These are a few of our favorite things (at public libraries)

I’ve had a great time touring libraries over the past few years and have met wonderful people and seen such creative practices.  This column highlights some of the things about libraries that I (and a few readers of this blog, so if you’re reading this, please comment about your favorite things too!) like.

Architecture and art – Libraries have such wonderful art, architecture, furnishings and spaces.  Original stained glass or clerestory windows, soaring arches, skylights and atriums abound.  Southwest Harbor has eight of these little rooms.


Pueblo and Salt Lake City have glass elevators.  Evergreen, Nederland (and so many libraries) have cozy rooms with fireplaces while Anythink has an indoor outdoor fireplace and Dubois has a wood stove.  

These gorgeous modern structures are great, but Natick honored history when expanding by building around the preserved original library for a fascinating contrast of the old and new.

Old buildings are so charming and have unique features.  Bacon Free Library has window seats looking out to the river, a spiral staircase and an historic fence of crosses and arrows honoring the Praying Indians who started the town.  Cusco is in a magnificent building right downtown.

Barranco has a colorful adobe home with the fountains and flowers of the main plaza just outside and a café next door.  Copenhagen’s historic facade disguises a huge shopping mall style facility with wonderful displays, furniture and fixtures.

Isleford, a lobstering village, has hand painted floats decorating the shelves.  Bozeman has an artwork like lighting system, gorgeous pottery and pictures for sale in the lobby while Sheridan, Bemis and Las Vegas have art galleries and so many facilities have exhibition areas that give local talent a chance to show off their creations.

Services, programs and classes – In these days of economic hardship for so many, libraries supplement entertainment and educational needs and are often the only option for many to learn the skills they need for today’s markets. 

Pueblo attracted non users with a car show and has a business and vocational center at one branch.  Cambridgeshire Council’s Jobs Center is located right in the library.  Programs provide an opportunity to partner with other entities – Lima’s El Apocalipsis en el Nuevo Mundo exhibition is spread across several institutions.  Wyoming libraries think as a group so Sheridan and Dubois benefit from a statewide library card and a slick and funny marketing campaign.   Kalispell belongs to the Partners Resource Sharing Group which expands lending beyond the system’s limits using Greyhound for out of county courier service. 

Recurring signature events, like Douglas County Libraries Shakespeare Festival, or Orem‘s Timpanogos Storytelling Festival are such boons to the community.

We think outside the box when providing services and programs – museum passes at Bacon Free Library and Jefferson County Libraries offer patrons nontraditional opportunities.  Dover Town Library even has Pawsox minor league baseball tickets.  Little La Junta held a series of international film/food/lecture events.  Cortez did a circus workshop while Westport had a juggling program.  Anythink has a Bocce tournament.  Copenhagen, a huge lively place filled with young people, has dances and provides library service in hospitals and the prison.  They also offer free home delivery to those that qualify (and busy residents can pay to use it too).  At Christmas time in Dubois parents can drop kids off for a movie so they can finish up shopping and wrapping. 

Access to technology – Library classes and tutors prepare the unemployed for jobs that require new skills.  Fast and free internet is a huge boon these days – not everyone can afford a good computer and printer, or internet service. 

Rincon provides wi-fi for their entire downtown area and lots of places, like Fryeburg, allow visitors to use their computers.  Technology saves everyone time and money – Pueblo and Columbine’s self check and self holds pickup makes a library visit so efficient. Nederlanders can download movies at home.  Evergreen has self print and computer reservation stations.  Cusco has 26 snazzy black and red computers with matching furniture and a kiosk gives helpful information about the city to residents and tourists.  Pueblo’s see through CPU is a great way to demystify computers.   

Adults, at least, have few opportunities to try out huge touch screen computer tables like Orem and La Junta have.  Cambridge has easy to use touch screen Infopoint computers and changing big screen displays (the perfect medium to advertise new materials, events or activities these days). 

Plus all branches are completely accessible for the physically challenged and, like Moab, the main location has an assistive technology room.

Children and Young Adults – In this technological age, children and teens are probably more jaded that their parents – yet libraries are still able to delight and intrigue them. 

We create spaces that are conducive to reading and imagining like Steamboat’s teepee, Bemis’s two story castle and Pueblo’s draped nook.

La Junta’s made an enticing place for teens to hang out with bean bags facing a big screen TV, a gaming center and comics. 

And they use efficient laundry carts as mobile book bins in Kids’. 

