I marvel at the height of the stacks, many towering over my 5-year-old son. I watch as he carefully browses, touching each book spine with wonder and curiosity — whispering the alphabet and letter sounds.
We are regular patrons but every time I go to a Milwaukee Public Library, I wonder where all the people are. There is much to do and discover — activities and knowledge to be gained for all ages, but the question remains: in predominantly minority and lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods, is the library the best-kept secret?
Recently, I attended a conference at Marquette University that sought to examine ‘The Future of the American Public Library.’ Hosted by the university and the Journal Sentinel, panelists included library experts Wayne A. Wiegand of Florida State University and Miguel Figueroa, director of the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries; Mayor Tom Barrett; and Milwaukee Public Library director Paula Kiely.
Barrett called libraries “community centers,” adding that they have the role of “binding neighborhoods together.” But taking a deeper look, is that really the case in Milwaukee? We know the disparities between whites and African Americans are wide and deep. What if we began to rethink our libraries as true centers of community and places of learning exchange, offering new ideas and initiatives to draw people in week after week?
“Libraries are more relevant than ever before…we are trying to meet people where they are in their lives,” Barrett said at the conference.
The libraries do host a variety of programs for people, from learning to use your electronic device, to job search help, summer reading programs, after-school homework help for children and others, but when these programs and services are offered, how is the outreach being done, especially to someone who is new to the community or hasn’t stepped foot in a library in years?
I lived two blocks away from a library, and not once did someone from the branch knock on the door, or leave a flier by the mailbox indicating that I was a few hundred feet from a world of wonder. I understand that staffing and budget cuts are always major concerns, but libraries are needed and relevant, so long as they keep evolving.
So why not have someone from the branch or a volunteer library advocate go door-to-door in the neighborhoods on a Saturday morning and get people invested in their library and the services provided, or register minors for library cards? That is the definition of meeting people where they are.
At the conference, Figueroa challenged librarians to not “divorce or separate themselves” from their work but instead, think broader in terms of how their work can influence the communities they are in.
I agree. We cannot continue to put the onus on community organizations, potential patrons or library contractors to market and seek out services and activities in the library.
In my opinion, the public library is truly one of Milwaukee’s most underutilized best-kept secrets. It is not enough that we continue to renovate our libraries. We need to also focus on outreach and awareness to build the brand and value of the library system, create centers of community and effect neighborhood change in the cool, renovated spaces.