Living Libraries

I was sitting in my living room minding my own business while plotting how next to tease my three younger sisters when I was abruptly interrupted by unfamiliar voices coming from the kitchen.

As I crept quietly to peer around the corner while simultaneously trying to decipher the sounds as if I were putting together pieces of a puzzle without the picture.

. . . I should have known, it was my mom telling stories again, I was mortified. You see my mother was a story teller, a birthday clown, and an embarrassment to a young boy who was trying to be cool around his friends.

I had forgot, mom was practicing to be a storyteller at our local library and the thought of her telling stories in those silly voices where my friends might see her, well as I said before, mortifying.

What seemed like embarrassment then has turned into enduring memories of my talented mother. It is always amazing how something that seemed so difficult to deal with can change into something beautiful and meaningful.

You see, the library is part of the cultural core of our cities and our communities. It regenerates community culture. It involves our family and friends. It perpetuates the evolvement of each generation that is willing to take advantage of its endless paths of discovery.

Libraries are key in the regeneration of our communities generation after generation.

Regeneration is the action or process of making new. It is a cycle that occurs in every literal and figurative ecosystem of our world. A library’s ecosystem is simply a community of interdependence between people, places, and things. It creates an interconnected and interdependent environment.

A great analogy about libraries and ecosystems starts with bees. After all bees and libraries are always finding each other. The Stockton Library has a bee keeper that comes to the library and talks to others about the bees and Salt Lake City Library even has their own bees.

Bees are needed to pollinate many of the plants that produce our food. They pollinate these plants by removing the nectar from the flower of the plant making them able to produce the edible fruit. So the plants are dependent on the bees to produce the fruit and the bees are dependent on the plants for food.

Libraries are the plants that feed us the food of knowledge acquisition and knowledge application through many many means and resources. We are dependent on the libraries for knowledge of all kinds. The libraries are dependent on us to be able to produce the fruit of knowledge for us to eat through the public funding these great community and cultural centers of our cities. Libraries are living, they connect us with one another and feed our desire to discover and learn.

“Living Libraries” are regenerative libraries. In essence, libraries are living organisms that are a part of these interdependent ecosystems that create our cities, communities, and ultimately our culture. Libraries are a part of these multiple ecosystems. The combination of these ecosystems is a regenerative culture. These regenerative cultural ecosystems can be categorized as:

  • Community Regeneration
  • Economic Regeneration
  • Environmental Regeneration

“No longer a nice-to-have amenity, the public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change.” (Rising to the Challenge — Re-envisioning Libraries, The Aspen Institute, October 2014, pg ix)

Community Regeneration

Libraries are one of the last truly democratic institutions in our world as they really do provide their services to everyone equally. Maybe this is why our libraries are such community builders. Generation after generation comes to the library to learn, meet others, discover, and to reach. They really are a social institution just as much as they are a learning institution.

People meet there for story time, to study, for programs, activities, to vote, and for public meetings just to name a few. Some partner with courts, city halls, recreation centers, senior centers, and even cafes. Libraries are at the heart of our culture, and as they provide the resources that help shape each generation. In this way they affect each generation at their cultural core.

“If the library as people, place and platform is the new knowledge institution that can serve the

need for persistent opportunities for learning and social connection, what does it look like for the

public library to fulfill this role? And in what ways does the community benefit? The answers lay in understanding how the public library draws on its deep credentials as educators and civic connectors to reposition the library as a key hub for learning, innovation and creativity in this

environment. Today, we see how the public library can be especially effective in the areas of informal and nontraditional learning, jobs and workforce development, addressing new literacies, fostering civic participation and closing broadband and participation divides. And innovators in communities of all sizes are inventing the new ways in which libraries will benefit the community for years to come.” (Rising to the Challenge — Re-envisioning Libraries, The Aspen Institute, October 2014, pg 24)

Economic Regeneration

We often think of libraries as helping communities in terms of education and literacy but fail to see the economic impact of libraries.

“The return on investment in public libraries not only benefits individuals, but also strengthens community…..Researchers at the University of Chicago, identify early education investments as more efficient public investments because their benefits tend to compound, by creating a solid foundation for later human capital investments, such as education, youth development and job skills training (Making Cities Stronger; The Urban Libraries Council; copyright January 2007).”

What’s more, people who visit public libraries contribute quite a few economic benefits to downtown, residential, mixed-use and commercial developments; that they contribute to safety and quality of life in mixed-use and residential developments; that they reduce some of the financial risk connected to mixed-use developments; and that they attract foot traffic that patronizes surrounding businesses — without competing with those businesses.

Environmental Regeneration

In Charles Duhigg’s book “Smarter Faster Better” he uses an environmental analogy showing that disturbances in nature are necessary for growth.

“It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depended on some kind of periodic disturbance — like a tree fall or an occasional storm — that temporarily upset the natural environment. But the disturbance couldn’t be too small or too big. It had to be just the right size. “Intermediate disturbances are critical” (Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg)

Just like my experience of disturbance as an embarrassed boy of his mother’s extraordinary talent grew into something new and special so to can libraries use their experience of struggling, when people needed them the most during the Great Recession, to create something new, a living library.

Many libraries have found that through proper energy analysis and post occupancy evaluation there are simple adjustments to settings and behaviors that create a more sustainable environment and save operational dollars.

A LEED Silver 20,000 square foot library in Salt Lake County was able to change settings and behaviors to realize a $20,000 savings in their energy bills within one years time. This is funding that can now go into other programs and needs of the community.

Libraries have embraced green building and green operational practices that have greatly reduced the negative impact buildings have on the environment. However, libraries are now on the cusp of moving past reducing a negative impact. They are about to create “Living Libraries” that will create buildings that will actually give back more to the environment than they will take.

Call to Action: Download and read this article I wrote for Library Journal about Living Libraries.