On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the Lexington Branch library on University Ave. in St. Paul is serving a fair number of patrons. And yet, few people are reading books. Three Vietnamese teenagers play computer games. Literacy volunteers help immigrants fill out citizenship forms, while representatives from E-Democracy show patrons how to contact their political officials and get information about current issues at the legislature. Librarian and outreach supervisor Alice Neve says this is the future of libraries. She says five years ago the St. Paul libraries realized they needed to reach out to new immigrants in the community.
"Many people who now live in St. Paul haven't had the background of a written language and public library services in their countries of origin," says Neve. "So teaching about using the public librarr--the kinds of resources that are free and paid for through taxes and available to everyone--is something that we needed to be actively involved in."
Neve wears a small pouch around her neck crafted by Hmong immigrants. All of her staff have them; it's where they keep their library pass cards. She says it's a simple gesture that makes immigrants feel more welcome when they walk in the door.
Neve says many of the people who come to the library don't yet speak English fluently. So the library offers a variety of language learning tools. It also offers a Homework Center, where students of all ages can get help. Sohaam Mohammed, 26, is from Somalia; she moved to the United States with her family six years ago. She says before then she'd never been to a library.
"I was amazed and impressed about the books first, and then when I first visited the homework center I was actually impressed a lot," says Mohammed. "I really needed a lot of help sometimes with my homework to understand and sometimes even I enjoyed reading the books in the library. I was like, 'Wow! what a lot of books!' I wish I could read them all but it's a lot of books and a lot of information in the library. I really like it a lot."
Now Sohaam Mohammed is a tutor at the Lexington Library's homework center. Not everyone in her community has become an eager library patron. Mohammed says most of her family stays away because they are having a harder time learning English.
Like the Minneapolis Central Library, the Lexington library will be moving into a new building in September. Librarian Alice Neve says it will have more classroom space, and many more computers.
"We find that many people who get on the computer are then accessing Mogadishu Times, they're going to Hmong Web sites," says Neve. "Many people want to get on the computer to connect with family that for months days years have been lost to them. They suddenly discovered someone they left in another country is living in another part of the United States and they can connect on the internet. We are very much the computer for the whole community."
Neve says libraries, now more than ever, are bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Along with the new building, Neve says the library is extending its community outreach. Immigrant group liaisons meet with recently arrived Somalis, Hmong and Latinos to introduce them to the library. The library's Web site has information in four different languages. The library's bookmobile regularly attends neighborhood events. Neve says she believes the library's presence strengthens the community.
"Public libraries are one of the very last fully democratic institutions in America--on their street," says Neve.
But libraries weren't always so democratic. Nor were they free. Up until the mid 1800s people had to subscribe to a collection in order to have access to it. Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Libraries Association, says oddly enough libraries are free today thanks to a French ventriloquist named Alexandre Vattemare. Vattemare was a self-proclaimed ambassador who wanted the United States and France to engage in a cultural exchange.
"And he proposed a gift to the Boston Public Library of 51 books and then suggested that they might want to get funding to make them available," says Fiels. "The end of this was that the Boston Public Library was established as the first free public library in the country in the late 1840s beginning with a small gift of books."
Libraries in those days were filled primarily with government records, manuals, and academic texts. After World War I Fiels says it created quite a scandal when libraries contemplated stocking--heaven forbid-fiction! Since then every era has had its debate; whether to add magazines, or music or movies. Computers are just the latest addition.
Libraries don't just look different these days; they sound different. In Hosmer Library in Minneapolis, children chatter away freely. Colin Hamilton is the director of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Libraries. He says more and more, libraries are letting go of their quest for austere peace and quiet in an effort to make people feel more at home.
"If we want to draw in teenagers, if we want to draw in young adults," says Hamilton, "You can't draw them in and make them feel guarded at the same time. You need to draw them in and welcome them for who they are--and they're people who often talk."
Now, instead of simply being reservoirs of information, libraries are actively engaging people in transforming that information into knowledge. The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Libraries have organized what they call the People's University. They invite university professors and other community experts to teach classes at local libraries for free. So while the kids hang upstairs at the Hosmer Library, downstairs, College of St. Catherine Associate Professor Gabrielle Civil gives a talk on the poetry of African-American women.
The women in this class are predominantly retired, a few of them Aftican-American. In the first ten minutes, Civil has them sitting closely together, locking arms, imagining what it was like to be on a slave ship travelling to America. Friends' Director Colin Hamilton says he hopes people will leave Civil's class wanting to check out books of poetry or creative writing or African-American history. Ideally, he says, the library should serve as the community's living room.
"You'll come to a library and you'll see infants, toddlers, teenagers, mature adults, senior citizens," says Hamilton. "It's hard to imagine anywhere else in the community that brings together such a diversity of ages but other sorts of diversity as well. And it's that mixing of people in a shared space where everyone is equal that allows something magical to happen."
ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels agrees. He says increasingly, libraries have the opportunity to play an important role in the renaissance of a neighborhood. But in order to do so, they have to gain the trust of their neighbors and make them welcome. Fiels says libraries like those in St. Paul and Minneapolis, with their active community outreach and dynamic programming, represent the essence of a quality 21st-century library.