COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Parks and Libraries in Partnership

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

By Diantha D. Schull, Executive Director, Libraries for the Future

From Great Parks/Great Cities: Seattle, 1998, a publication on an Urban Parks Institute regional workshop.

Diantha Schull is Executive Director of Libraries for the Future, a national organization that represents the users of America's public libraries by promoting information and technology policy in the public interest. Previously, Ms. Schull was Executive Director of the French-American Foundation. She also founded the New York Library Programs Consortium, a network of libraries engaged in public affairs programming. As a consultant to libraries, foundations, and museums, she has advised such organizations as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York State Department of Education, National Public Radio, the American Association of Museums, the French Ministry of Culture, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Modern Language Association, and the American Library Association.

I would like to explore how parks and libraries are working together in urban neighborhoods, and how they might, by working together, become far more instrumental in revitalizing communities and cities. In the future, this alliance of parks, libraries and other institutions could provide the basis for a new urban agenda.

"[An] alliance of parks, libraries and other institutions could provide the basis for a new urban agenda"

Public spaces such as parks, markets, gardens, walking trails, sidewalks, and plazas are all essential components of healthy communities and livable cities. However, we do not know how libraries and these other spaces, especially parks, relate to one another, and how they might relate to one another in the future.

At Libraries for the Future, we believe one of the primary values of a public library is its role as a trusted, accessible, neutral public space. This is true whether it is in the midst of a neighborhood undergoing great decay and decline, in which it acts as an oasis, or whether it's an anchor for a new neighborhood undergoing revitalization.

A library is one of the few places that belongs to all of us equally. And although we don't have a national system of libraries, we do have an infrastructure in place that, if it were more visible, could make libraries an extremely important place in a community. There are 16,000 communities around the country where the library is, or is becoming, a communications center, a gathering place, a catalyst for civic development, and a resource where people of all ages, races, classes and cultures can congregate.

Similarities and Affinities

What characteristics do libraries and parks share? First of all, they're both organizational and information hubs for community improvement projects. In cities where new parks and libraries are being planned, there are opportunities to bring in as broad and inclusive a coalition as possible. In terms of economic development, parks and libraries are both anchors, or catalysts. Parks and libraries have the potential to be powerful symbols and agents for neighborhood identity. They are places around which community service projects could be organized.

"Parks and libraries have the potential to be powerful symbols and agents for neighborhood identity"

Parks and libraries are natural partners. Both represent "the commons." They are our public space and we hold them together, and they're our collective responsibility. They're part of the underlying urban infrastructure- as important as the bridges and the roads and the housing. They promote civic participation; they foster local identity, and they both offer recreational, educational and social engagement opportunities.

Libraries and Urban Revitalization

Great cities have always had great libraries. And, as cities are being revitalized for the millennium, many of them are building new libraries- a real movement is afoot. There are new national libraries in Paris and London- each of which has provoked enormous public controversy, but which are quite successful. In Phoenix, San Francisco, San Antonio, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles, new libraries have become very important players in the new urban agenda.

We are also seeing large-scale library revitalization projects in many cities: for example, the Enoch Pratt free library system in Baltimore, or Little Rock, Arkansas, which has just renovated nine of its 12 branches. Even Newark, New Jersey, despite its economic situation, has renovated five of its ten branches.

Some characteristics about these library revitalization projects are very important as models for partnerships with other public spaces. One characteristic is that libraries are being conceived of almost as much as a function as they are being conceived of as a place. With the advent of the new technology, the library function can occur anywhere and everywhere. That does not mean they cannot also be a place. Libraries can undergo a fascinating evolution from place to technology to place.

As a result libraries today are less about the real estate necessary for storing books, and much more about being a public forum. In San Francisco, as in many of the new central libraries, there's far more space for meetings and performances and gatherings. These new libraries see themselves as interactive communication centers. Some of them have satellites, some of them are working with cable television, and, of course, the Internet. Locally, libraries are more and more positioning themselves as centers for community information.

"The natural affinity between libraries and parks is going to be reinforced through a much more external orientation by both groups"

On top of all those other characteristics, libraries are planning their futures in the same ways one could think about parks- that is, in partnership with other institutions. The current crop of librarians, like most parks and recreation planners and officials, has not been trained to think about collaboration and public awareness and focus group meetings and all that we need to do to make our institutions important community places.

But many librarians do see libraries as networked institutions - networked, not only electronically, but with community-based organizations, non-profits, and businesses. This is a moment when the natural affinity between libraries and parks is going to be reinforced through a much more external orientation by both groups.

Shared Challenges

But while parks and libraries share much in common, one of these elements is an incredible set of challenges. In the past, we have tended to look to new, exciting solutions and global planning to solve problems. We have forgotten that we may have, right underfoot, some of the very best tools that we need for community building and urban development.

