With the proliferation of online content and social media, people sometimes mistakenly believe that libraries are in decline. But according to Christina Walsh, the Teen and Adults Services Coordinator for the Salt Lake City Library System, “Our books, magazines, and collections are still the bread and butter of our libraries. But now we are also so much more. We are a community gathering place, a free meeting place to explore new ideas in a safe space. We help people get jobs, those who are left out of the application process because they don’t have access to the internet. We help people who want to start businesses learn where to get started and how to apply for grants. We offer fitness classes, including rooftop yoga.”
In addition to its lending functions, Christina explained that the library has six areas of focus: Healthy Together — a fitness program, Economic Success, Critical Literacy — promoting reading programs, Inclusion and Belonging — providing safe inclusive spaces, Civic Engagement — programs on how to engage with local government, and Arts and Creativity — showcasing local artists in their gallery space, craft programs, music and dance.
Though some studies show that print reading is down, Christina says, “People are reading in so many other ways. Teen reading is really high.” She credits that to a change in publishing that produces great Young Adult content and diversity. There are more and better choices that allow readers to more readily identify with characters.
Libraries and Homelessness
A problem that many libraries now face, particularly the Main Library in downtown Salt Lake City, is how to serve the homeless population. According to Executive Director Peter Bromberg, “Our mission is to provide equitable service to everyone. We are a dynamic city resource adapting to the needs of the community for free open access. People in the community experience homelessness, and while addressing that need is not explicit in our mission statement, it falls under our broader mission to serve everyone.”
To that end, the Main Library has a partnership with the Volunteers of America. They provide three full-time social workers with experience in working with clients with mental illness and drug abuse. They help connect chronically homeless people to resources for housing, veteran services, and medical services. By being available every day they build a rapport with homeless people who frequent the library. That rapport builds trust and they are able to effectively help those who may be reluctant to connect with someone who approaches them on the street.
A library budget priority is to create a safe, clean, welcoming environment. According to Peter, “We provide a roof, heating, shelter, and warmth to anyone who walks in the door, homeless or not. We are open 70 hours a week and provide service to everyone equitably. Come in, check out a book, attend a program, get out of the rain, get warm.”
One of the libraries in the Salt Lake City system is the Chapman Library, 577 S 900 W. It was one of the original Carnegie libraries and was dedicated 100 years ago in 1918. Carnegie libraries were built across the country by Andrew Carnegie to promote literacy and education.
Chapman Library feels like the best of the old and the new, and library manager Mary Anne Heider likes it that way. A careful redesign of the library’s interior to celebrate its centennial blends new carpet, fresh paint, reading areas, and a new children’s library with original mission-style chairs, tables, and bookcases preserved from its first location in the upper floors of a store on North Temple and 600 West.
Along with the nostalgic feel of the library, modern touches welcome visitors. Scattered among the shelves are sayings related to reading such as, “Why can’t I just read all day, every day?” There are game shelves, displays from countries represented in the neighborhoods, and rows of computers.
“We need to keep up with the times even though the building is old. The community needs access to computers and technology that can help improve their lives,” Mary Anne says. The computers are used non-stop all day, every day. The wifi is free and even when the library is closed, people gather outside to use it.
Mary Anne sees the library as a community gathering place, a “secular sanctuary” in a time where such a place is rare. It offers community programs, storytime, citizenship classes, and something hard to find nowadays — just a quiet space.
And the library system continues to evolve. According to Derek Braeden, Marketing and Communications Specialist, a group of downtown businesses and nonprofit leaders approached the library board in the fall of 2014 with a proposition to raise funds to keep the library open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to give homeless youth a safe place to be. The proposition was considered and an assessment analysis was completed, along with a community survey. The project eventually died when the board realized they would need to ask for a tax increase to fund it and the community surveys came back overwhelmingly negative.
As Christina says, “To stay relevant in the community, we have to ask, ‘what do patrons want and how do we reach others not already reached?’ What does the community want and how do we help them with those goals?”