By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
The whole building at all times should be managed with the broadest spirit of hospitality. . . . Then do away with all unnecessary restrictions, take down all the bars, and try to put face to face our friends the books and our friends the people.
—Gratia Countryman, 1905
This commitment to serving the whole public, with its drive to “take down all the bars” keeping people from accessing library services, could have been written today. Instead it was written more than a century ago, by groundbreaking librarian Gratia Countryman.
Countryman, who led the Minneapolis Public Library from 1904 until 1936, would be proud to see contemporary libraries building on the foundation she laid for inclusive library collections and services. I believe that she would be particularly glad to see the growing emphasis on serving underserved populations in ways that go beyond traditional library service.
Countryman was one of my heroes when I was in library school twenty years ago. Learning about her work at the Minneapolis Public Library, where she established youth services and outreach efforts and oversaw the creation of library branches all over the city, inspired me to become a public librarian.
When I started working in libraries a few years later, I thought we were doing a pretty good job reaching out to underserved communities: collecting materials in multiple languages, building partnerships with community groups, and creating new library programs to serve babies, toddlers, and other nontraditional library users. Looking back, we were just getting started.
A Long Road to “Libraries Are for Everyone”
While reaching out to underserved groups is a core value for public libraries today, that was not always the case.
The first lending libraries in the United States, in the 18th century, grew from private book clubs and worked on a subscription model. Books were expensive, and there was simply no expectation that they would be freely available to the public.
That began to change in 1790, when the first truly public library collection was established in Massachusetts with support from Benjamin Franklin. Tax-supported public libraries began to spread widely after the Civil War. (Read more from the Digital Public Library of America.) The Minneapolis Public Library was part of that wave, opening its first central library in 1889.
Even after public libraries were established, there was a widespread view that their purpose was to provide research materials and improving literature for scholarly types. As late as the 1890s, there was still a great deal of debate as to whether “common novels” should be available in public libraries. Looking at contemporary library collections, popular fiction clearly won the day. In a passionate defense of collecting popular fiction published in 1894, George Watson Cole, from the Jersey City Public Library, wrote, “The library is in existence by the grace of the public, and it is its duty to cater to all the classes that go towards making up the community in which it is established.”
Around the same time, public libraries, including the Minneapolis Public Library, began to add dedicated spaces and collections for children. Libraries around the country began adding foreign language collections and reaching out to the wider public through branch libraries, schools, hospitals, and employers. Even then, public libraries in many parts of the country remained segregated until the 1960s, when they were flashpoints in the battle for civil rights.
The Broadest Spirit of Hospitality
Today, public libraries of all sizes are putting services for the underserved at the heart of their practice. This takes different forms in different communities, and it is exciting to see so many creative approaches in action.
At the Pima County Public Library, a large library system based in Tucson, this takes the form of welcome information in 22 languages; dedicated teams reaching out to African American, Native American, and LGBTQIA communities; a summer meal program that provided more than 25,000 healthy lunches and snacks to children and teens in 2019; and a restorative justice program to help young people retain access to the library if they run into trouble with the library’s Customer Code of Conduct.
The San Francisco Public Library, Library Journal’s 2018 Library of the Year, has prioritized diversity and inclusion for decades. Since the 2016 election, the library has worked even harder to center those values, with a series of pioneering programs addressing race, equity, and justice. After offering the nation’s first Drag Queen Storytime in 2015, SFPL has expanded the program to branches outside traditionally LGBTQIA neighborhoods, and served as a model for other libraries.
Smaller libraries have fewer staff and resources, but they are also stepping up to provide a growing range of services to their communities.
At Durango Public Library, which serves a community of 18,000 in southwest Colorado, this takes the form of sensory storytimes designed for children on the autism spectrum and of the innovative Common Grounds Café. Established in 2014 as a partnership with the local school district, the café provides job training and experience for high school students with special needs while making the library a more welcoming destination for everyone.
The Copper Queen Library, in Bisbee, Arizona, serves an even smaller community, with just 5,500 residents. Recognized as the 2019 Best Small Library in America by Library Journal, the library partnered with other agencies and local volunteers to open a satellite location in the outlying San Jose neighborhood in late 2018. The new location serves all ages but places special emphasis on early literacy and youth programs. The San Jose Annex operates in a space provided by the Bisbee Unified School District, and except for a part-time coordinator position, it is staffed entirely by a corps of dedicated volunteers.
In unsettled times like these, when the social compact can feel as frayed as our safety net programs, public libraries are uniquely positioned to help.
Take Down All the Bars
One growing trend across libraries of all sizes is eliminating overdue fines.
Library fines have a disproportionate impact on low-income users, and often become a long-term barrier to accessing library services. As Curtis Rogers, from the Urban Libraries Council, commented in a recent article, “Overdue fines are not distinguishing between people who are responsible and who are not. They’re distinguishing between people who can and cannot use money to overcome a common oversight.”
This is another big step toward a goal Countryman spelled out way back in 1905: “I only wish to make it clear, that everybody should feel as much at home in the library as if it were built for his especial use, and that the library should be the social center of the town.”
Check It Out
Public libraries cannot address every social need, but they are critical partners in building healthy communities. If it has been a while since you visited your local library, stop by and see what they have to offer. They may surprise you!
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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References and Resources
American Library Association. “Conflict as Opportunity: Library Restorative Practices for Youth,” American Library Association, May 22, 2018. (Accessed October 20, 2019)
American Library Association. “History of Preschool Storytimes,” December 1, 2014.
Berry, John N. III. “The Human Touch: 2018 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: San Francisco Public Library,” Library Journal, June 5, 2018.
Brady, Hillary, and Franky Abbott. A History of US Public Libraries. Digital Public Library of America, September 2015.
Cole, George Watson. “Fiction in Libraries: A Plea for the Masses.” Papers and Proceedings of the Sixteenth General Meeting of the American Library Association, Held at Lake Placid, NY, September 17–22, 1894.
Countryman, Gratia. “The Library as a Social Center.” Minnesota Library Commission Library News and Notes, No. 5, December 1905.
Eberhart, George M. “Desegregating Public Libraries: The Untold Stories of Civil Rights Heroes of the Jim Crow South.” American Libraries, June 25, 2018.
Library Journal. “Movers and Shakers: Everyone Welcome.” Library Journal, March 12, 2018.
Pejsa, Jane. Gratia Countryman: Her Life, Her Loves, and Her Library. Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 1995.
Poon, Linda. “Why Libraries Are Eliminating Late Fees for Overdue Books.” CityLab, October 2, 2019.
Schwartz, Meredith. “Thriving Together: Best Small Library in America 2019.” Library Journal, September 6, 2019.