Beyond Books, Some Thoughts about the Library by Director Ryan Johnson

It’s fun being a librarian. Sure, there are rough days with upset patrons, overwhelmed staff and crying kids, but in general it’s fun.

One of the fun things is reading peoples’ reactions when they ask what I do for a living. “You’re a librarian! You don’t look like a librarian!” I never quite know how to respond to that one, even after ample opportunities to practice.

Another fun thing about being a librarian is that I’m the only librarian most of my non-library-related social circle knows. What I mean is, outside of “libraryland,” I am the librarian to most of my friends, family, and acquaintances. This quirk of the universe comes into play whenever there is anything library-related in the news, such as the July 24th edition of CBS Sunday Morning.

This episode featured a 7-minute segment entitled “Beyond Books: The 21st Century Library.” I didn’t catch the segment live (was too busy chasing down a toddler), but I knew something was up when I received a handful of texts and phone calls from people in my life asking if I had seen it. Obviously, I have since made a point to catch it on YouTube, and I encourage you to do the same.

Beyond Books: The 21st Century Library

The main point of the segment is that libraries of today are about people and spaces, not necessarily books. One gentleman in the piece is quoted as saying, “These are no longer warehouses of books. These are marketplaces of ideas. This is a community’s living room.” That’s a philosophy we’ve been practicing here at the O’Fallon Public Library for some time.

One statistic that I found shocking in the piece concerned annual library attendance. Nationwide,
attendance has fallen 21% between 2009 and 2019. Naturally, I was curious how our local numbers compared so I did some digging. In 2009 we had roughly 135,000 visitors. In 2019, we had 174,000.
That’s an increase of nearly 29%.

What accounts for this growth? Like anything, there are a lot of factors at play, but I would point to two. The first factor is the vibrancy of our youth programs. Be it our Summer Reading Program, story times, crafts, or tutoring, we draw in kids and their families in droves.

The second factor is our remodel in 2015. We transformed the space and made it much more user friendly and modern. That first year after the remodel we saw 9.3% growth in foot traffic.

That leads to another point made on Sunday Morning, the library’s future as place. There is tremendous value in having an open and public space in your community where you don’t have to buy anything or believe anything to belong. You can just be.

This idea sounds great on the surface (and don’t get me wrong, I fully stand by it), but there are complications that come with it. For one, most libraries are ill-equipped to deal with all the issues that
come our way. The segment speaks to how many social safety nets have been under funded or removed, and how libraries have been left filling the gap.

We see this everyday here locally. Our staff does their best to serve people experiencing homelessness,
mental health issues, joblessness, and the like. Mind you, we are not trained social workers, but we do our best.

Our best, however, is not what many of these folks need.

The segment ends with a library patron stating, “Libraries are a model of how we should treat other people…” That’s powerful and true. Good libraries aim for fairness, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We aim to lower barriers and increase access. We invest in people, foster community relationships, and collaborate with other organizations. What’s not to love?

This article originally appeared in the O’Fallon Weekly.

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