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Public libraries are more relevant than ever in the digital age

What is a library, really?

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KATE PERDONI
  • Kate Perdoni

'What is a public library?" is one of those questions you just don't think to ask.

You've been to one, sure, and maybe you've even checked out books there. But, like many public spaces and institutions, it goes on living an unexamined existence until something new, an experimental program or an adapted use, comes along to provoke the question. And it's sometimes phrased in the negative, like, "Hey, that doesn't belong in a public library!"

The Pikes Peak Library District's mission statement is "Providing resources and opportunities that change individual lives and build community." And then on a second line: "Seek. Engage. Transform."

See? Nothing about books. So do punk shows and other DIY activities belong in a public library?

"Sure, I think some people will look at this and say, 'this is mission creep' or 'this is not what the library should be doing,'" PPLD Executive Director John Spears acknowledges. "But I absolutely hate the phrase 'intended purpose,' like 'oh, the library should stick with its intended purpose' ... it's like people think the library is some sacred place that should be exactly how they remember it from childhood."

As Spears rightly points out, a lot has changed since today's adults were children. The most significant, for public libraries, has been the advent of the internet. Now, you can access vast troves of information about any esoteric topic just by pulling out your phone. Wikipedia renders encyclopedias obsolete. E-books mean you don't have to leave your couch to find that good read your friend suggested. And say you want some glossy, good-looking book to live on your coffee table so visitors know you're intellectual? Order it off Amazon. Hell, ask Siri to order it off Amazon for you.

Point is, humanity may not need big warehouses of books anymore.

"The library isn't so much about reading as it is about learning," Spears says. "And it used to be that if you wanted to learn something, you'd go check out a book. And that's still an option, of course, but now we're providing a whole bevy of ways to learn. Especially [to] learn by doing."

That ethos is already embodied in Library 21c (named after the 21st century, if that's too subtle for you), which features a full-blown makerspace for patrons to access a diverse array of creative tools. They range from lightweight — like sewing machines, papercraft supplies and a vinyl cutter, to heavy-duty — like 3D printers, a laser engraving machine and a computer-controlled milling machine. Some of it you can hop right on, some have sign-ups, and some require certification, but all of it is more convenient than if you had to go out and pay for it elsewhere. Plus, the library offers training classes that include video editing and other useful technological skills.

Embracing the digital age is something of a movement among librarians these days. Across the country, libraries are updating themselves with the latest in laptops, tablets and online content to stay relevant (despite tightened budgets in the early recession years).

But, in Spears' opinion, "what libraries mistake sometimes is seeing technology as the end goal instead of technology as part of the process that allows people to learn and create."

Peach Press' recent zine-making workshop brought arts and crafts under KCH's roof. - KATE PERDONI
  • Kate Perdoni
  • Peach Press' recent zine-making workshop brought arts and crafts under KCH's roof.

With that in mind, Spears tries to turn a common stereotype associated with both technology and libraries — that they're isolating — upside down. Consider, you may imagine the prototypical trip to the library like this: You've got some area of interest, so you head over to the library, check out some books, and then bury yourself in them in a quiet corner. You get lost in the text; hours pass. But, in reality, the experience proves much more social than that. People mill around the entrance, smoking cigarettes, chatting, or, on Sundays, eating a free meal served by volunteers. And inside, librarians field questions about disability benefits, bus tickets and where to find other survival resources. Try to avoid it if you wish, but especially at the downtown library, interfacing with disadvantaged and homeless patrons is all but unavoidable.

The dynamic is more incidental than designed, but Spears is unbothered by the library serving as a de facto day shelter. If anything, he embraces it. "The library is one of the only places where people who are not normally anywhere near each other are together. So it's got this sense of equality everyone hopefully feels," he says. It's obvious this is a subject he's passionate about, since he adds, emphatically, that "it doesn't matter how much money you have, your age, your sex — when you're at the library you're just as valid as anyone else."

It's funny, he acknowledges, that that's the exact kind of ethos you'd hear said about the Flux Capacitor — a "Do It Together" music and meeting space that will soon occupy the library-owned Knights of Columbus Hall. Flux shows are pay-what-you-can, all-ages affairs. They're an opportunity for misfits of all stripes to commune, make friends and sometimes form bands or write zines. And in a city known to spurn anyone outside the mold of straight, white, Christian conservative, the Flux plays a vital role for many young people trying to make a life here.

Closed last year, the Flux held a town hall for supporters to celebrate the venue's past and deliberate its future. Spears was in attendance, listening as diehards shared what the Flux meant to them: a safe audience for creative expression; a refuge from scrutiny and judgment; a support system in pursuit of sobriety. And so on.

"I could see myself in so much of what people were saying about finding their people there," Spears recalls. "And that's really important to me personally. I mean, I grew up gay in a conservative suburb of Chicago. So I know what it feels like to be apart while being a part [of a community.]"

That's when it clicked: the Flux's and library's missions are actually quite similar. During the town hall, Spears reached out to Kate Perdoni, of Eros and the Eschaton and the Pikes Peak Arts Council, to start conversations about housing the Flux in the underused Knights of Columbus Hall. Off the bat, the Flux crew was down, but the library's board needed some convincing.

"I'm not going to say [board members] just lined right up, but they saw the merits of it," Spears says. "What really did it was not me talking about it, but when Jasmine (of Non Book Club Book Club) or Han (of Peach Press) or Kate (of Eros) or Bryan (of Flux) came to speak about their projects. I think that's when they saw that this is something we should be supporting."

At that point, Spears began gathering ideas and intel from other public libraries to see what might fit here. Turns out, some models exist in the U.S., like the Idea Box in Oak Park, Illinois, which features rotating installations that patrons of all ages can interact with. Or ImaginOn in Charlotte, North Carolina, that's a collaboration with a local children's theater company. The Bubbler in Madison, Wisconsin, provides fodder, too, for what community-run workshops and other pop-up events could look like.

But the really innovative stuff is happening in, you guessed it, Scandinavia, where municipalities commit a more serious chunk of change to their public libraries. Dokk1 in Aarhus, Denmark, for example, is treated as that city's cultural and civic hub, combining governmental service departments, a commercial district and an epic library under one roof. There's multiple theaters, playgrounds and cafés on the portside property. Even its parking garage has a fully automated valet service that will be integrated with the municipal lightrail system soon. Oh, and there's a 25-foot gong in the middle of Dokk1 that sounds every time a baby is born in the local hospital. Swoonworthy, to be sure, but the closest resemblance to PPLD's budding DIY partnership may be found in Espoo, Finland, where the Sello Library has a music department with a recording studio, practice rooms and a performance stage, dedicated to nurturing a creative scene for young people.

That's the kind of direction Spears wants to go. "We're just going to allow the community to create their own programming. It really is that simple," he says, incredulous that that's considered a radical approach. Already, experiential events like Peach Press' recent zine-making workshop brought in a crowd of 20-somethings to spend the afternoon ostensibly making arts and crafts (albeit under a less-than-wholesome soundtrack of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre).

"There's so much going on in Colorado Springs that people don't know about, and one role [the library] can have is to act as a facilitator to connect it to a broader audience," Spears says. "And that may seem like some incredible gift to the community, but it's really a gift from the community."

And he's right. Now playing in Colorado Springs: punk shows brought to you by property taxes.


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