Public Works: Maximizing the Potential of Your Local Library
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Public Works: Maximizing the Potential of Your Local Library

A non-profit program is turning America's public libraries into busy community hubs.

Outdoor movie night at a Columbia, Georgia library. Photo by Megan Knapp of Outside the Box.

“Public spaces are integral to any community. When they work well, they serve as a stage for our public lives. They are the settings where celebrations are held, where both social and economic exchanges take place, where friends run into each other, and where cultures mix.” So reads the Outside the Box placemaking guide, a handbook for activists hoping to participate in a growing community-building initiative in the United States.

The Outside the Box program promotes the use of public libraries as central neighbourhood gathering spaces in communities with strong local leadership, high ethnic diversity, and low median income. Led by DVD-rental giant Redbox; librarians cooperative Online Computer Library Center, Inc.; and non-profit planning, design, and education organization Project for Public Spaces, the program is expanding into 20 American communities this year after last year’s successful five-location pilot project.

The people behind Outside the Box see libraries as trusted public institutions, brimming with the potential to be inviting and accessible gathering places.

Library staff and community actors participating in Outside the Box receive training about creating inviting public space on and around library grounds. They also get $5,000 worth of reusable materials for seating, lighting, and other amenities in this public space. And the program helps out with a launch event for the new spot—something along the lines of a free concert or fair, or outdoor movie night.

Really, though, Outside the Box establishes the framework for local libraries to become hubs of community interaction in the long term. The program involves building links to other local cultural institutions, including universities, museums, and theatres. Ultimately, the goal is to revitalize public space to bring neighbours together.

Toronto is lucky to have its public library system, which already makes itself available to the community, whether by offering meeting spaces, or hosting digital workshops, or acting as a venue for public lectures and social events. But this existing interaction between library and community only increases the potential for further growth. Rightfully, Torontonians hold their libraries near and dear: just ask Atwood. And that’s precisely the type of relationship that Outside the Box organizers look for—a pre-existing belief in libraries as community institutions. So while the Reference Library already has its Bram & Bluma Appel Salon readings and lectures, an Outside the Box-type project could give us mini-parks, outdoor markets, and arts festivals at our smaller, less dazzling branches. And, in turn, some less affluent Toronto neighbourhoods would get safe, central gathering spaces in which to promote a sense of community.