As one of our oldest and most important civic institutions, public libraries have been making the news recently—and breaking records for popularity and patronage. According to a recent article in The New York Times, New York City’s libraries in all five boroughs had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year, “more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos—combined.” Despite these impressive numbers, funding and support for these vital public resources has seen substantial decline over the last decade.
More than just a place to read or find books, libraries today function as community centers, business incubators, town halls, senior and immigrant centers, places for adult education and after-school programs for children and teens. For the past two years, PPS has been engaging small communities and their libraries through the Outside the Box (OTB) program - a partnership between library service non-profit OCLC and Redbox that awards $5,000 grants and free technical assistance to libraries across the country. In 2014, 22 libraries received grants to launch small-scale Placemaking programs aimed at strengthening their library’s presence in the community. In some cases, this meant bringing public programming to nearby parks, inactive parking lots, or simply to Main Street.
Events supported by OTB went way beyond outdoor movies and storytelling to include kayak rentals, astronomy and star mapping, arts and music festivals, community gardening, fitness classes, barbecues and community picnics, and bi-lingual story and craft sessions. The continuing success of these efforts, and their impact on communities, has been phenomenal! Here’s just a peek into how two award recipients brought “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” Placemaking into their communities:
WOW: Weekend of Wallkill
“Weekend of Wallkill” was the product of a series of Placemaking workshops that the Wallkill Public Library conducted in partnership with a community improvement group called Vision of Wallkill (VOW). Since the small town of Wallkill, NY, lacked a bustling downtown, the event aimed to bring visitors to underused downtown locations like Town Hall, the library lawn, and nearby parks for a weekend of fun and activities. With participation from multiple local organizations, the event hosted an art show, Harvest Fair, movie night, art classes, a silent auction, food vendors, and live entertainment. Also coinciding with local homecoming activities, the weekend culminated in a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly-opened Wallkill Riverwalk.
William P. Faust Public Library
While the Michigan town of Westland is beginning to recover from the economic downturn, it still faces significant challenges. The William P. Faust Public Library had been running a regular movie night, which attracted a small but devoted following. After brainstorming with local stakeholders and community partners, the library team planned to extend this programming beyond the library’s four walls and into its existing, but underutilized, patio and surrounding green space. Westland’s first Outside the Box program was a family-themed outdoor movie event, with themed arts and craft activities for kids and a post-screening juried art contest. Local businesses provided free snacks and popcorn, to be enjoyed on new tables and chairs in the “snack area,” while movie-goers set up their own picnic blankets and lawn chairs on the library lawn.
In an age of digital information technology, some fear that public libraries will become a thing of the past. Recent reports of their growing popularity have demonstrated, however, that this is simply not the case. As vital public spaces and invaluable cultural institutions, today’s public libraries have far more to offer communities than just books and a quiet place to study or relax. Libraries can be powerful engines of community-building in towns and cities of all sizes. With just a bit of creativity and local support, each Outside the Box program has shown just how big an impact library programs can have on the social, cultural, and economic life of a community.
We hope to be able to bring the Outside the Box program back in 2016. Stay tuned for more!