In my rural public library and in libraries nationwide, the arts are alive for teens, adults, and children. Librarians are fostering engagement through creation, offering the resources for people to come together to create both art and community. Libraries are shifting from content aggregates to content creation spaces. They’re spotlighting the talents and vision of the people who live in the community.
In rural communities libraries are waiting in the wings where there are often no other arts or economic development institutions in place. In urban communities, libraries are increasingly acting as a meeting place for people to find new inspiration, to create things together, and to spark ideas off of one another. The result: everything from small businesses to hand-knit sweaters.
I am currently working on research examining how art programs in public libraries affect teens, specifically their sense of civic and community engagement. In my library I’ve observed teens coming together to make things—sushi, or paintings, or jewelry, it doesn’t matter—and finding an affinity with people they’ve never interacted with before. They construct clans of active, curious people. No apathetic cartoon teens here; they are fully engaged with each other and their community through the library.
I am convinced that the public library, an institution ideally unmediated by pedagogy, consumerism and religion, is in a position to ensure that access to information and transformation is available to all. Once community members realize that the library is about ideas, not books, they can use the resources and public spaces in the ways that serve them best. One example of this use is illustrated by the executive director of the Progressive Technology Product, speaking at the Brooklyn Public Library about empowering people to be “generators of governance rather than consumers of government” during a Brooklyn Public Library food festival that honored culinary skill and the ethnic history of the neighborhood. Hill wrote that the library was the perfect venue for programs on both creative endeavors and community organizing because:
“Public space is a rarity, and the library is an apt symbol of freedom, democracy, and access to the information that community organizers need. Generally, people perceive libraries to be buildings full of knowledge stored in volumes, but at this event the knowledge was really stored in people’s heads…Librarians have the skills to engage their community by designing the information resources they need. Librarians also have the skills to train their patrons to make their own information resources.”
For sustainable economic and cultural abundance in rural and urban communities, libraries offer an infrastructure that is already in place, and librarians that are passionate about ideas. I’m one of those librarians, and I believe that the intersection of art, local knowledge and libraries is the perfect storm for empowering communities, economically and culturally, that otherwise struggle with their identities.