Pets, like Dover’s bunny, are so important to childhood.  Evergreen has a doll house regularly redecorated for each new holiday and loads of helpful downloadable reading lists for kids.  At the desk, a fish tank, a tray of shells with magnifying glass, and drawing paper covering the desk distract kids so parents can ask questions without interruption.

Pueblo’s computer keyboard is perfect for enticing this technophiliac generation to learn an instrument.  Alamosa has a unique way of storing music CDs. 

A crafty Cambria staffer made a scary The-saurus dino and cool Wizard of Oz mural.   Moab has a toy kitchen where girls and boys cook.  Practical Anythink has a kitchen in Children’s as well as this wonderful tree.

And children’s librarians’ offices are so cool (my officemate was one and it made for such a magical work environment) – here’s one in Cortez.

Kathy Smargiassi from Sno-Isle Libraries in Marysville, WA writes –  “I love the variety of my job. As a children’s librarian, I do crafts, sing, and do database training. Also, I am constantly learning because when I man the reference desk I get all sorts of questions that I know nothing about, but I then research along w/ the patron. I get to be silly with the little kids, I get to be intellectually stimulated by the adults, and I get a nice excuse to read YA literature that I thoroughly enjoy. I get to talk books w/ people of all ages who are also passionate about reading.”

Community involvement – Libraries are often the lifeblood of the community.  They respond to our needs.  They bring us together with opportunities to express ideas and learn in an unbiased setting.  They are a presence – a selling point for realtors, a huge convenience and money saver, a tool we can’t do without, the preservers and educators of our culture. 

Angela Watkins from Ludlow Library, Shropshire, UK writes – “My favourite library you reviewed was The Islesford Public Library, I have enjoyed your reviews of much larger, urban libraries with many innovative ideas. However Islesford is the one that sticks in my mind, it is a crystalised example of what libraries are all about, which is to be the hub of a community, full of personality and most importantly, a lifeline. Just think what life would be like there without the library! Even in the largest communities there will be many many people for whom the library is a lifeline and Iselford embodies this in its purest form.”

We play a big role in integrating new populations into the community with events like Dover’s Chinese New Year celebration and Chinese language storytimes.  Golden holds sessions where native Spanish and English speakers can practice with each other.   In heavily Latino Pueblo, they have Nuestra Biblioteca – a library with Hispanic events and materials.  Westport helps their native language stay alive with Irish books and offers Polish items in response to a large immigrant community.  International Copenhagen has substantial collections in a plethora of tongues.

Area groups use Las Vegas’ mirrored Jewel Box Theater as a performance venue while Lima hosts professional performances like The Wiz in their amphitheatre.  Locals gather at library cafes in Steamboat, Copenhagen, Cambridge and Venezuela – more evidence that these are not your grandparent’s libraries.  Bozeman’s even has books. 

Outdoorsy Evergreen not only sports a Colorado Trails display, and huge maps of local public lands, they have Delorme gazetteers of each state so residents can find out about recreation opportunities elsewhere.  Peruvians are so proud of their library that the whole country is involved in recovering Lima’s stolen treasures.   Moab heavily supplements their budget with grants and tons of volunteer hours. 

We help local business save and earn revenue, with free databases, seminars, classes, and opportunities for them.  Southwest Harbor has locally made jewelry for sale (and gets some of the proceeds).  Libraries, like Columbine, let small businesses and groups use their meeting rooms for free or cheap.  Nederland’s meeting room can even be used when the library is closed.  A moveable wall allows an Anythink room to be used by two entities at once. 

And we go where we are needed – Tigre has a branch in the train station. 

Surprising features – Libraries have some of the coolest stuff and unexpected policies. 

Traverse City has an outdoor pizza oven.  Palm Springs has a pretty water feature right by the chess tables.  Pueblo has the Info Zone news museum and a big screen theatre, while Sheridan has an Inner Circle performance area.  Big screen digital slide shows make for ever changing displays like the one of a Friend’s photographs at Natick.  Southwest Harbor uses the same method to showcase their historical photo collection.  Cambridge partners with the British Film Institute to bring visitors the amazing Mediatheque personal theatre – a huge collection of hard to get visual materials.

Rincon uses rolling shelves to maximize space and they have no late fees.  Conveniently, La Junta and Douglas County Libraries give away ten free copies of anything that can’t be checked out (which keeps items from walking).  Cortez has a poetry corner with poem-trees, baskets of verse, poem-mobiles, books etc.

You’d think pianos and instruments wouldn’t have a place in a library, but with sound proof rooms like Glasgow has, music, YA and kid’s programs disturb no one.  For the undecided, Copenhagen has a whole room full of instruments to try out. 

