Love the Library: Giving Back to the Community

Let’s have a conversation- but let’s also look at the whole picture, and begin by understanding that libraries are, and always have been, more than just a warehouse of books...

Earlier today, someone posted to Somerville Voices questioning the need for a new library in Union Square. I agree that we should have conversation and debate about the Union Square re-development, including the new library, but there are some flaws in the arguments presented in that post.  To begin with, the library is being portrayed as a warehouse of books, which is indeed an outdated model- but it’s also one that is an inaccurate portrayal of the Somerville Public Library as it is now, and even more so as it is being conceived as a new space. 

First, it is important to consider the costs and cost-benefits of the new library.  The author of this post rightly points out that we are in tough economic times at the federal, state, and local level, and that a new library will be expensive.  What he fails to consider, however, are the long term returns on investment that a library can provide its community. To begin with, the city is not expected to fund the entire cost of a new building. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has already approved an $18M grant that would cover about 40 percent of the costs.  In addition, however, repeated studies throughout the country show that libraries offer their community significant returns on investment.  The author contends that the city would do better to create business incubators. It is important to note that small business owners in particular tend to benefit from the presence of a public library.  Not only can small business owners take advantage of the resources of the library, including access to proprietary databases and other information resources as well as research assistance, but they often benefit from the induced spending of library patrons.  Libraries attract thousands of visitors (the Somerville Public Library draws 300,000visitors per year), and those visitors often spend money at the local businesses in the vicinity of the library.  A study in Philadelphia, for instance, found that about 75% of library patrons spent between $2 and $75 at local businesses when visiting the library.  Return on investment studies in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Toledo, and New England found between $3 and $6 ROI for every dollar invested in the library.  Finally, the Philadelphia study found that home prices for residences located within 1/4 mile of the library averaged almost $10,000 more (and that was after controlling for other variables) which obviously benefits the home owners, but also means increased property taxes for the city.  There are also benefits that are more difficult to calculate, but are equally important, such as public library’s contributions to community literacy, support for language learning and access to resources on citizenship for immigrants, support for job-hunters, etc.

For many years, the library has offered much more just books.  In fact, the library has a history of free access to computers, including Internet and wi-fi access, and usage statistics show that the public-access computers are one of the most highly used resources. It is important for us to remember that, while prices are coming down for tablet computers and smartphones, they are not necessarily “cheap,” and in addition to the cost of the device, one also has to factor in monthly costs for service plans and internet access.  There are still many people who cannot afford these costs. Nor are most e-books other sources of online information available at “no cost.”  While some works in the public domain are available freely online, the vast majority of sources are copyright-protected, meaning that if the library does not cover subscription costs, people have to pay per access.  And, despite continued belief to the contrary, not all information is available online.  Huge tracts of information, including important government and historical documents, have yet to be digitized, and can only be accessed in print. While digital resources are growing in popularity, a recent Pew study shows that the public still values and wants access to print books.  The mission and goal of the library—any library—is to offer the public free access to a depth and breadth of information in a variety of formats.  By growing a collection that includes print books, audiobooks, ebooks, CDs, DVDs, online journals, etc. the Somerville Public Library is ensuring the Somerville residents have access to information for education and entertainment in whatever format suits their needs at the time.

Libraries are also sources of local knowledge and history.  While public libraries might be able to depend on consortia like the Minuteman Network for shared access to popular materials, the local public library takes responsibility for collecting, preserving, and providing access to the cultural heritage of that community.  Unlike museums, however, libraries provide these services and access for free.

But libraries are about more than just access.  They are also places of education, and community centers where people can meet and socialize.  The trend in libraries, as the author rightly notes, is toward more emphasis on services than resources.  New library buildings are focusing on flexible spaces that can be re-arranged, broken down, and divided up for use in many different ways depending on community needs.  There is increased focus on education and training, be it computer training, job-hunting skills, genealogical research, and so on, at no cost to the patron.  With dedicated spaces for teens, exhibitions, and meeting rooms the new Somerville Public Library will offer the community free space to gather, work, study, and socialize. 

So, let’s have a conversation- but let’s also look at the whole picture, and begin by understanding that libraries are, and always have been, more than just a warehouse of books.