So, libraries and parks share this aspect of already existing and being taken for granted. They both lack uniform funding and government structures, and both are complicated, messy systems to understand. They both also reach across many constituencies. That can be a liability as well as an asset, because they are part of the urban services sector, which in recent years has suffered from a reduction of funding. For us to dare to think about a new politics for the public realm seems to be going against the tide.

"For us to dare to think about a new politics for the public realm seems to be going against the tide"

That is the real challenge. There are no national policies for either public libraries or public parks, and there is no national leadership. However, there are many kinds of partnerships already linking libraries and parks, and these can suggest the potential for a new urban alliance.

Partnership Opportunities

I see three different types of libraries-parks partnerships. First there are physical space and use collaborations, second are joint programming collaborations, and third are information and resource collaborations to support development of parks and open spaces.

In terms of physical space partnerships, many libraries are adjacent to parks, on parks land, share or open space, are located next to exercise trails, or gateways to forests. In San Jose, where there is a development plan for 17 libraries, 7 of them are in parks. The challenge there is to think about how to use that systematically. I suspect that in every one of your communities there is at least one library that is part of a park but hasn't recognized the value of that location.

"I suspect that in every one of your communities there is at least one library that is part of a park but hasn't recognized the value of that location"

What could they do together? They could jointly cultivate gardens or sponsor recreational activities. They could add children's playgrounds and reading areas outside the libraries. The Horticultural Society of New York has a program called GreenBranches that creates gardens at branch libraries throughout New York City. It installed its first garden in front of the Saratoga Branch of Brooklyn Public Library in 1997 and will complete 10 more sites by 1999. The designers work closely with borough botanical gardens and community groups, and they train the groups to maintain the gardens. Several gardens are being planted in partnership with the Citizens' Committee Neighborhood Leadership Library Program, which establishes volunteer resource centers at branch libraries. As part of Libraries for the Future's Community Library Access Project, GreenBranches will help other groups strengthen library advocacy around the country through promoting gardens at libraries.

Programming partnerships also have great potential, where the library has a reading program in a park, or collaborates to run a interpretive center. In Athens, Georgia, one branch library, located on a popular nature trail, joined with several organizations, including the school district and the University of Georgia, to develop a resource site at the Sandy Creek Nature Center's Environmental Natural Science and Technology Center. The site contains four computers and Internet access via dial-in to the library. Users can even request books, which are delivered the next day via courier. Library staff train Nature Center staff about computers.

"Too often, parks and libraries compete with each other for funds instead of looking at collaborative ways to solve city issues and encourage development"

Chicago calls itself the "City in a Garden," and the (CPL) has been making that motto a reality at many of its branches. Through the Blue Skies for Children Initiative it has established gardens in three branch libraries, including the Douglass Branch, where a collaboration with the Chicago Botanical Garden and residents transformed vacant lots into a Wizard of Oz garden for children. Other branches have created gardens through the Blooming Branches Garden Program that operates as a collaboration between the CPL and the Chicago Botanical Garden. The partnership offers gardening classes at branch libraries and encourages local groups to create their own gardens, such as the one at the Mount Greenwood Branch. Librarians report great local enthusiasm for the gardens, not only as popular places for children's story hours and readings, but as volunteer-maintained spaces that provide an opportunity for social interaction.

Then there are informational partnerships. Libraries are setting up information and support centers for environmental and gardening groups. These centers lead to joint programming and a lot more community involvement. The library functions as a neutral space, a repository for documents. For example, in Houston, Texas, several branches of the Harris County Public Library that are located in or next to parks collaborate with parks administrators and staff in various ways. The Baldwin Boettcher Branch lies inside the grounds of the county's Mercer Arboretum, which built an education building that offers programs coordinated with the library. The library provides books and other materials about plants and animals, and the arboretum's staff advise the library on purchase of materials.

Within these three types of partnerships are some principles for effective collaboration: the involvement of key local stakeholders; timing in relation to other community development initiatives; and the recognition by all partners that success may mean giving up a little autonomy in order to resolve problems.

Beyond Partnerships

Current parks-libraries partnerships are relatively tenuous and unsystematic. Traditional institutional self-identities and definitions compound the effect of other barriers, such as professional protocols, that isolate staff and keep people within their boxes and individual funding streams. Too often parks and libraries compete with each other for funds instead of looking at collaborative ways to solve citywide issues and encourage development.

We need to conceive of the city as a network of interlocking systems, and then look at how a park or library can be most effectively linked into that environment. If we take a more systems-oriented approach, beginning with collaborative asset-mapping, and look at libraries and parks as core institutions, we can use the relationship between libraries and parks to advance a new urban alliance. Such a coalition could create an urban agenda that would enhance both the natural and physical environment, educate residents about sustainable communities and a sustainable natural environment, promote civic participation, focus attention on the value of public services and public places, and develop private and public resources. Only our imaginations limit the possibilities.

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