Looking for the heart of your community? Check out the library

A woman works in front of a computer while talking with another woman.
St. Paul Public Library community services coordinator Pang Yang (left) talks with her colleague Hindi Abdi on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 at Rondo Community Library.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

For years, critics have predicted (and even advocated for) the death of public libraries in the digital age, asking: Why go to (and fund) the library when you can simply go online to find what you need?

Yet libraries have reinvented themselves into trusted community institutions that help people find work, start businesses, take college prep courses, apply for government benefits and learn English as a second language — all while fulfilling the traditional mission of offering books and community gathering spaces.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public libraries became critical educational institutions throughout the United States. A century later, libraries remain vital civic institutions in the information age. And in the face of unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries found ways to pivot to continue to serve their communities.

Guest host Chris Farrell, senior economics contributor at Marketplace and MPR News, sat down with the head of the Hennepin County Library system and a sociologist who has studied libraries to explore the role of libraries in today’s society, the pandemic’s impact on libraries and what the post-pandemic future holds for libraries in Minnesota and across the country.


  • Chad Helton is the director of the Hennepin County Library system. Prior to joining Hennepin County Library in August 2020, Helton held executive leadership and management positions at the Los Angeles Public Library, the Contra Costa County Library, the Palo Alto City Library, Stanford University’s Green Library and the University of California Davis’ Shields Library.

  • Eric Klinenberg is the Helen Gould Shepard professor of social science and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He is the author of “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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