Laura Saunders is an Assistant Professor of Library Science at Simmons College and a Trustee of the Somerville Public Library

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

AHM January 27, 2013 at 02:32 PM
I don't think people are really disagreeing everything about the library. I think most would want to save the building on Highland. I do myself. It is tough times and we are way overspent. I personally strongly disagree on Union Square as a place for it.as I think it should be more central. Since you work in the library you woulkd know more fo the needs than I do as this makes me the nonexpert. I had thought myself that maybe the original building could still be of use as in maybe just for older books and certain things that would be usefull for the high school kids. Then have a place for all the other stuff that does not fit. I would have thought Powder House School to be a great location. Just a thought.
Joe Beckmann January 31, 2013 at 01:25 PM
It's so nice to see that Dr. Saunders has broadened this discussion from Somerville Voices (http://www.somervillevoices.org/2013/01/17/development-and-zoning/why-a-new-library/). Most surely the whole of Somerville should be involved in this discussion. Since, given current estimates, every person in Somerville will be paying $562.50 in state and local contributions to build it, everybody should know or at least think about what it should/could/would do for the next hundred years or so. For an even more extended outline of the arguments - pro and con - people might want to start with that Somerville voices thread, which is nearly setting a record for an active discussion on that site.
Joe Beckmann January 31, 2013 at 01:32 PM
Let me also summarize the arguments raised by a new library: a single large building on the edge of the city won't do all the current library and branches - and possible supplemental branches - would do much better. A single building anywhere would be stretched to do what Ms. Saunders suggests, and, in a city with three separate new subway lines (Union Square is not on the main Green Line, and the Orange Line is a whole new world), known for its walkability and diversity - and implied decentralization and strong neighborhoods - should never put so many resources in a single pot. More generally, computers have already displaced most bookstores, and kindles make a "library" a lot easier in every coffee shop, every ice cream store, almost every restaurant, certainly every community center, in the city. And that decentralization would affect much more than books: information, education, meeting spaces, and other key benefits could be negotiated in return for batches of iPads, Kindles, and Nooks on long term loan to many of those sites for their users to keep in touch with each other, and with librarians. Most surely "social networks" could/should/will eventually include librarians who can do anything online that they could face to face.
Joe Beckmann January 31, 2013 at 01:33 PM
Finally, Boston has already established 40 Timothy Smith Centers that do just that, and, yesterday, Mayor Menino announced an agreement to offer Harvard and MIT courses in all those sites. Where's Somerville? Why don't we care about the 57 different languages already in the schools, and online resources to support that kind of diversity? Boston uses the e-Rate subsidy to connect all these diverse resources. Why not Somerville? Or is the building more important than its purpose?
Laura Saunders January 31, 2013 at 02:52 PM
Thank you, Joe! I agree that we need to broaden the conversation. You've many of Joeb's arguments, so let me restate mine? 1. The new building will NOT replace the branches, which will be renovated and expanded. 2. Lending libraries in coffee shops are great but limited. Tablets are great for reading and web-browsing, but they not for other functionalities: have you ever tried to write a resume or term paper on an ipad? Also, the staff can't provide technical support or expertise librarians have to assist people in searching, finding, evaluating and using information. 3. Likewise computer centers: The Timothy Smith Centers are a fantastic resource, but they only offer a small slice of what a library does. They classes offered are limited, and not all free. They centers offer computer access, which is important, but like coffee shops are not all staffed and supported by professionals, nor do they offer the range of services that a library does. These are great SUPPLEMENTS to libraries, but not replacements- you might notice the BPL and its branches have not gone away.
Laura Saunders January 31, 2013 at 02:53 PM
5. As I noted on Somerville Voices, a study done just this year shows Somerville Public Library is outperforming its peers in serving the different language speakers in its community- to say we don't care is an utter mis-statement 6. The courses offered by Harvard and MIT are free and fully online and require no special deal- you could access them from a library computer today. It's not that the building is more important than the purpose, but it facilities and infrastructure are necessary to provide the range of services and resources. Again, the BPL- both the main branch at Copley and its many branches- support all those other services you and Joeb point to.
Joe Beckmann February 15, 2013 at 01:45 PM
It's rare when a controversial position, against a $45,000,000 short-vision decision by a lot of bureaucrats and politicians, gets the validity of loads of excellent journalism, but this is one such example. When the Architizer article cites micro-libraries in phone booths as worthy alternatives, one wonders why abandoning the building first financed by Andrew Carnegie is such a good idea. See http://www.good.is/posts/four-amazing-mini-libraries-that-will-inspire-you-to-read. Does the Mayor have a buyer??
Laura Saunders February 15, 2013 at 02:00 PM
Those are adorable, and your post is timely- the SPL is already looking into the idea of "mini-libraries" which could be hosted around the city. These are great single purpose repositories which would facilitate the sharing of one resource- books. But I don't think a phone-booth sized book repository is ideal for fostering dialogue, hosting events, having story-time or giving people a space to study and access technology. I don't see why we keep posing these alternatives as though they're dichotomous or mutually exclusive. Why can't we have mini-libraries and computer access that is overseen, administered and facilitated by well-staffed and modern facility?
Laura Saunders February 15, 2013 at 02:10 PM
