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Three Ways Public Libraries Support Socially Connected Communities

By Noah Lenstra on April 5th, 2022




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.

  1. Librarians convene community conversations. The Hoboken (NJ) Public Library held a Complete Streets Awareness event to reach people most affected by new transportation policies.[iv] The public library in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, hosted a series of events for both library staff and the public on the systemic impact of racism and using data to track institutional change. At the national level, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation worked with the American Library Association and local library systems to train over 4,000 library professionals to be local leaders who are critical to the sustainability of community life.
  2. Librarians offer public spaces and programs that bring together people of different generations, classes, and ethnicities. In his work, Klinenberg highlights how public librarians in New York City support everything from Xbox Kinect bowling leagues to Karaoke clubs contributing to the city’s rich social life. In the melting pot that is public librarianship, spontaneous social interactions emerge. Eric Edwards, of the Illinois State Library, writes: “intergenerational activity can arise almost by accident” at the public library. As part of my own research I met Emily A. Estell who works as a Nutrition Educator for the University of New England. Estell told me that the cooking classes she offers at her public library in Biddeford, Maine, have been the “most diverse classes [she’s] ever worked with. By the end of them, this diverse group of people were able to have something in common, which was the class. They would ask each other ‘Have you tried the recipe?’ and a lot of them shared recipes.” By drawing together diverse segments of the public into a single, shared space, public libraries often facilitate the creation of social capital, a fact supported in scholarly research.[v]
  3. Librarians connect residents with community institutions and public spaces—such as circulating passes to museums and cultural institutions, parks, arboretums, and even ski centers (including equipment). In Baltimore, Maryland, librarians offer a summer Hooked on Fishing program in collaboration with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for children aged 8-15, complete with equipment and bait. For many participants, it is their first exposure to the natural wonders of the Chesapeake Bay. In Houston, Texas, librarians partnered with staff from the largest skate park in the United States and a local skate shop to create a week-long camp for youth who felt disconnected from their community. By the end, participants owned a skateboard, they knew how to use it, and had formed lifelong friendships. Librarian Jenn Bacall tells the full story in “How a Community Got Together to Give Skateboards to Kids – a Houston Story.”

Getting Started

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.


Noah Lenstra

Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.