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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.'"
For those who never stopped going to a library since they were kids, this may all sound familiar.
But for some, the idea that the library is akin to a community center may seem surprising. Is it that we haven't been paying attention, or that libraries haven't done the best job at aggressively promoting what they do?
Because social media costs nothing, most library systems use it now to promote events and programming. But their followers are usually regular library users and not necessarily new or wayward patrons. And a lot of systems have no advertising budget because of the perception that taxpayers will object to their money being spent that way.
"If I could get 10 billboards around town, I would love it," Szabo said. "It does no good to have this programming if people don't know it."
Libraries from Los Angeles to Connecticut that have allowed readers to bring a cup of coffee inside have seen spikes in usage. And interestingly, Gwinnett, which has the largest circulation in the state, has allowed beverages inside its 15 branches and has had vending machines in its lobbies since the 1990s.
"We've tried to promote a commons area and we allow food and drink to try to make people feel comfortable here," said Liz Forster, deputy director of Gwinnett libraries.
Gwinnett seems to be alone in its relatively liberal refreshment policy. Cobb and DeKalb counties don't allow food and drink into their branches. Atlanta-Fulton doesn't allow snacks or beverages beyond a library's entrance, but it is reviewing its policy, said spokesperson Kelly Robinson.
One dramatic example of what a difference a policy change can make is in Minnesota. Fifteen years ago, the Roseville branch of the Ramsey County library in suburban St. Paul, Minn., decided to allow a local coffee shop to open a cafe inside the branch. At the time, bringing food into the library struck some as heretical. Yet the agreement generated some profit for the library system; the shop paid rent and shared a percentage of its profits. At the time, the branch was the third most popular in the metro area.
Now it's the largest library branch in the state in terms of circulation and has just added a second story to its building. Even the county's logo for the library system signals something different: there is a cartoon of a person relaxing at a bistro table reading a book and on top of the table is a steaming cup of joe.
"It changed it from being a warehouse of books to a place for community activity," said Jeff Eide, senior librarian of the Roseville Branch. "Our community rooms are booked every night. And there's a foot race to our study rooms when we open the main doors at 10 a.m., to the point that it's almost becoming a problem. We've got so many people using them and a lot of people almost run businesses out of them.
"You've got to make the place a happening spot to be," Mr. Eide said. "If you stick with the mission of just being a repository of books and materials, that way extinction lies."