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 )

This segment originally aired in February 2018.

With so many small-town newspapers shutting down across Canada and the U.S., local news is hard to come by. 

Michael Sullivan was determined to not let that happen in his community. When the local newspaper in Weare, N.H. shut its doors, Sullivan, the town librarian, stepped in. He started a new community paper called Weare in the World. The idea? Fill the news gap and help the library provide information in a whole new way.

"The readers really love it," Sullivan 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.'"

"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

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

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

From curators to producers

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

Some libraries are even expanding outdoors to meet the needs of their community. Recently, Halifax Public Libraries has opened 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 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," she said, adding that the hope was to "help to create community in a neighbourhood that really needs those public gathering spaces." 

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 by 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." 

The modern library is more service-oriented than ever, she said. 

"We used to measure our value in how many books were checked in and out. 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," Åsa explained.

Update: Halifax Public Libraries opened the outdoor library space mentioned above earlier this spring