By Diantha Dow Schull

President, Americans for Libraries Council

The recent upsurge of library construction and renovation across the United States has created ample opportunities to showcase Placemaking as a key goal for the library of the future. Here are six examples, drawn from many others that could be cited, that offer a picture of what’s possible when librarians take advantage of their central role in communities. Whether they work in small neighborhood libraries or large central libraries, rural libraries or suburban libraries, all are intentionally developing their spaces as vital civic places.

Nashville, Tennessee

The Nashville Public Library, which opened in 2001, deserves recognition for strengthening public participation and increasing local residents’ access to programs and community resources. Its success is evident in the fact that use increased by 179% in the first year alone.

The past comes alive for kids in the new civil rights room of the Nashville Public Library.

Librarians and their community partners provide a constant stream of programs in literacy, culture, public affairs, education, design and local history. Partners include the Vanderbilt Symphony, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Nashville Kurdish Association, the Women’s Bar Association and the InterMuseum Council. To educate the community about the significant role that Nashville citizens played in the civil rights movement, the library built a Civil Rights Room and presents programs with the National League of Cities, Fisk University, the First Baptist Church the First Amendment Center, and the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

According to the Tennessee state librarian, the Nashville Public Library is “a diverse and welcoming activity hub and a center for public discourse…The Library is committed to building strategic community partnerships and responsive public programs that enhance the lives of all residents of the Nashville community. It demonstrates the power of libraries to inform and bring communities together.”

Tempe, Arizona

The Tempe Public Library is located in Maricopa County, the fastest growing county in the nation. In this booming environment, with a constant flow of newcomers, public libraries have become one of the only non-commercial places for residents to gather, learn about their new communities and exchange social and educational information. Recognizing the need for such centers, and also recognizing the transportation problems faced by many young people and older citizens, public library administrators have adopted innovative Placemaking approaches.

The Library offers special opportunities to bring families with young children together and to build social connections between older adults, young parents, and relevant community services.

One of their Placemaking strategies emphasizes collaboration and co-location. As the city’s population has expanded, the Tempe Library has located its branches together with other public services–rather than the standard approach of building the usual stand-alone branch libraries. The Escalante Community Center is a good example. Operating under the aegis of the city’s Community Services Department, the Center houses the Tempe Community Action Program, the Escalante Senior Center, the Youth Assistance Program, summer camp programs, health services, adult employment services, and recreational activities as well as the local branch of the Tempe Public Library. The Library offers special opportunities such as the Family Place Libraries program, to bring families with young children together and to build social connections between older adults, young parents, and relevant community services. It’s one of the myriad ways that the library’s outreach staff collaborates with colleagues at the Escalante Community Center to maximize possibilities for community engagement.

Pelican Rapids, Minnesota

On an entirely different scale, the Pelican Rapids Public Library is a newly created library built to foster a sense of place. Pelican Rapids, in rural northern Minnesota, had a population of approximately 2000 in the early 1990s. By 2001 the community had seen a dramatic increase in population due to the opening of a turkey processing plant employing immigrants, most of whom spoke little English. The community had no library, but members of a newly formed Friends of the Library group saw an opportunity to help Pelican Rapids “make the transition from mono-culture rural Minnesota to world village.”

With only a small space available at first, the Friends of the Library reached out to both the immigrant community and to longtime residents. They helped organize programs by immigrants and about immigration, workshops on issues of diversity, and ESL classes. They complemented these programs with foreign language materials, language learning materials and free Internet access. Through these efforts, the Friends group hoped that the new Library would “act as a bridge between the longstanding residents of the area and the new immigrants.” In 2004, the state approved funds to construct a new library, affirming the Pelican Bay Library’s importance as a shared community resource for both traditional and new residents.

Austin, Texas

When the St. John Branch of the Austin Public Library opened in January 2002, local observers termed it “A Whole New Approach.” The branch is located in a state-of-the-art community complex which also houses the J.J. Pickle Elementary School, a recreation center, a gymnasium, a health center, and a community policing sub-station. Built in partnership with the School District and the City of Austin, the facility was designed to serve as a “one-stop center” for this historic neighborhood. According to John Gillum, the library’s Facilities Planning Manager, “It is a unique approach that has not been previously attempted by any school district and municipal or county government in the nation, as far as we can determine.”

Building an elementary school on the same site as the St. John Branch of the Austin Public Library creates a critical mass for kids' activities.

Among other special features, the branch includes rotating displays of found objects from neighborhood homes. The library also sponsors a nationally recognized annual festival, the Dia de Los Ninos/Dia de Los Libros, which is co-sponsored by many partners, including the AmeriCorps for Community Engagement and Education at the University of Texas Dana Center; AmeriCorps Texas (Communities in Schools Central Texas, Inc.); the Austin Children’s Museum, Austin Parks and Recreation, Reading is Fundamental Texas, National Association for Bilingual Education, and the Austin Public Library Foundation. Through co-location, programmatic partnerships and neighborhood connections, the St. John Branch is a vital community place.

Seattle, Washington

In July 2006 the Northgate neighborhood of Seattle celebrated the opening of a combined Northgate Community Center, Northgate Park and Northgate Public Library. Designed as an “urban gathering place for the community,” the Northgate project includes a 10,000 square foot library, a 20,000-square-foot community center, and a 1.67-acre park–all at a central, accessible location. Successful completion of the library illustrates the benefits of planning and organizing for a library as part of a larger community services initiative.

Together, the three facilities create a great place–a nexus of local programs and services.

The goal of the project was to provide an integrated set of facilities and public spaces that would be the “heart and soul” of the Northgate and Maple Leaf neighborhoods. In planning the project, every effort was made to involve members of the public so that their visions and contributions could be taken into account. For library users, specifically, the aim was to gain a state-of-the-art facility in a centrally located place. The $6.7 million branch includes an expanded collection, reading and homework areas for children and youth, computers, instruction areas, and a community meeting room. The main reading space is oriented toward the park. The community center and children’s play area are placed to maximize the green space devoted to the park. All of the spaces feature public art. Together, the three facilities create a great place–a nexus of local programs and services.

Fargo, North Dakota

The Fargo Public Library is one of many libraries that are building on community-library partnerships to create new co-located places. One branch under construction, the Dr. James Carlson Library, is being built in conjunction with the Clapp Park Senior Center and the Fargo Park District. The joint facility will have access to the Clapp Park for outdoor programming and activities. Included in this new library is a meeting room with seating for 70, a conference room for smaller meetings, three study rooms to support collaborative learning, as well as a greatly expanded children’s area. Fargo is also constructing a new main library which will allow it to expand not only its collections but also its programs, with the stated goal being “to meet the program needs of a growing community.” It will include a children’s theater, a 100-seat meeting room, two 24-seat conference rooms, a “Fireplace Room,” a Teen Room, and six study rooms.