Libraries for gathering, not just books

Libraries from Massachusetts to California are expanding to more unusual offerings like clothing exchanges and tai-chi sessions. 'For a long time, we’ve tried to make sure people come in for more than checking out books,' says Leah Price, communications director for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. 

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A visitor works on a computer in the reading room at the Boston Public Library's central library in Boston.

Clothing exchanges, string quartet concerts, and game nights for grown-ups – fun and enriching offerings at a hip and happening downtown high-rise apartment? Perhaps. But all three are also hosted by public libraries in Silicon Valley. 

Meanwhile, Boston Public Library branches are home to after-work tai-chi sessions and clubs devoted to LEGO building, anime, and teen video gaming.

“For a long time, we’ve tried to make sure people come in for more than checking out books,” says Leah Price, communications director for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. 

Whether through its series “Hollywood is a Verb: Los Angeles Tackles the Oxford English Dictionary” or its “To Live and Dine in L.A.” exhibition of local first-edition menus, the nonprofit group creates events that reflect the metropolitan area’s social, political, and cultural history.

The trend for libraries and library foundations to expand their scope beyond traditional media – first books and periodicals and later prerecorded audio and video – started in the children’s section, explains Michael Colford, director of library services at the Boston Public Library. 

After puppet shows, storytelling, and musicians were introduced, other activities were developed for adults.

“For me, growing up, libraries were a place to do homework or to do research on how to plant a garden or something along those lines,” Mr. Colford says. “They weren’t as casual as they’ve been since the ’80s and ’90s.”

After social networking via consumer technology started growing exponentially in the 1990s, libraries became a place for communal gathering. 

“Our crowds are diverse, because everybody comes to the library,” Ms. Price notes. “So we have many different types of events. And it’s free, except if there’s a book bundle involved.”

“Libraries serve across economic and racial demographics,” Colford agrees. “They’ve always been that space.”

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