But one of the coolest things about libraries is when they can really be independent from the whims of local officials.  Districts ensure that you don’t have to waste time fighting for funds – and even a tiny town like Nederland can form one. 

Collections – The amount of material available because of libraries is astonishing and delightful. You can learn so much about an area. 

In Lewes’ I found out that two German U-boats were captured offshore – I had no idea the war had come so close to the east coast of the US.   Digitizing old films and audio recordings in Lima means the public will be able to access them online as does Costa Rica‘s historic materials preservation effort.  Spanish collections are now common, even tiny Cambria library manages to have a multimedia one – but the library remembered below was certainly ahead of its time. 

Of the 1888-1967 Jackson Square Branch of The New York Public Library  (search “Jackson Square”) in Greenwich Village which was used heavily by artists, actors and authors and in the 1940s (!) built up its Spanish language collection in response to the immigrant community, Carol Johnson writes – “I used this library as a child. The first floor was the adult library; the second, the children’s. But the third floor was home to the janitor, and my favorite daydream was to be his daughter and live in a library. Just think, at night I could wander among the books and read to my heart’s content!” 
And libraries let you add to your own collection – Dubois has a paperback exchange and many places have permanent book sale areas like this huge one at Bemis.

We certainly have some neat things we lend out, Pueblo not only has a puppet theatre, they also loan the figures out.   Southwest Harbor residents can borrow Kindles. 

And we’re using marketing well by creating attractive browsable displays.  Dover and Kalispell both store CDs in user friendly music store style racks with genre groupings.  Anythink has bookstore style shelving. 

Green Libraries – Libraries often lead the way for communities when it comes to environmentalism, both as examples and as educators.  They are green by their very nature – think of how much paper and plastic you save by borrowing instead of buying books, CDs, DVDs etc. 

Naturita, the second library in the US to use green straw bale construction, runs on money-saving geothermal energy and is insulated by recycled blue jeans.  They have a teaching display – a glassed over 14″ thick wall section showing layers of straw, mudded straw, local adobe soil scratch coat etc. – like Nederland (another green library – it’s got low-flow plumbing fixtures and is made of local beetle-kill pine laminates, recycled flooring and steel).

Salt Lake has a roof garden with trees!  St. George, Palm Springs, La Junta and Anythink are just a few of the places where low water xeriscape gardens provide color and teach locals how wasteful green lawns are.  Alamosa and many others are helping consumers conserve by checking out home energy meters. Sheridan’s grounds hold the town recycling bins.

William Langham, Orangeburg (NY) Public Library Director writes – “We have a patron who brings us the most gorgeous dahlias from her garden each fall – we feel quite blissful to be so honored.”

Settings  – So many libraries are downtown, and/or close to parks or destination locations like recreation areas, shopping etc.  

St. George is next to a lovely area with fountains where happy children slide around the cement streams.  Traverse City is in a park right by the lake but its own grounds include plots where children’s groups grow produce as well as lush gardens.

Fryeburg is downtown next to a pretty old graveyard.  The Bozeman Library is the gateway for the Main Street to the Mountains Trail.  Salt Lake City has the most amazing walkway from the roof of its six stories down to the plaza below – what a place to watch the sun set over the Rocky Mountains. 

Steamboat is on a walking path in a park right by the hot springs and river.  Golden is adjacent to Clear Creek where kayakers practice their moves as tourists and town folk stroll the sculptured lined path.  Cortez is smack dab in the middle of a large park with an enormous climbing tree – a stack of books gives a leg up.

I love Glasgow’s outdoor patio and Boca and Lewes’ shady al fresco reading areas.  Costa Rica’s national library is across from a large shady plaza with splashing fountains while tiny Tilaran is in the municipal complex steps from the main plaza.  Cambridge is actually in a huge downtown shopping complex.   Westport’s location is bucolic, close to the town center and right by the river and walking paths.

Libraries have well rounded and well used collections, helpful classes and interesting programs.  They are dedicated to the preservation of local history and provide easy access to so much material.  They share ideas and costs with other libraries and are a presence at local events.  But I think my favorite thing about libraries, in this faceless age of online shopping and endless phone trees, is the great customer service and smiling, welcoming faces you find in them.

So tell us  – what do you love about libraries?  What are some of your favorite things?

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One Response to These are a few of our favorite things (at public libraries)

  1. carol says:

    Really interesting article showing what today’s libraries are like, and what they do.

    Thank you

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