By Crystal Simmons
Libraries have long held the reputation as a place where dusty tomes and dog-eared thrillers go to retire. While thrillers still abound, today’s libraries couldn’t be more different from their predecessors.
As digital technology expands, forward-thinking librarians are redefining the public library system, with more programs, events, technology, and digital material than ever.
“People are realizing that we do more than just check out books,” says Edward Melton, director of the Harris County Public Library system (HCPL). “Some patrons regularly visit our libraries while others have never even set foot inside.”
A Hub of Technology
While traditional library services are still in demand, digital usage is growing by about 25 percent annually, says Melton.
Patrons can now reserve print materials online, check out digital books without leaving their home, and try out technology rarely available to the public, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, mill machines, and vinyl cutters. Eventually, Kingwood Branch Library, Lone Star College-Tomball Library, and Barbara Bush Branch Library will open dedicated spaces for patrons to use manufacturing technology as part of HCPL’s Makerspaces program.
“As new technology arrives, we look at how we can use it to engage the public,” says Melton. “Right now, we’re exploring virtual technology and drone classes.”
Libraries of the Future
As online reservations and digital libraries become more popular, libraries aren’t as dependent on brick and mortar locations, says Melton. Across the United States, libraries are expanding to nontraditional settings, such as community centers and even parks.
“At HCPL, we’re definitely looking at opportunities where we can partner with community centers and expand access to digital and print materials,” says Melton. “Patrons can use our services without visiting a traditional library space.”
Two of those partner locations now include the Little Blue Library at Mercer Botanic Gardens and the Lone Star College-Creekside Center.
In January, LSC-Creekside Center began offering story time for toddlers and preschool-age children every Monday, along with a small library of children’s books, with more services expected to follow. Each session features stories, songs, rhymes, and an occasional craft activity.
“Both of these are great examples of how our partnerships allow us to provide additional services without having a new building,” says Melton.
At the Little Blue Library, visitors can drop off and pick up books, browse a small book collection, and attend programming. The Little Blue Library was opened in an existing Mercer Botanic Gardens building as a temporary replacement for Baldwin Boettcher Library, which has been closed since Hurricane Harvey. Eventually, Baldwin Boettcher Library, next door to Mercer, will be restored and incorporated into Mercer Botanic Gardens.
“Libraries are still viewed in such traditional senses,” says Melton. “These partnerships are allowing people to see libraries from a different perspective. This is a trend for libraries across the country, but HCPL is really taking advantage of opportunities to work with new organizations.”
Blurring the Lines
Even as libraries form more partnerships with community centers, some library patrons say their local branch already offers community center-worthy classes. For Chrissa Sandlin, Roxanne Sandlin, and Carrie Van Horn, trips to the library aren’t usually about checking out books—instead it’s about writing them.
For the past five years, the group has met weekly for Baldwin Boettcher Library’s Word Crafters class to discuss writing projects and to refine their skills.
“To me, the library has always felt like a community center,” says Roxanne Sandlin. “They offer crafts, lectures, ESL classes, and more. They are a great service to the community.”
Chrissa Sandlin says she’s always enjoyed visiting the library, but believes it’s changed over the past two decades.
“Back in the day, libraries were very much about looking at books and taking them home,” she says. “It was just a book exchange. Now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to pursue more community-based library activities.”
Today, Chrissa Sandlin says she can access a wider range of information and programs from publishing a book to resume writing. She’s also able to stay updated on the latest library programs through the social media platforms she already uses.
“They are always so active on Facebook and social media, so you can know about upcoming events,” she says. “I feel connected even if I’m not physically there every day.”
According to Melton, these changing perspectives are key.
“Our image is finally starting to change,” he says. “We’re serving the community every day. We open disaster recovery centers after natural disasters and cooling centers on high heat index days. We establish pop-up libraries. And, we provide programming for children and adults every day. We do so much more than just check out books.”