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The public library as community center: books, latte, yoga

The public library branches out with new ways to bring bodies to the stacks.  Nationwide librarians are developing a community center model where visitors can do everything from drink their latte and do yoga, to speed dating and tax preparation – all while getting closer to books.

By Rosalind BentleyThe Atlanta Jourrnal-Constitution/AP / May 2, 2012

The American public library is becoming more of a community center where books, latte, yoga draw the public closer to books. At the Coolspring branch of the LaPorte County (Michigan) Public Library family night in March 2012, Jo'Hanna Osenkarski works on a Lego vehicle.

Bob Wellinski/The News Dispatch/AP



 In the past month at a metro Atlanta public library you could have: listened to a barbershop quartet, taken a yoga or line dancing class, had a soda and a snack, received help preparing your taxes or homework, learned needlepoint, attended an open-mic poetry slam, gotten a mammogram screening, run your small business from a corner desk, learned how to give your newborn a massage or mastered the art of tai chi.

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You could have also checked out a book.

Talk to librarians and administrators and inevitably the phrases "community living room" and "neutral space" come up. True, libraries have been both of those things for more than a century, but their primary mission is, and has always been, to be a warehouse of books, material and information.

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Yet many libraries across the country are moving toward a model that looks more like a community center than a living room, where you can take a Zumba class, fill out job applications, do speed dating and learn to use that e-reader you got for your birthday. In some, you can even order a latte.

This doesn't mean, as library advocates are quick to point out, that the traditional mission of promoting literacy is taking a back seat as community programming is bulking up. Librarians often cite the key role the institutions will play as places where computers can be used for free by those without home or work access to the Internet. But libraries also see an edge in providing the space for people to gather, and in teaming with other groups, both nonprofits and individuals, to offer experiences that will bring bodies into their stacks.

It's a trend that has built slowly the past 30 years. But it's one that has ramped up in the past five years, as tight budgets brought on by the recession have prevented large acquisitions of new books, DVDs, and other materials.

"If you haven't been in a library for a while you need to come and check it out," said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association. "It does things in ways that are different than what you remember or thought."

Song and dance

Recently, Dick Lyon, a tenor for the Sentimental Journey barbershop quartet, hit a high note so resonant it could be heard well past the commons area of the Spruill Oaks branch in Johns Creek, Ga., where his group was performing, all the way across to the children's area . As some patrons studied at nearby tables or worked on their laptops, lead singer Chuck Green took his group through an old-time standard that – as bass Rex Simms warned the audience – was one they hadn't done in a while, "so what you hear is what you get."

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