Suburban libraries embrace new role as community centers

Public libraries have long been perceived as a place for visitors to curl up in a chair and read in silence.

Years ago, noise and activity within the building would be scarce. Shelves were stacked floor-to-ceiling with reference materials. Visitors often would select their books and check out immediately.

With the emergence of digital services and new technologies, libraries now must balance those traditional uses with a new responsibility: embracing the role of a community center for residents to gather, learn, study, be innovative, take classes, hold meetings, acquire skills and participate in group activities, said American Library Association President Sari Feldman.

In the suburbs, libraries are making that shift in a variety of ways, including implementing digital services, teaching technology training classes and offering more educational programs. Some are undergoing renovations or even putting up new buildings.

These transformations are happening nationwide, experts say, but there is no longer a formula for determining what makes a library successful and sustainable.

"We have to always be at the front lines of the needs of the community," said Betsy Adamowski, president of the Illinois Library Association and Wheaton Public Library director. "Each library was the same a long time ago, but each community is different. So each community needs different collections, different services. It cannot be cookie-cutter anymore."

The misconception

Sue Wisley, communications manager at the Helen Plum Memorial Library in Lombard, says one of the greatest challenges public libraries face nowadays is fighting a common misconception: They're becoming obsolete.

With plans to build a new library and replace its decades-old facility, Helen Plum officials are putting a referendum on the November ballot seeking resident support. The new building would include a larger children's area, space for interactive learning, more meeting rooms and a drive-through service.

But such new projects often are met with resistance from people who argue the community's need for a library is diminishing, said Andy Dogan, director of library design at Itasca-based Williams Architects. In reality, their needs are simply changing - a concept that became the focus of the American Library Association's public awareness campaign launched last year called "Libraries Transform."

"The way libraries are being used has changed tremendously, even in the last five years," said Dogan, who has headed several suburban library renovations, including ones in Naperville and Addison. "It's not even because books are going away. It's because people are starting to ask more and different things of a library."

According to a Pew Research Center study published in April, libraries nationwide have seen a decline in patrons. Last year, 44 percent of adults reported visiting a library at least once in the last 12 months, versus 53 percent in 2012. What that decline doesn't show, Dogan said, is that libraries often see a significant increase in use after a facelift. And even without a major renovation, some suburban libraries, including Fox River Valley, reported no decline or even an increase in the number of annual visitors.

The study also showed adults using libraries' websites has increased since 2012, from 25 percent to 31 percent. Feldman said the American Library Association in recent years noticed a bump in overall digital service usage and a drop in the circulation of physical materials.

Apps such as OverDrive and Hoopla, for example, allow residents with a library card to download e-books, audio books and videos. Library directors say districts are continually allocating more money to digital services and a larger e-book collection, though they will never fully replace printed books.

"The website of the library and the capacity to download (content) off a library's website or app is increasingly part of our functionality," Feldman said. "Not everything is happening in our building."

  Andre Dyson, of the Gail Borden Public Library, works with professional software as he records music made by Elgin artists Angrous Jeffries, Dontaye Young and Gary Pharosay at the recording studio on the second floor of the library. The studio also has video capabilities. John Starks/

The space

That's not to say the library building itself has become any less critical, Feldman said.

"This notion that we want people to be talking to each other, learning together, advancing their quality of life - that has to happen in a community space," she said. "The library has become not only the most logical but also the best space for that to happen."

A shortage of space to offer activities, classes and technologies has become a common issue among suburban libraries, especially those with older buildings. The Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling, which is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation, is no exception, said Communications Manager Susan Dennison.

"Even though technology takes up less physical space than books, space is needed where people can gather to learn about and engage in the technology," she said.

Specific trends have become evident in library improvement projects, Dogan said: more meeting and study rooms, larger areas for teens and children, a dedicated computer lab and a makerspace for do-it-yourself projects.

Some are adding technology bars, similar to what consumers would find in an Apple store. The Nichols Library in Naperville focused its renovation on adding conveniently located electrical outlets.

Perhaps the most important upgrade, Dogan said, is the flexibility to adapt to future trends.

"A lot of the changes in space are all about giving libraries the freedom to do whatever the next big thing is," he said, pointing to movable furniture, shorter bookstore-style shelves and adaptable program rooms.

Developers of the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin anticipated that need when the building was constructed in 2003, said Denise Raleigh, division chief of public relations and communications.

Within the last few years, administrative offices were moved to a different section of the library to make way for more meeting rooms without a major renovation. Shelves and furniture have been reconfigured, large sections of reference materials have been removed and a marketplace was added to showcase new materials.

"We're always trying to find the right space for the needs of this community," Raleigh said. "We're juggling all the time."

  Jessica Masterson of Arlington Heights colors with pencils during the Coloring for Grown-ups program at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. Joe Lewnard/

The services

Digital services and programming at libraries had already been on the rise for years, but it wasn't until the stock market crashed in 2008 that Fox River Valley director Roxane Bennett noticed residents turning to the library out of necessity.

People who lost their jobs in the Great Recession started visiting the library to learn new skills - particularly in technology or computer applications - that would make them marketable to potential employers, she said. Residents showed up seeking help with resumes and job applications, and entrepreneurs used library resources to reconfigure and develop business plans.

"Since then, libraries are providing a lot more programs and computer classes," Bennett said. "They are making sure they're providing cutting-edge technology that people (of all ages) can interact with and use."

Recording studios, makerspaces with 3-D printers, craft areas and media labs have become increasingly popular.

Programs are covering all kinds of topics: technology, research, fitness, employment workshops, do-it-yourself projects, literacy.

In Wheaton, the library is teaming up with a local organization to build a business resource center. Staffers at some libraries, such as Gail Borden and the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, were hired specifically to teach patrons how use digital devices or help with genealogy searches.

"What keeps a library relevant is being in touch with your community," said Julie Rothenfluh, executive director of the Naperville Public Library. "A library is really all about access. It's about what people need access to and how you can bring people together."

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