You ask why it's a good idea to move out of the Carnegie building? The answer is because that building, lovely as it is architecturally, has outlived its original purpose. When the building was designed- well before I was born- no one was envisioning the kinds of technology we have now, and as a result the building doesn't have the infrastructure to support it. Nor were libraries conceived of as vibrant community centers, that host events, offer educational programs, give access to technology as well as spaces to study and work. Many libraries are now offering Makerspaces- exciting interactive intergenerational spaces that allow for creative production (http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/features/02062013/manufacturing-makerspaces). There needs to be highly functional facilities for these things to flourish. I have no doubt that the city will preserve and make great use of the existing building, but it simply no longer supports the kind of public library that we want or need in this City.
Joe Beckmann February 16, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Makerspaces - like Artisans Asylum, Sprouts, and Parts & Crafts - are excellent ways by which pro-active libraries can engage new people and new projects. Why are you not doing that?
Joe Beckmann February 16, 2013 at 06:25 PM
Why don't those potential partners have e-rate subsidized wifi, and library outreach? As you say, other cities do. And few have as dynamic a Makerspace movement as we do here in Somerville.
Laura Saunders February 16, 2013 at 09:24 PM
I'm glad you agree! In fact, I hope that this is something that could be addressed fully in the new building. While SPL does some amazing things in their current space (check out the new Teen room, for instance, which is always packed, or try one of the many programs they run- my kids did Jedi Knight Training, and they've had book/print making for older kids). Unfortunately, the current building couldn't accommodate a fully-realized makerspace, but the new facility could.
Laura Saunders February 16, 2013 at 09:25 PM
I think it's important to emphasize here that the Somerville Public Library has been very innovate and forward-looking in the last couple of years. I mention the new teen space- that is an incredibly important and long-overdue change. That space is used extensively by kids after-school, and the new YA librarian has them engaged in all kinds of exciting programs. But in order to create that space, the library had to re-locate the A/V materials, and there simply is no more room. Also, the library has had in volunteers and potential collaborators from many places, including Harvard University's Library Test Kitchen, some Digital Humanities projects, Tufts University, etc. The new director has been extremely active in developing collaborations and connections that had been left unexplored by previous administrators. These things take time to build up, but the ideas and interest are there. What is not there are adequate facilities.
Joe Beckmann February 16, 2013 at 09:56 PM
Not for the first time, but you miss my point completely: Makerspaces abound in this city - from the three I mentioned to incubators for food and other enterprises through Main Streets at both Union Square and East Somerville, Teen Empowerment, and ventures as broad as the Homeless Coalition or Head Start (including Early Head Start for parents) or the Committee on Aging. But the LIBRARY is the last place they go, and the place that ought to be going TO THEM. There is no shortage of space, except within your walls, and that is the problem with precision. You lack synergy: if they don't come to you you don't seem to know about them. There are, for another example, a batch of arts innovators at the Armory, and the library should have a branch to service their needs and at their site. There are several food incubators, and the library should have online food and recipe support to help them derive nutritional values. Instead, you wait for them to come to you and beg for help. Offer it. Get outside your walls. Behave more proactively, like some of the examples I've cited like those from the ALA. THEN, when you have that many actively engaged, only THEN can you really make a case for new space for yourself. As long as your client/partners have to work on their own, you do too.
Joe Beckmann February 16, 2013 at 10:02 PM
For that matter, you don't know what they're doing if you think you'll find space for them in your new building! Where will they weld or sew as they do at Artisans? Where will they sing or play as they do at the Armory? Where will they cook and plan food as they do at The Kitchen? Wake up, it's not all in the walls of a library, except the vicarious pleasure of planning. That is quite the opposite of a real makerspace.
Laura Saunders February 17, 2013 at 06:03 AM
I'm afraid you've missed my point as well: the library is engaged in that kind of outreach. In the many ways that I've listed throughout these posts. I don't mind engaging in a good debate, but the tone of this one no longer seems constructive so, for my part, I think I'll leave it at that.
beenthere/donethat February 17, 2013 at 05:25 PM
We missed the boat years ago when there was, briefly, federal money for the central library renovation and, if I remember, a large addition on the back. The present location, for my money and it will be my money no matter what credit card the city puts it on, is perfect in terms of school and city centrality. Union Sq., should anyone pause to look at projected sea level rise and the potential storm surges from the increasing number of mega-storms will be, at best, beachfront property 30 years from now. And we have the core of what we need right now. Dilapidated, in need of major repairs, but there. The entire drift of the city at the moment seems to be, let it fall down and the state will reimburse us for new. As we learned from the cost overrun experience with LPCS, the state is not a bottomless pocket and we can ill afford to continue to bond for second skating rinks, a new high school, a new library and etc. We can't even afford to maintain what we have at the moment! The dream of vast sums of tax revenue generated by new development to support all this is, just that, a dream. For those who entertain this vision, I suggest running the Google Earth cursor over Union Sq. and along Washington St. towards that island to be, Charlestown, and over the Assembly Sq. turf - keeping in mind that the storm surge from Sandy was 11-17 feet above present sea level and the surge from Katrina, 24-28 feet. We have the potential for a city on a hill, why settle for a city in a swamp?


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