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.
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The tiny audience of nine, a mix of moms, dads, kids and seniors, applauded heartily afterward. What was striking, though, was not their small number, but that the group of listeners had come specifically to hear the quartet. Once the show was done, they shook hands and chatted with the performers before they left.Skip to next paragraph
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"Our brass quintet played here about a month ago and it was packed," said baritone Roger Lamprey. "The library has had to become a community center, otherwise they're not going to survive."
Spruill Oaks senior librarian Michael Salpeter doesn't think people will stop coming to his branch of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library if there is no music. That said, over the past several years the branch has increased and varied its programming to lure more people into the space. This fiscal year, $2.5 million of the Atlanta-Fulton system's $30 million budget is earmarked for buying new books, e-books and other material for its 34 branches. Just six years ago it was $4.6 million. And while the system generates between $500,000 and $600,000 a year in revenue, said John Szabo, director of Atlanta-Fulton, that money goes back into the county's general fund.
"I've been in this field 20 years and libraries have never had big budgets," said Mr. Salpeter. "But we're always looking to attract additional people and part of it is being open to possibility."
When the County Commission cut back funds as the Great Recession deepened, like a lot of systems and branches, Spruill Oaks started collaborating with nonprofits and individuals who were willing to provide services and classes for free. To make sure their offerings are on target, twice a year the branch surveys its patrons to find out what kind of programming they want, in addition to staple programs such as children's story hours. This is how the popular Dahn yoga class and Friday night line dancing class came to be.
"Now there's cross-pollination," Salpeter said. "People who come for the programs check out books, and the people who come for materials stay for programming."
The DeKalb County Public Library in downtown Decatur, Ga., hosts some of the world's top authors every month in its downstairs auditorium, largely because the branch houses the Georgia Center for the Book – an institution affiliated with the Library of Congress – which creates those events.
And in Gwinnett County, Ga., which has the state's largest circulation at 7.6 million items, the system has hosted not only authors, but daytime soap opera stars. Last year, cast members of "Days of Our Lives," drew hundreds to Suwanee, some from as far away as South Carolina.
That broad mission has always been present, said Raphael of the American Library Association, but sometimes it has been restricted, literally, by the size of the building.
During the boom years of the 1990s, when libraries across the country secured bond issues to build new facilities, many built with an eye toward a more active future, incorporating large commons areas, huge children's wings and big auditoriums. And a handful of the structures became architectural gems of their cities, such as the central library in downtown Seattle that opened in 2004.
"So much of that dynamic programming used to go on in meeting rooms where it wasn't visible," said Raphael. "Now it spills out. Now we say, 'We want you to be comfortable.'"