Feb 18, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Libraries are on the front lines of America's problems

Illustration of a finger pushing a line of books, stacked side by side like dominoes.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public libraries have morphed into all-purpose community centers amid soaring demand for social services.

Why it matters: The result is frazzled staff and budgets spread thin from competing needs.

Driving the news: Librarians, while still helping kids with their homework, are helping migrants apply for asylum, and jobless people write resumes.

What they're saying: Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association, tells Axios: "We have to think of this in the context of diminishing public investment in public institutions."

  • "The role that libraries are playing as community centers and social service centers has a lot to do with the fact that we're kind of the only game in town in a lot of communities."

"Libraries have never been more important than they are in 2024," adds Patrick Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, Ohio.

  • "I'd much rather have these challenges for additional services and pressures than have people saying that our time has passed."

Reality check: Librarians are fending off physical and verbal assaults from angry and unhinged customers — some of whom blame these frontline workers for the content of books they'd like banned.

  • A group called Urban Libraries Unite is busy setting up "virtual support groups" to help librarians deal with trauma, Lauren Comito, a Brooklyn librarian who chairs the organization, tells Axios.
  • New York City recently announced that its libraries would be closed on Sundays because of budget cuts — a move that Mayor Eric Adams tied to the cost of caring for migrants.

Zoom out: At the same time, libraries are grappling with everything from the high cost of e-books to the need to provide free outdoor Wi-Fi so people without broadband can have off-hours access.

  • Many libraries are trying to ease food insecurity by adding gardens, nutrition classes, food pantries and cooking lessons.
  • "During the pandemic, we distributed 350,000 COVID kits," Losinski said. "You say: 'Well, is that the library's business?' It is for us."

Zoom in: On the plus side, there's a boom in new or refurbished children's rooms — in communities including Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Paramus, New Jersey.

  • Libraries in Nashville; St. Cloud, Minnesota; and Yonkers, N.Y., have built "sensory" or "calming" rooms for children with autism and other neurodivergent conditions. A branch of the Indianapolis Public Library recently became the state's first Certified Autism Center.
  • A group called LibraryReady.AI is training librarians to teach kids to use AI.
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