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Prom dresses, cake pans, and power tools: Welcome to the new public library

Public libraries have evolved to meet the needs of their communities, with some even building housing. As needs continue to change, so too will libraries.

Cristina Spanò for the Boston Globe

John Agnew has lived in Caruthersville, a small farming community in Missouri’s southeast Bootheel region, for every one of his 42 years. Yet he hadn’t set foot in the public library, barely a block off the town’s main drag, until just a few weeks ago. “When I was younger,” he says, “I thought the library was just about books.”

What finally brought Agnew through the swinging glass doors wasn’t the latest best-seller, but a Facebook post announcing a “Job Center at the Library.” On the last Tuesday of every month, a representative from the Missouri Career Center in Kennett, the nearest state unemployment office some 25 miles west, sets up a laptop in the library’s front conference room and helps residents register for state benefits and fill out applications for job training and local employment.


It’s a service that is desperately needed in a region that is perennially listed as one of the poorest in the state; where the mechanization of agriculture and scarcity of other industry has left 5.7 percent of the workforce unemployed — nearly twice the state average.

Over the past five years, director Teresa Tidwell has transformed the Caruthersville Public Library from a grim repository of dusty tomes into a lifeline for its patrons. Here they can check out a tablet loaded with resume-building templates, technological and digital literacy guides, and tutorials about spotting job scams and starting your own business. A few months ago, the library even tried checking out bicycles and helmets. "They don’t even have to be quiet,” says Tidwell. “We want to be a community hub, where people want to come rather than thinking they’re going to get chased out.”

In recent years, libraries across the country have been evolving to meet the needs of their communities. Modern libraries offer access to social services and government aid in places where the state has cut back. In addition to books and DVDs, they loan out items as diverse as prom dresses, cake pans, and power tools. They host programs for financial literacy and substance abuse recovery and ballet. In fact, a Pew Research Survey found that nearly two-thirds of adults believe that closing their local library would have a major impact on their community, with about half having used or visited a public library in the prior 12 months. Last year, more Americans went to the library than went to the movies.


And as the needs of communities change, libraries will continue to change right along with them.

“Libraries are more dynamic and more integral to community life,” says Ramiro Salazar, president of the Public Library Association, a professional association of public librarians. “The prime mission used to be using books as power to enlighten and inform the community. That mission is the same — now we just use different strategies.”


When it was established in 1848, the Boston Public Library was the first free municipal library of its size in the United States. The original idea was to set up a public place where books from American and French libraries could be exchanged, and BPL opened to residents in 1854 with 16,000 volumes. When the Central Library in Copley Square, still the hub of an ever-expanding system of branches, was completed in 1895, architect Charles Follen McKim called it a “palace for the people.”


Today the renovated Central Library contains a lecture hall, a WGBH satellite studio, a high-tech community learning center, and a café. In December, BPL officials announced that they are considering adding apartments to four of its 25 neighborhood branches as a way to leverage city-owned space to alleviate the current affordable housing crisis. There is also a separate initiative to add housing, hotel space, and a parking garage to the branch in Chinatown. If it happens, Boston would join Chicago and New York as the only cities to introduce this co-habitation model — and it’s just one among dozens of ways urban and suburban libraries are expanding their mission beyond books.

“Before, libraries were more passive,” says Salazar. “People knew about them, and those who knew would come in and check out a book. Now we use programming, activities, inviting the community to participate. Libraries are becoming more like centers for communities to gather.”

For instance, in the city, libraries are natural places to look for Internet connectivity to help with schoolwork or government assistance. They can also be, simply, a clean, climate-controlled refuge. Some visitors are experiencing homelessness and all of the physical and mental health issues that accompany it. Rather than chase these patrons out, many urban libraries are expanding their services to help them.

When San Francisco Public Library estimated that 15 percent of their visitors were without homes, they decided to hire an in-house social worker to engage these patrons, perform assessments, and help arrange case management and housing assistance. Denver Public Library has built an entire department of four full-time social workers and two interns to cover the system’s 26 branches and not only connect patrons to government services and local programs, but also train other library employees to handle a mental health emergency or a substance abuse incident. Over the past few years, workers have used Narcan to reverse 33 opioid overdoses at various Denver branches.


In Philadelphia, the library has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to train employees as community health specialists who can help address the social determinants of health, such as nutrition, trauma and mental health, and youth leadership.

Urban libraries have also rallied to aid immigrants. The Hartford Public Library in Connecticut has created The American Place, a free program that helps newcomers acclimate to their new country and city through English classes, legal orientations, and Know-Your-Rights programs. Similarly, the Los Angeles Public Library created the New Americans Centers, which offer free on-site naturalization services, Green Card renewals, help with money management and entrepreneurship, housing and workers’ rights, and guidance with DACA.

