Finding balance: Libraries are reinventing themselves to service patrons

Photo provided to the Daily Mining Gazette A view of the children’s play area at the Portage Lake District Library. The children’s area is home to events such as Storytime.

Despite our decreasing reliance on print material, Americans are reading more than ever. This has meant a gradually changing role for environments that have been traditionally focused on print media. One example of this is the “Making in Michigan Libraries” program. 

For the past few years, this program has paired rural libraries with the University of Michigan’s School of Information. The School of Information then gives the libraries guidance and resources to turn unused or under-utilized space into areas where the public can learn through interacting with each other and with different activities rather than through reading books. 

While the Portage Lake District Library (PLDL) in Houghton is not a partner in the Making in Michigan Libraries program, Director Dillon Geshel has a lot to say about the role of libraries in the age of digital information.

“Libraries are able to adapt. They have been forced to adapt,” said Geshel. “Big-box bookstores failed because they couldn’t make that change.” 

According to Geshel, PLDL, as well as other libraries, have been able to adapt because libraries aren’t just about books.

“Public libraries have always concerned themselves with two core values: access and service,” said Geshel. “Leveling the playing field in terms of access, and getting patrons resources that they would otherwise be priced out of.”  

Libraries were an invaluable service in their early days because books were still fairly expensive commodities. Libraries granted people access to information that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Even as books came down in price, it was cheaper and more convenient for people to have access to a public library rather than accumulating a personal library, and so the library endured. While Geshel believes that “books aren’t going anywhere,” the fact that more and more information is available in digital formats may be a reason for libraries to change the approach, but not a reason for them to disappear.

“The needs are going to be access and service, but the resources change,” said Geshel. “In recent years that might mean making digital books available, or having tablets for rent.” 

Other digital resources that the PLDL offers include streaming video and a film collection.

“People might think of DVDs as entertainment, but there are huge educational implications to having a film collection as well,” said Geshel.

The PLDL also has digital access to some of its most popular magazines. Possibly the most important digital resource offered by the library is simply high-speed internet, a resource that many people in town take for granted but that some people in more rural areas don’t have.

“If you don’t have access to the internet, how are you even going to apply for a job today? The internet is how most people find out about job postings,” said Geshel. “Libraries are about books, but they’re about social infrastructure too.” 

For Geshel, the social role of the library allowed it to survive the transition into the digital world, but the libraries offering digital resources may cause the library to be under-utilized in the digital age.

“I worry about libraries being pigeonholed for [offering digital services] just like they used to be pigeonholed for books.”

To illuminate his point, Geshel brings up “the third place,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg.

“There’s work, there’s home, and there’s the space where you congregate and spend your time. That’s the library,” said Geshel. 

In some cases, making the library a Third Place is done naturally by the patrons who go there to read, to attend community events, and to chat. In other cases, more research, planning, and creativity is involved on the part of the library staff. In order to compile their next strategic plan, the library surveyed different demographics of patrons and community members.

“We’re compiling the results to find out what the community needs from the library,” said Geshel. 

Sometimes the surveying is done by other groups. For the last few years, the library has opened its doors after hours to host Nerf battles for area teens. That idea came from surveys by the Keweenaw Community Foundation that identified key issues for area youth, which included a lack of physical activity and opportunities to socialize. These issues were linked with higher levels of depression and bullying. PLDL’s Nerf Battles help to combat these issues by giving area youth a place to meet people their own age and engage in a fun form of exercise. 

Fortunately, the Portage Health Foundation recently identified food insecurity as a problem in the area. PLDL added $5 vouchers to the local Farmer’s Market as a reward for area children who participate in their summer reading program. Considering the fact that many of the families involved in the program have multiple children, that can add up quickly. 

The library serves the needs of adults too, of course. This is done through the use of the community room, which is the frequent host of visiting authors, groups educating the public on social and political issues, and much more. PLDL also has meeting spaces commonly used by individuals as well as non-profit groups.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an area non-profit that doesn’t benefit from or partner with the library,” said Geshel. “One of the problems we’ve identified is that there is not enough community space to accommodate public events.” 

While some may worry about the fate of the library in the digital age, PLDL is looking into ways to get more use out of its available space due to the high demand on its services. 

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