Public libraries are not only centers for literary activity but also important sites for social activity and inclusion, and learning. Increasingly, the role of public libraries is being taken up by individual library practitioners and nonprofit organizations who often expand the role of libraries from being just a space that provides access to books to after-school hubs with programs designed to support and develop language and reading/writing skills and informal space for socializing and community engagement. In recent years, libraries have also provided a space for youth activism and voice, with public libraries and reading rooms often traveling to protest sites.
In my conversations with young members at The Community Library Project (TCLP), when asked to define the role of the library – they spoke about libraries as safe spaces, as a place where they felt equal, where they were treated with respect and dignity, a space for meeting and collaboration, a space for information, a space where they had rights. Their definitions of what libraries mean go much beyond what we imagine libraries to be…showing us instead what libraries can be!
A key insight that emerged this summer through this research that looked at ‘the impact of closure of public libraries in the learning and literacy outcomes for young people and the role of informal spaces in their lives’, was that the members themselves spoke in expansive ways (beyond access to books) about the library as a space and a community.
- Members spoke about ACCESS; access to community, to information, to academic and digital resources, to mentorship, to knowledge
- The young members spoke about the library as a ‘FREE’ space. Where free referred to not just the membership model but also a space free from judgment (for example, who to talk to or spend time with)
- They spoke about the library as a ‘SOCIAL SPACE’;library as a hangout space / space to meet friends / relax / rest / meet new people.
- Members spoke about ‘RIGHTS’: access to libraries, books, knowledge, and information as a right for everyone, a right to be treated equally, a right to resources
These member discourses paralleled the discourses and commitments of The Community Library Project (See Welcome poster above). TCLP’s stance against gender, religion, caste based discrimination, their focus on access to knowledge and information for their members who have been historically marginalized, and the aim to be led by the communities that they service offer valuable insights to educators, researchers, and other informal organizations working with children or youth. Public libraries can and often are (even those that are not so designed) more than books.