnership between United Way Women United and the Career Technical Education Foundation Sonoma County, along with other sponsors, made possible nine free lending libraries, built by local high school students and integrated into communities where a good book to read is a comfort.
One need not have experienced tragedy to appreciate a handy book. In West Chester (PA), the nonprofit Laundromat Library League has stocked over 100 laundromats in 12 states with an array of children’s books. In Zimbabwe, the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Program maintains fifteen donkey-powered library carts to bring books and solar-powered, Internet-connected computers to children far from town. Meanwhile, in rural Colombia, teacher Luis Soriano has been hitching up his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, to bring the Biblioburro to rural communities for 20 years. And garbage collectors in Turkey have collected enough discarded books to build their own library, which lends books to local schools and prisons as well as the public.
Even if you’re a comfortable American with more books next to your chair than can fit on the back of a Biblioburro, there are libraries doing more for you, too. Libraries are stocking more things you might want to borrow than books, whether it’s board games, garden seeds, star-shaped cake pans, or new tech. Libraries are hosting Makerspaces, providing free lunches for kids on summer vacation, and even (as an aside) improving public literacy. So go rediscover your local library! It could improve the national political conversation and maybe even make you a better lover. Just don’t use a cheese slice as a bookmark.
Related: The Highest Purpose of the Internet
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