Many libraries have expanded their collections to lend out video games, musical instruments, telescopes, and even pedometers. But perhaps more important is what goes on within them. In a time when information, commerce, and socialization is becoming increasingly impersonal online, libraries provide physical spaces for people to come together and share what they are learning and experiencing. Proximity to other institutions also enables urban libraries to expand their entertainment options for patrons. They partner with local ballet companies, symphonies, theater groups, and art galleries to provide concerts and exhibitions. They collaborate with local universities and museums to provide lectures. They work with local civic leaders and political interests to host town halls, public information sessions, and set up polling places.


And because the library is free and open to all, it may become one of the few havens for free exchange of ideas in our polarized society.


Meanwhile, rural libraries face their own challenges to better serve the community. Tidwell, the director of the Caruthersville Public Library, grew up in the town and is barely old enough to remember the town’s heyday. At its height in the 1940s, nearly 47,000 people lived in Pemiscot County, of which Caruthersville is the seat. Today, that number is down to just over 16,000, following the pattern of rural flight commonplace across the country.

When Tidwell came aboard as director in 2015, the Caruthersville Public Library felt like an afterthought. It was still just a place where people were shushed as they came to check out or return a book. “We kind of had this invisible generation that, once they stopped reading physical books, they felt like there was no reason to come to the library,” says Tidwell. “We’ve had to re-educate them that there is a reason to come.”

Tidwell did so by expanding the catalog to include DVDs of movies and television shows for residents who cannot afford cable. She started a free Sunday screening of movies for kids in the library’s seldom-used auditorium. She opened up the doors to invite community organizations — from Kiwanis and Rotary, to county Democrats and Republicans, to yogis and sellers of essential oils — to hold their meetings and classes in the empty conference rooms. She advertised in the local newspaper and especially on Facebook. She partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation to offer fishing poles and tackle boxes to be checked out. And she even installed a free coffee bar.

But perhaps the most important thing Tidwell did was the first — expand the library’s technological capabilities. She bought laptops and tablets and made them available for borrowing, installed Wi-Fi and exponentially increased the facility’s Internet bandwidth. Eventually, she added portable hotspots to patrons to borrow. According to Pew Research, 24 percent of rural Americans consider access to high-speed Internet a major problem in their community. Only 65 percent of them own a smartphone, and just 58 percent subscribe to broadband in their homes.

“Access to high-speed Internet is not readily available or affordable,” says Salazar. “Private providers don’t invest in the infrastructure in a small community because they won’t make any money. Public libraries are committed to providing access, computers, and digital literacy. Rural libraries are playing a large role in bridging that digital divide.”

Connectivity is about more than allowing patrons to surf YouTube or check their Facebook pages — it’s at the heart of all the other services rural libraries are able to provide such as job searches, online educational courses, and finding and signing up for health insurance. Many aspects of the 2020 US Census will be conducted online, and libraries are preparing to make sure their patrons are counted. In fact, many people come to the library to learn how to use the Internet itself. According to Pew, 80 percent of people definitely think libraries should offer programs to teach people, including kids and senior citizens, how to use digital tools such as computers, smartphones, and apps. This is true in all libraries, but it’s largely taken for granted in the cities and suburbs.


Of course, libraries are fighting to exist in the same cash-strapped environment as any other government agency or nonprofit organization and rural libraries have fewer resources than most. Small-town administrators like Tidwell solicit donations of cash, time, and materials. They also tirelessly apply for grants. In 2017, the people of Caruthersville showed their appreciation for what Tidwell and her staff have done by voting in favor of a half-cent sales tax to support the library, the first such increase in almost a century. The measure passed with 83 percent of the vote in a staunchly conservative outpost.

Almost all libraries — urban, suburban, or rural — either have a marketing department or are more proactive in reaching out to their communities than in the past. And that outreach appears to be working. The Pew Research study showed that over 90 percent of adults think of public libraries as “welcoming and friendly places.” As long as members of the community continue to come and engage, smart library boards and administrations will continue to widen their offerings, and their imaginations, to meet their patrons’ needs.

Salazar believes that the future of libraries includes physical expansion into the community, like the proposed library apartments here in Boston. For instance, he cites his hometown of San Antonio, where the library has installed a book vending machine and book lockers in the local YMCA, so people can get their reading fix while working out.

While this nothing-is-off-the-table approach to expansion might smack of desperation during trying times for publicly funded enterprises, Salazar says that libraries are just doing what they’ve always done.

“We worry, obviously, about staying relevant — but that’s not what motivates us,” he says. “This is a natural organic evolution. We want to be responsive to the community we serve. You might say that sounds like self-preservation, but we’re passionate in the ability of libraries to transform and empower the community.”

Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @trehagen. Send comments about this story to ideas@globe.com.