Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Future of Libraries as Community Centers

As more and more of our customers have access to the internet and own mobile devices on which they check out e-books and other media, the library of the future will continue to thrive as a community center. Through diverse programming, community partnerships, outreach to the underserved and as a “Third Place”, the library of the future will be more essential than ever.
Libraries continue to offer diverse and inventive programming allowing people to engage them in their own ways. Story times, book discussions, craft programs, concerts, art shows, and film screenings are just a few examples. One Book/ One Community programs in which entire communities read the same book at the same time and participate in thematic events, is a great way to offer diverse activities while promoting literacy.  At “A Book Grows in Topsfield,” in Topsfield, Massachusetts, the library even started a community garden on library property to promote the upcoming events and to have vegetables to harvest at the end-of-the program potluck (Milone Hill, 2012).
At the Pueblo City-County Library District (PCCLD) in Colorado, much of the yearly programming budget is focused on a community reading initiative, All Pueblo Reads. Since 2008, PCCLD has invited the book’s author to speak at a free-to-the public lecture. Last year, PCCLD had 80 programs and over 32,000 total participants (for a community of 160,000). Though community-read programs are centered on a book, programming must be much broader to connect with the public. As Becky Rolands, Head of Circulation at Topsfield, summarizes, “I realized we had focused just as much, or even a bit more, on the community as on the book, and that part I do not regret at all”  (Milone Hill, 2012).
Building partnerships with other organizations in the community serves to strengthen the library’s place at the center of community activities. Again, One Book/One Community programs are a great way to connect with area organizations.  At PCCLD, over a dozen community members are invited to participate in the All Pueblo Reads committee and many events and programs happen at other area venues. Last year, the local university assigned the All Pueblo Reads book to all incoming freshmen. This year, the library is planning a community-wide art show, so that artwork created around themes in the 2013 book, The Help, are seen throughout the city in partnership with art galleries and businesses.
The library will continue to be essential in helping to provide services and resources to the underserved. Through adult literacy programs, ESL classes, and collections for non-English speakers, the library is often the one place that new immigrants can engage with the broader community in a welcoming space.
Finally, through these initiatives as well as through the creation of a comfortable and inviting physical space, the library actually becomes a “Third Place” for people in the surrounding communities. The concept of the “Third Place” was outlined by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place (1991). According to Oldenburg, for society, “First Places” are where we live; “Second Places” are where we work and  “Third Places” are where we spend our time when we are not at home or working. Oldenburg outlines the following characteristics for “Third Places”:
           Free or inexpensive
           Food and drink, while not essential, are important
           Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
           Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
           Welcoming and comfortable
           Both new friends and old should be found there
(Wikipedia, 2013).

Libraries are already known to be free and highly accessible. As libraries have evolved, many already either allow food and drink in some areas or have a cafĂ©. Some libraries have taken the bookstore model and become places that people want to hang out in and linger. Though it can be tempting for libraries to follow commercial trends, it is not necessarily the correct approach. In Libraries as the Spaces Between Us, James Elmborg cautions libraries against merely taking the bookstore model, but instead challenges them to think about how the library as a “Third Place”, can change the way that the public thinks about them:

We can choose to become more like commercial entities with products and customer bases, or we can aim to be socially meaningful institutions with a higher role and calling. We can become bookstores in an effort to beat bookstores, or we can work to build libraries and librarianship around the concept of shared social space where real people engage in real struggle for meaning and purpose in a landscape of increasingly rapid human movement and social change.  (Elmborg, 2011)

In other words, the library of the future will be less a place where people go just to check out books, and much more about a place where one will see an art show, learn a new skill or language or meet some friends for coffee. The library will thrive as a true center for the entire community.


Elmborg, J.K. (2011). Libraries as the Spaces Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(4), 338-50.

Milone Hill, N. (2012, July/August). One Book/One Community Programs. Public Libraries, 17-21.

Wikipedia (2013) Retrieved from


  1. As libraries become community centers, they are also heavily relied on as technology hubs. In our technology posting, I talked about iCenters, the new role school libraries have gained. School libraries are becoming responsible for handling all technology needs, including teaching staff and students how to use their electronic devices (Hough, 2011). These responsibilities are new, derived from the flood of technology in the lives of patrons…and now even our children.

    Susan is right for sure: libraries are the community centers for the public. Each day, libraries host programs which impact and reflect on every aspect of our lives. Libraries have become so relied on that, in 2010, they offered nearly 4 million programs: that’s one program a day for every library system in the United States (American Library Association, 2013)!


    American Library Association (2013). Public library use. Retrieved from

    Hough, M. (2011, April). Helping schools face the future. School Library Monthly, 27(7). Retrieved from:

  2. Thanks for the statistic of 4 million programs or one program a day. I will be using that in the future!

  3. Great information, I've really enjoyed your blog!

  4. Thank you for your research! I love hearing the creative ways libraries can become more than just houses for books. Some programs are amazingly creative.

  5. The concept of a "Third Place" was new to me, and I love the description. As more and more of our public spaces become commercialized, it's hard to think of anywhere outside the public library that provides the kind of function that article is talking about.

    Searching around for new ideas, I came across an article describing programming ideas for libraries specifically for the summer. What struck me most about the article was how many ideas they included for teens: GOOD ideas that I could actually see bringing teens into the library, like a zombie prom, duct tape crafts, and a "trashy fashion show" where fashion students help the kids craft clothing from recycled materials (SZE, 2012). While my library does amazing things for kids, parents, and seniors, I think it's especially hard to put together programming for teens and young adults, so I really appreciate the ideas.

    SZE, L. (2012). Programming that Packs the Place. Public Libraries, 52(4), 14-16.

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments and ideas!