Libraries have the power to educate, convene, preserve, inspire, and connect. Libraries can now be more powerful than ever. In Seattle, we opened the public library auditorium as a free, non-alcoholic venue to watch the Seattle Seahawks play in the Superbowl game on our big screen. We drew hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds from all walks of life, many of whom commented that they would not have had access to watch the game if it weren’t for the public library. They smiled, cheered loudly, and danced! Who would imagine, a traditionally quiet public library as a loud venue to watch sports?
The library is more than a building with books and computers. Growing up, I was a curious child. I bombarded my parents, teachers, and other adults with questions about how things came to be and why the world is the way that it is. “Why is it that way?” “Who determined that?” My patient mother, who was an early childhood teacher, always directed me to research to find the answers. “Look it up,” my mother would say. Of course there was no world wide web, and info was not readily accessible at the click of my fingertips. But, we did keep an Encyclopedia Britannica collection at home. I still remember that collection. I loved those sky blue books. But, despite my love of encyclopedias, there was nothing better than our trips to the public library. The access to the public library tapped into a different emotion, one that I didn’t even know existed.
When we visited the library, I felt as though I belonged. There was no entry fee, age requirement, or skills test. When we entered, there simply was a smiling librarian who asked if we needed any assistance. Outside of home, school, and church, I didn’t realize the power of feeling connected to broader society before walking into the public library. For me, the public library was a sanctuary that provided a place to roam free, finding information and discovering new things.
As an adult, I have learned to appreciate the interconnectivity that public libraries provide for communities. They are a central repository for different segments of our communities. The public library meets different needs for a wide range of the public. For instance, libraries serve as a place for education, a resource center for jobs, an exhibit gallery for historical writings and revered works of art, a place of refuge, a venue for dialogue, and a place to plan and strategize. Many great ideas have been conceived at the public library.
Both public libraries and the community must continue to reimagine libraries. We must expand our image of public libraries beyond the traditional role of borrowing books. Communities and public libraries must think of themselves as interconnected. The public library is a critical part of the community ecosystem. Public libraries, unlike almost any community entity, are accessible to everyone.
Libraries will always be critical to the fabric of a thriving community. Even as the world changes and new technologies provide access to information in different ways, nothing will replace the power of the public library. Public libraries should always provide familiar services such as books and computer access, but they are more than that. Public libraries at their core humanize us all. By providing free access to everyone, they embody equity in access and serve as the glue for the various ecosystems in communities.
Tre Maxie is a former trustee of the Seattle Public Library and is Director, Youth & Engagement at the Aspen Institute.
The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multi-stakeholder forum to explore and champion new thinking on U.S. public libraries, with the goal of fostering concrete actions to support and transform public libraries for a more diverse, mobile and connected society.
To find out more information about the Dialogue on Public Libraries please visit LibraryVision.org.