Innovating for Societal Good at the Public Library

person sitting at desk at a library

When was the last time you visited a public library? How about a Starbucks? As of 2017, it is noted that there are more public libraries than Starbucks in the U.S. I’ve experienced a recent uptick in my library visit frequency. Instead of simply using their printer when mine is on the fritz,I’ve used their resources to successfully kick-start an abandoned community garden, discover local neighborhood assets, and score a free yoga class.  

In late July, there was an opinion piece shared by Forbes (that was quickly deleted due to insane backlash), that insisted Amazon could and should replace libraries. Leave it to the librarians to whip up some serious backlash. So it’s obvious that there’s a need for libraries, but why? In both rural and urban areas, libraries are moving away from simply being placeholders for books, and closer to becoming a space that meets unmet society needs through technology innovation, education, and municipal services.

Let’s rewind 20 years…

Maxine Bleiweis’ 1997 publishing of Helping Business- The Library’s Role in Community Economic Development, served as a How-To manual for the library’s role in small business development. Back in ‘97, libraries offered free training courses, aided in workforce development, and began advocating for a strange new gizmo: the internet. In the past twenty years we’ve seen the rise of this online resource, with most library materials reflecting this shift. Many now provide public access technology infrastructure resources and capacity, digital literacy support, and domain-specific services and programs (civic engagement, education, health and wellness, etc). However, states with a high percentage of rural areas still struggle with supporting small and local businesses when their residents lack a reliable and affordable internet connection. It’s 2018, and in every single state there exists a portion of the population that doesn’t have access to broadband.

Libraries to the rescue!

In Missouri, Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, is pushing to fund the “Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program”, which supports the costs of internet access, technical support, and other training services at the state’s public libraries. Ashcroft views the program as a cost-effective way to spread broadband throughout the state”, an issue that many states’ deal with. The roots of the Public Library run deep in supporting public needs beyond provision of paper materials . For example, Andrew Carnegie’s first designated library in Braddock, PA (pictured below), was imagined to be a full service center for working class Americans. It was equipped with billiard tables and a bathhouse to provide mill workers with a place to shower before using the facilities.

Photo circa 1893: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-ppmsca-15382)

In a world where people are paying to get ahead through specialized education such as training programs and certificates, libraries are slowly breaking down the inequality barrier.

In June 2014 the Free Library of Philadelphia launched a Culinary Literacy Center, aimed at revolutionizing the way residents think about food and nutrition while advancing literacy and teaching math through measurements. Over in Connecticut, the Westport Library’s makerspace is equipped with 3D printers which allow users to learn modeling software programs, and robots to teach coding and computer-programming skills. Outside the U.S. exists what is commonly referred to as the gold standard in library innovation, Dokken, in Aarhus, Denmark received the award for best public library in 2016. Patrons can park in the automated, robotic underground parking lot, make use of the lecture halls, and get some fun time in at one of its three on-site playgrounds. Furniture is movable, allowing users to create whatever space they require, a reflection on how libraries function best when listening and responding to community needs. After renovations, visitor counts skyrocketed from 1,800 to 3,800 visits per day.

At a time where inequality is at its highest in the United States, we need more than ever, to embrace potential innovation for societal goods that libraries hold in both urban and rural areas. Whether it be through entrepreneurial and small business support, broadband availability, or being an inclusive space for community engagement,  Libraries bring social wealth to communities and subsequently, their economies.

The upcoming revitalization of Braddock Carnegie Library of which Fourth Economy is helping, will allow us to complete a community and economic impact analysis for the library. I’m personally excited about drawing lines from community needs to what the library can offer.