In recent decades, many cities have grown in population, seen influxes of immigrants, become more diverse and, in recent years, experienced higher rates of homelessness. City public libraries have witnessed it all, and according to Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, board president at the Public Library Association and CEO of the Baltimore County Public Library, they’ve adapted accordingly.
“Our collections and our programs and our buildings are never static,” she said, explaining that public libraries are always evolving to meet the needs of changing communities.
Libraries are “fundamentally hyper-local,” Alcántara-Antoine said. Sometimes, public libraries meet changing community needs with books, “but more and more we are providing access to all sorts of resources,” said Alcántara-Antoine. For example, some libraries are hiring social workers to assist people experiencing homelessness, while others are establishing themselves as climate resilience hubs to educate people on climate change and provide refuge during extreme weather events.
A 2022 report from the Public Library Association surveyed more than 1,100 public libraries nationwide to understand how libraries serve as “a cornerstone of civic and social infrastructure that support strong communities.” More than two-thirds of public libraries surveyed offer election assistance, like voter registration or ballot drop boxes, and more than three in four libraries surveyed provide career services to those looking to develop professional skills or find a job.
Brooks Rainwater is the president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, where, he said, “we think about libraries holistically as centers of the community.” As community institutions, libraries drive progress in cities, Rainwater said.
Library innovations in cities nationwide
The Seattle Public Library has been developing a strategic plan over the past two years, informed by feedback from more than 50 community organizations as well as patrons themselves. This has resulted in programs informed by what communities say they actually need, the library’s digital communications strategist, Elissa Murray, said in an email.
For example, the Homework Help program assists K-12 students “at neighborhood branches that serve students furthest from educational justice,” Murray said. The library also added books in less common languages spoken by some in the community, like Ukrainian, Pashto and Dari. It was one of the first libraries in the country to begin loaning out Wi-Fi hotspots for people with limited internet access, Murray said.
On the other side of the country, the Free Library of Philadelphia has developed innovative literacy programs and services, a number of which are part of the Culinary Literacy Center, a teaching kitchen within the library. One program, Edible Alphabet, teaches groups of English language learners conversation skills while they’re cooking simple yet delicious recipes, chief of adult services and programs Veronica Britto said in an email.
Outside of the kitchen, the library also hosts basic literacy classes for Philadelphians who want to improve their reading and writing abilities, Britto said. The library aims to reach all community residents, not just those who already check out library books.
One recent move to improve access has been implemented in at least 100 libraries across the country, including those in Philadelphia and Seattle: eliminating late fees.
The Salt Lake City Public Library was one of the early adopters of the trend, getting rid of late fees in 2017 in order to increase access to the library for people with limited financial means. In January 2019, the American Library Association passed a resolution recommending libraries move away from fines because they “present an economic barrier to access of library materials and services.” When the health and economic crisis of the pandemic unfolded, a bevy of other libraries across the country eliminated their fines too, with many eventually making the changes permanent.
Fines “just punish people … [and] people end up not coming back to the library,” said Peter Bromberg, associate director of advocacy organization EveryLibrary and former director of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
People were more likely to come to the library when their fines were forgiven, he said, a point which Alcántara-Antoine reinforced. She said that after the Baltimore County library eliminated fines in 2021, the library saw one-third of accounts that had late fines scrapped become active again. When people returned to the library, they had access to the library’s other amenities.
In Salt Lake City, these amenities include a creative lab with 3D printers, sewing machines and a sound booth, which enables people to record their own albums. Bromberg remembers one woman, a custodian at a building across the street from the library, who would come in on her lunch break and work on a documentary she was making.
“All of this is free,” Bromberg said of the resources, emphasizing that he didn’t mean just the technology but the library staff who assist patrons using it. Many of the benefits of public libraries, like opportunities for people to learn, explore and connect with others, are “hard to show as valuable on a spreadsheet,” Bromberg said, but are vital for community residents.
While the threat of budget cuts regularly plagues libraries, as it does for many city programs and departments, funding issues have not been a major concern for most libraries over the past few years, Rainwater said. That’s thanks to short-term policy prescriptions like the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The federal Institute of Museum and Library Services received $200 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, primarily to allocate to states for their library systems.
However, Rainwater said that many libraries have long-term unmet infrastructure needs, such as old and deteriorating buildings. Because experts think municipal budgets could be strained in the near future, “supporting libraries should be at the top of every city leader’s policy agenda,” he said.
“Investments in libraries are going to pay some of the strongest dividends within cities,” Rainwater said.