Libraries: The Value of Free Spaces
During finals season, librarians at the Oconomowoc Public Library walked into one of the library’s meeting rooms and found a message written on the whiteboard.
“To: Library Employees,” it said. “Thanks for letting us use the space. We are going to ACE our exam because of you!” It was signed with a heart by local students.
As author Zadie Smith once wrote, “What a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
While so much has gone digital these days, the value of free spaces to gather and connect with those who live and work alongside us is crucial to the success of our communities.
Libraries are one of the few physical places that offer this opportunity in our society. A work-from-home spot. A teen hangout space. A study room. These physical areas are as necessary as the books on the shelves.
Meeting Up At The Library
At the Pauline Haass Public Library in Sussex, “Homeschool groups regularly meet here to hold art classes, presentations, and other things of that nature,” said librarian Becca Werginz.
A student Rocketry Club in Jefferson had no place to meet on Saturdays until they started gathering at the Jefferson Public Library.
After the Muskego Public Library updated their study rooms with new lighting and furniture, “We have people coming in to use the new, cozier spaces for zoom work meetings and even job interviews,” said librarian Courtney Metko.
Madison Area Technical College uses meeting space at the Karl Junginger Memorial Library in Waterloo to work with local migrant Latinx workers who are studying for their GED tests.
Redesigning Libraries For The Future
Keeping these busy and often historic buildings accessible for library users on a tight budget is an ongoing concern for library staff. In the last few years, public libraries in the Bridges Library System have completed accessibility scans to determine barriers to access.
“Libraries are for people,” said Angela Meyers, Inclusive Services Coordinator of the Bridges Library System, “and we must ensure we are doing everything we can to make them readily accessible to everyone.”
Renovations and updates have made the Butler Public Library space more welcoming. After the library purchased new handicap-accessible tables for one area, librarian Melissa Paap-DeYoung said, “That space was very rarely used and now there is always someone taking advantage of it.”
The Watertown Public Library building went through an extensive transformation in the last year. The new Talk Read Play Center, in partnership with the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation, creates “a welcoming environment and engaging programs for families to enjoy,” said Peg Checkai, the library director.
The new building also has study rooms, a teen gaming space, and an outdoor patio. It also provides office space to Watertown Family Connections, a non-profit that connects families to essential resources.
Every Library Story Matters
When it comes to the impact of physical library spaces, quality matters just as much as quantity. It truly is the individual stories of how and why people come to the library that mean the most.
In the past two years, more young adults have used the Dwight Foster Public Library as a work-from-home spot, to the point where monthly Wi-Fi use has quadrupled.
According to library director Eric Robinson, one patron “thanked us repeatedly for having space and Wi-Fi for him to work, as working from home is challenging with small children. At one point he was concerned about losing his job because of slow performance when he had to work from his home.”
Thankfully, he had the library.
Written by Jill Fuller, Marketing & Communications Librarian for Bridges Library System. A version of this article appeared in several local newspapers in June 2022. We are sharing those pieces here on our website a few weeks after each piece has been printed.