by Jill Forman
Librarians can save the world!
Your intrepid columnist has family matters coming up, so will not be writing about current library events this issue. I read a fascinating article in Smithsonian magazine about the revisioning of libraries, and have decided to write about that since it affects the future of library systems and their communities.
“Libraries are no longer hushed repositories of books,” the article says. It focuses on the revolution that took place in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the poorest cities in America. “Public libraries have been increasingly described as obsolete, and many cities have slashed budgets and closed branches.” Bucking this trend, Memphis decided to open new branches and substantially increase the library budget. Attendance at library programs has quadrupled.
Libraries in Memphis have recording studios, art centers, video workspaces, music lessons, ukulele groups, photography classes, cooking lessons, computer skills labs, and more activities than I can list here. Oh yes, you can also check out a book.
Previously, “Most people really valued their libraries,” researchers found, “but viewed them as stable and staid, a repository for the past.” There is a large range of services, but they discovered, “Most people didn’t know about them. We had to get people to view libraries in a different light, as an activated space for learning in every form.”
Memphis re-branded their libraries, “Portraying them as vibrant community centers…the real power of libraries is they can transform people’s lives…but can also be fun.” “A child can do homework (my note: or an adult!) People come together to attend programs, where literacy also means digital and financial literacy…some libraries are doing a lot with health and fitness…others give access to expensive technologies like 3D printers, or to seeds and gardens.”
The core mission of public libraries hasn’t changed: “We exist for the betterment of communities. We support literacy and learning. We want all our resources to be free and everyone to feel welcome.”
And that mission doesn’t stop at the library’s walls. “We have to get outside our buildings and bring our programming into the community.” Memphis citizens often don’t have cars and public transportation is inadequate. Library staff goes to “senior centers, schools, block parties.” They offer pop-up story times at laundromats and health clinics.
If this interests you, pick up the magazine and read the whole article. It has the heroes of this radical transformation and a lot more information about how it happened. It’s a truly inspiring story.
So, what about this world-saving bit? “If librarians can’t save the world, no one can. They have no ego, they’re not looking for glory, they just want to change lives and transform communities, and we have an army of them working in Memphis every day.”
Go hug a librarian. And happy celebrations to all!