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Q&A: How libraries have adapted to meet community needs

Tree inside library room
WGLT file photo
The Bloomington Public Library's children's services section is seen in this 2018 file photo.

The city of Bloomington formally signaled its support this week for a nearly $23 million expansion of the Bloomington Public Library.

The library expanded previously in 2006. Libraries have changed a lot in 15 years, particularly in the last year when the COVID pandemic forced them to expand digital services and find other ways to connect with the public when library doors remained closed, including through curbside and delivery service.

Melanie Huggins is president of the Public Library Association. She runs a library in Columbia, South Carolina. Huggins tells Eric Stock some of the features Bloomington's new library will include — such as sensory-friendly rooms for children with special needs, a maker's lab and a recording room for podcasts — fit the model for a modern library.

MELANIE HUGGINS: Yes, that very much fits into what we're seeing across the country. People need access to the equipment, the technology, the expertise, the spaces in order to advance their learning in unique ways. You can't learn everything by reading a book. So, it's really important that we have these other methodologies, these other medium and modes for people to learn. So that what Bloomington is planning is really exciting and fits right in with what we're seeing in libraries across the country. And definitely all three of those spaces that you mentioned, are spaces that are included in my library system as well.

ERIC STOCK: What do you advise city leaders and those who will be helping guide this process? How should they be thinking about this? Some have referenced it as a possible economic development tool.

MELANIE HUGGINS: I think that's exactly the way they should be looking at it. An investment in a library, be it a main library downtown, or a neighborhood library is an investment in that community. It sends a signal that that community, that neighborhood, is important. That it is a viable place for elected officials to put their money where their mouth is. So, if they really want communities where the education level is high, where everyone has access to broadband, and all of the equipment that they need, either to start a business or to do their homework, there is no other place in the community that can do all of those things. And that can be that nimble and flexible. during a pandemic, during an economic crisis, during a natural disaster, you name it. There are all kinds of ways where libraries step into the gaps. They do exactly what a community needs at the time that they need it.

ERIC STOCK: To drill down further on the economic development component of this, you have to think about it differently than a grocery store or a restaurant or a theater or concert space where people are walking into the door and paying money. Since the library business model is completely different, how do you make the case that it is going to be an economic driver, even when you know services are generally free and paid for by tax dollars?

MELANIE HUGGINS: That's a really great question and a fair one. (In) South Carolina, there is a lack of, for example, qualified workers for certain jobs in a community. What agency is going to step in, and not only help those citizens write a resume or get an online application or borrow a laptop or a hotspot, so that they can apply for work, but to practice interviewing with them to make sure that they're not just have a great resume on paper, (make sure) they have the soft skills that takes to get a job?

Who else is going to fill in that gap and be available to everyone who walks in the door? I think the beauty of us not being we don't sell tickets, we don't have to look at how much revenue we are generating or even property taxes for the most of us don't pay them at public libraries. But the value in helping to develop the workforce is one that is difficult to quantify, but we try all the time, but believe me that is worthwhile.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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