Modern libraries innovate to better serve their communities

Today's libraries are about way more than just getting lost in the stacks — they're now community centres.
Modern day libraries have become more of a place where members of the community show up to use its technologies, take educational classes and to exchange ideas. (Pixabay )

In many small communities across Canada and the U.S., local news is hard to come by. In the digital age, with a rapidly changing media landscape, many small town newspapers have been forced to shut down.

When the local newspaper in Weare, New Hampshire shut its doors, the town's librarian Michael Sullivan stepped in. He started a new community paper called Weare in the World. The idea is to fill the news gap and help the library provide information in a whole new way.

We've evolved into places where information and ideas are shared, more than just collected and lined up on the shelf.- Michael Sullivan, Director of the Weare Public Library

"The readers really love it," Michael said. "People need a source of local information, and we're very very local, right down to 'this is who made the Dean's List at the local colleges.'"

In the last 15 years, the library has changed its function to be more community-focused, according to Michael. In many ways, it's become the last flexible community service that people can turn to, as other community structures have faded away. 

Modern day libraries have become more of a place where members of the community show up to take educational classes and to exchange ideas. "We've evolved into places where information and ideas are shared, more than just collected and lined up on the shelf."

In an effort to better serve its community, libraries like Michael's are becoming producers of information instead of just curators.

Some libraries are even expanding outdoors to meet the needs of their community. This spring, Halifax Public Libraries are set to open Canada's first outdoor library space at their Dartmouth North branch.

Åsa Kachan is the Chief Librarian/CEO of Halifax Public Libraries (Halifax Public Libraries)

Åsa Kachan is the Chief Librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries.

Many people in the Dartmouth North community live in apartments and so they don't have their own green space, she explained. The idea for an outdoor library came when the librarians noticed that people sitting on the hill next to the library were straining to get on the library Wi-Fi.

"We thought we could make the space more beautiful, and meet the technology needs of the community, and help to create community in a neighbourhood that really needs those public gathering spaces," Åsa said.

And so work began to replace the library wall with a sliding glass door that opened up to the outside. When the official renovation finishes, there will also be an outdoor deck, a climbing structure for kids, benches, and of course books. "It's a very naturalized space and it's changing the neighbourhood."

Visitors playing with the green screen in Halifax Public Libraries' Woodlawn branch. (Halifax Public Libraries)

Far from technology replacing the need for libraries, Åsa believes libraries in the digital era have become even more relevant to the community. She said they're helping to improve not only literacy, but also digital literacy, and helping newcomers and seniors bridge the digital divide.

iPads are also in heavy use in all the libraries, according to Åsa. "People who don't have technologies at home can use them at the library, levelling up the technology playing field." Some libraries even have recording studios that members of the community can use, and media studios so people can self-learn various technologies.

The modern library is more service-oriented than ever. "We used to measure our value in how many books were checked in and out," Åsa said. "Now we know our value is a much more diffuse thing to measure, [such as] the individual who came in who experienced tremendous value from the public library, whether that's in reduction of isolation, making a friend, practicing English - those are things that aren't measured in a book checked in or out."