No More Shushing
The library revolution
by Shelley Daily
"I want to blow up people's perceptions of libraries."
Chelsea District Library director Bill Harmer--and others like him--are doing just that. At what once were quiet, staid, small-town libraries, a revolution is taking place. It's as if the kids whom librarians used to shush up are the ones in charge now. Bookworms take cover: it can get loud and wild in the stacks.
In newly constructed spaces, libraries in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline are luring people with unconventional programs such as stand-up comedy, video game tournaments, henna body art, stress reduction workshops, and rock concerts. It's part of a nationwide push to repurpose libraries from book repositories to community centers. The prime targets are young people and teenagers, for whom words on paper are quaint and dull.
"This is not your grandfather's library," says Harmer, who books a Detroit rock band on nationwide library tours. "We need to stay relevant, and that means we need to think like entrepreneurs."
The first goal of entrepreneurs is to get customers in the door, and these days libraries are willing to try just about anything to accomplish that--including Bollywood dancing in Chelsea, a live animal demonstration in Dexter, and a yo-yo workshop in Saline.
On a summer afternoon, Purple Rose Theatre's resident artist Michelle Mountain is leading an acting boot camp for teens at the McKune Memorial Library in Chelsea.
"Dare to be bold!" she exclaims to the dozen teens as she darts around the sunlight-filled meeting room in her bare feet, encouraging a few shy participants to try different techniques with the scripts she handed out. She offers her purse as a prop, encouraging two teens to use it in a scene. "Acting is about doing, not saying," she explains. A couple teens have come from as far as Lansing. That evening, a playwriting workshop by Purple Rose staff will give adults their turn with the theater experts.
Karen Persello, who heads Chelsea's youth and teen services, says "anything is fair game" for programs
at McKune, expanded and renovated in 2006. Although reading and early literacy is still important--and juvenile books continue to edge out movies at the circulation desk--it's no longer her primary goal as a librarian. "School is for education," she says. "We want kids to associate the library with fun so they keep coming back."
On a Saturday afternoon at Dexter's new library--which opened in March--it's clear from the sound of drums beating that someone's having fun. In the lower-level community room, a group of preteens, teens, and adults sits in a large circle. Everyone has a hand drum balanced between the knees. It's a West African drumming workshop.
"Put the rhythm inside you," a man named Sundance from Chelsea's Tree of Life Cultural Arts Studio encourages the drummers. "Take a bite," he says, grinning. "Can you believe we're making these sounds? Even in a library?"
Dexter library director Paul McCann, who oversaw the planning and construction of the multilevel building that was supported with a new millage, says the library has seen a 60 to 70 percent increase in overall use this year. He thinks the library's transformation from a "room full of books" when he started fifteen years ago to its current form--with increased staff, programs, and collections--is attracting people who otherwise wouldn't visit. Expanded computer resources are drawing more adults who either have slow or no home Internet connections. Wireless access is attracting another group of computer users and businesspeople, McCann says.
Nestled at the edge of woods, adjacent to Warrior Creek Park, the library is surrounded by wall-to-wall windows that look out on trees and Mill Creek. Yet the building is still easily accessible to the business district.
For those who desire a quiet space, there's a silent reading room with comfy chairs and a fireplace. Teens have their own room with computers, circular booths, and funky furniture in lime green, gold, and purple colors--and frequent programs: duct tape art, Wii sports, and an open mike for poetry, music, and stories.
"Teens were overlooked for a long time at libraries," says Julie Darling, Dexter's young adult librarian. "They don't want to be associated with little kids. They need to know they have their own space, or we will lose them." Darling says groups of preteens and teens hang out or sit at computers after school. Librarians in Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter agree libraries are a safe place for them to go.
But is all of this getting kids to read more? McCann says book circulation numbers for young adults have doubled at the new library. McCann says adult users also are way up, noticeably in the expanded computer area, so it's hard to say whether the increase is because of the new building or the new programming. More community groups are using the library's new meeting spaces.
Gretchen Couraud, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, says it's not surprising that libraries are looking more like community centers.
"People of all ages and all walks of life are coming back to the library, because this is where they grew up and this is where they feel comfortable," she says. Senior citizens and displaced workers are learning to go online for the first time at libraries, she says. Courad thinks library resources have never been more vital than in the current economy. She says libraries are frequently the only place residents can go for free access to the Internet to apply for jobs online and file for unemployment.
In 2008, Saline's library doubled its size to 33,000 square feet, supported in part by an operating millage that was approved in 2006 before the economy fizzled. Saline library director Leslee Niet
[Originally published in November, 2009.]