When you think of libraries, what’s the first word that comes to mind?
Books? Magazines? Research perhaps?
If so, you may be surprised to learn that libraries—and librarians—play an expansive role in building community and supporting health that goes well beyond their well-earned reputation for providing access to information.
“We're not (just) in the book business. We're in health and wellness, workforce development, (and) communications,” said Melanie Huggins, the director of the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina and current president of the Public Library Association.[i] For example, the Richland Library, like a growing number of public libraries, is home to a team of social workers providing vital services during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
As sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote in his book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life:
Libraries are not the kinds of institutions that most social scientists, policymakers, and community leaders usually bring up when they discuss social capital and how to build it. But they offer something for everyone … and all of it for free. Doing research in New York City, I learned that … everyday life in libraries is a democratic experiment, and people cram into libraries to participate in it whenever the doors are open. (2018, 35)
This role isn’t new. Librarians have a rich and complex history of supporting community health. In the past they provided spaces for leisure for the working classes, including with billiards tables, gymnasiums, and community gardens.[ii] Public libraries have also supported adult education, long before community colleges existed.[iii] And librarians continue to be wonderful community organizers and project managers, working collaboratively with a range of community partners to host forums and other community-focused events.
If you aren’t already working with your public librarian to support stronger social connections and health, now is the time to start. Here are three ways your library—and your librarian—can help.
No doubt, your librarian is a valuable resource for creating healthy, vibrant, and socially connected communities. If you haven’t already done so, introduce yourself to your local librarians and invite them to join your collaborative, community-focused efforts. Consider hosting a forum at your library with librarians as co-organizers. And, be sure to share your story of how public libraries are much more than just books!
Photo Courtesy Pima County (AZ) Public Library
[i] On a December 7, 2021, episode of NPR’s 1a on “The Future of the Public Library
[ii] Snape, R. (1992). Betting, billiards and smoking: Leisure in public libraries. Leisure Studies, 11(3), 187-199.
[iii] Sisco, B. R., & Whitson, D. L. (1990). Libraries: The People's University. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 47, 21-28.
[iv] The November 2011 newsletter of the non-profit Smart Growth America
[v] Vårheim, A. (2014). Trust in libraries and trust in most people: Social capital creation in the public library. The Library Quarterly, 84(3), 258-277.; Johnson, C. A. (2012). How do public libraries create social capital? An analysis of interactions between library staff and patrons. Library & Information Science Research, 34(1), 52-62; Lenstra, N., Oguz, F., D’Arpa, C., & Wilson, L. S. (2022). Exercising at the Library: Small and rural public libraries in the lives of older adults. The Library Quarterly, 92(1), 5-23.