04-01-19

Happy 150th, CPL!

 

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In December of 2018 Cleveland’s South Branch, a historic Carnegie library in the Tremont neighborhood, reopened to the public. The hundreds of community stakeholders who reentered their local library for the first time in years discovered a renovated hybrid space where historic woodwork & Tudor-style windows coexist with recording studios, multimedia meeting spaces, and room for teens. Youth were already experimenting with the interactive VR equipment, while older residents were sitting near the fireplace in comfortable chairs reading the newspaper. The crowd was incredibly diverse, spanning multiple neighborhoods, ages, languages, and organizations.

In the ensuing months, the branch has already become a community hub, demonstrating the ways libraries are changing to meet new social & technological needs. South Branch embodies a new vision for a neighborhood branch library, and is at the forefront of a wave of changes for all our urban branches.

Since 2014, the CUDC has been collaborating with the Cleveland Public Library on a community visioning process for their branch libraries, including South Branch. Through the process, we’ve spoken with hundreds of Clevelanders about how they use and interact with their local neighborhood libraries, and how they’d like their libraries to evolve. Ironically, many voiced their fears that in the 21st century our libraries may become obsolete – even as they themselves continue to revolutionize the way we use our branches.

In reality, in an era of overwhelming access to information, Cleveland’s public libraries are more important than ever. Far from simply being repositories for books, today’s libraries provide technology training, social services, safe space for youth, and community work spaces. They attract hugely diverse user groups, and could be made even more relevant to a wider range of people—truly becoming community hubs for the public.

2019 is CPL’s 150th Anniversary, with a whole host of events & celebrations planned throughout the year. As an anniversary gift to our favorite library system and its incredible staff, here are some findings we’d like to share.

 

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Libraries are information hubs.

As we continue to transition to an economy with information at the center, our neighborhood libraries will remain our communities’ first points of access. Librarians are trained in information sciences, and they accordingly become our guides in finding, understanding, and harnessing an increasingly vast array of information. Historically, this has centered on the physical object of the book; although books will certainly remain a component of our library experience (in fact, Young Adult book circulation is actually increasing), the ways we access & navigate information in the 21st century is varied and complex, and spans a range of media. Information literacy & critical thinking are not only essential skills for many professions, but for baseline navigation in our increasingly digital society. The training and guidance our libraries can provide on this front is an indication that they will only continue to become more relevant, not less.

 

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Libraries are neighborhood gathering spaces.

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, 66% of Americans feel that the closing of their public library would have a major impact on their community. Even residents who have the means to access information elsewhere recognize the importance of our neighborhood libraries. Branches like Eastman & Carnegie West were particularly vocal about how much they valued the diversity of their neighborhoods & how it reflects in the population at their branch; depending on time of day, a local library can be hosting kids’ storytime, a senior book club, music performances, one-on-one meetings with social workers or tutors, after-school homework help, free lunch programs, STEM classes, historical research, block club meetings, and more – often hosting multiple gatherings simultaneously.  Sometimes this diversity of population & activity results in some friction – it can get loud after school, for example – but for so many Clevelanders, their local branch is truly a default gathering place.

 

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Libraries are critical public spaces.

As some of the only remaining truly public indoor places, libraries are especially crucial for residents looking for comfortable, quiet, and conditioned spaces to spend time, particularly in adverse weather. There is no economic, social, or class barrier to entry: all members of the public are welcome and encouraged to use the diversity of resources on offer. Building on this theme, many patrons welcomed the potential introduction of “coffee shop” elements like a laptop bar, comfortable lounge seating, and even refreshments in their local libraries. Younger residents were intrigued by the idea of adding coworking amenities and entrepreneurship training. As our conception of “third places” evolves, our library system is changing as well to meet public interests & needs.

 

photo by Aaron Schordock

photo by Aaron Schordock

Libraries embody freedom.

Throughout the CPL150 process, Cleveland residents frequently shared their favorite library memories. Many people spoke of the feeling of freedom the day they received their first library card – often, their first signpost of adulthood. Some patrons told us the library was the first place their parents let them go on their own, meaning crucial independence. Their librarians were ambassadors into a world where patrons can make choices on their own, pursue interests and acquire skills. Recent changes in technology and fabrication – particularly access to 3d printers, laser cutters, etc – mean even more opportunities for discovery. A 2015 IDEO publication refers to the potential for 21st century libraries to become “a hub of citizen services, a co-working space, and a platform for experimentation.” Patron-led experimentation and exploration will remain at the core of our library experience in the 21st century.

 

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Branch libraries serve a unique function in our cities.

In areas generally 10,000 square feet or less, our urban branch libraries house after-school programs, technology training, social services, job searches, academic research, health fairs, community meetings, child storytelling, senior book clubs, and so much more. A branch library is uniquely positioned as a joint between local community resources and the larger system of the Cleveland library network and beyond. Branch librarians, who often have personal relationships with their regular visitors, are equally likely to help patrons find bus schedules as they are to conduct research on genealogy. With 27 branches, there is a library in almost every neighborhood in Cleveland, expanding access and equity for neighborhood residents and workers who may find it difficult to frequent the main branch downtown.

 

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After four years of working with our libraries, we’ve only come to love them more. We can’t wait to see how our 27 neighborhood branches continue to grow & serve an increasingly diverse range of residents and stakeholders.

We hope to see you at some of the great celebratory events CPL has planned this year!

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For more information about the CUDC’s involvement with the CPL150 Community Vision Plan, and the Facilities Master Plan led by Bialosky + Partners Architects, please click here: https://cpl.org/setting-the-stage-for-cleveland-public-librarys-next-150-years/

In 2018 the CUDC was honored to receive an EDRA Great Places Award for Planning for the CPL150 Community Vision Plan.

 

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