What to Expect from Libraries in the 21st Century by Pam Sandlian Smith (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of What to Expect from Libraries in the 21st Century by Pam Sandlian Smith at TEDxMileHigh.

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Pam Sandlian Smith – Director at Anythink Libraries

When you work in a public library, you never know who’s going to come through that door, you never know what questions they are going to ask.

One day, a young boy who was eight or nine years old asked an unusual question. He’d been hanging out in the library all summer. And he said, “I have an idea. I’d like to check out a room today. I’d like to check out a room for the week as a matter of fact. I’ve been scoping the space out and you have a story-hour room you are not using and a puppet, a stage that doesn’t seem to be used, and I’d like to put together a puppet program for the kids and their families on Friday afternoon. What do you think?” It’s an unusual question.

And I couldn’t, I clicked through my mind as to, “Well, what could possibly get wrong?” Seemed like an innocent enough question, and I thought, OK, let’s go for it. So I said, “Yes, with two caveats. One, you just need to check in and out with the staff so that they know where you are, and you need to pick up after yourself.” He did exactly that.

He came in every afternoon, he set up the stage, he worked on his project, he worked with the puppets and on Friday afternoon, there were signs handmade all over the library: “Puppet show. Two o’clock.” He gathered about 30 people in the storyhour room, kids, and their moms, and their dads. He did a lovely puppet show. The kids clapped, he was happy. I thought he was a star. Good idea.

He left, and we didn’t see him for a couple of weeks. Later that fall, he came in on a Saturday. He came up to the desk, and he brought his dad with him, and he said, “Today is my birthday, and of all the places in the world, the place that I wanted to come to the most was the library. I want to introduce you to my Dad.” And then he said, “But I have some news. We are going to be moving away, my Dad got a job. We are moving out of the homeless shelter. We have an apartment. And we are not going to be able to come back to the library anymore. But I wanted to say goodbye and thank you.”

So as that boy and his dad left, I had this big lump in my throat. Little did I know that when he asked that question, how important it was for him to have that space to create, to think, to fulfill some dreams. He needed someone to have the instinct to say yes, and I am so grateful that I did. He needed somebody to be on his side. Isn’t that what we all need?

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Some people have questioned the relevance of libraries today. All over the world, libraries are adapting to meet their communities’ needs, and they are different in different communities. In London, they’ve completely rebranded libraries. They call them the “idea stores”, where people could come in, have a cup of coffee, take a class, or shop for an idea.

Libraries are becoming early responders. Last year, after Hurricane Sandy, the New York public libraries were some of the first agencies to reopen after the hurricane. This is an image of a Queen’s library branch in which, the day after Sandy happened — they didn’t have water, they didn’t have electricity but they opened for their community to distribute food, important supplies, and water.

The same thing has happened in Colorado lately. During our disasters, the recent fires and floods, our libraries are there, doing whatever our communities need. In Adams County, we were the poorest library system for over 40 years. In 2006, our community voted to increase our funding, and I’m ever so grateful because now, we have seven brilliant lovely libraries that are places that people can come and do that dreaming that they need to, that creating.

We used the model of the Treehouse as one of our points of inspiration. Because if you’ve ever built a Treehouse or a fort, you know that feeling of being in that space, where you are in charge, you have the power. You are in charge of the world, and you can do a dream or become anything you want. That’s what happens in libraries.

Over 100 years ago, the first city librarian, John Cotton Dana, said the purpose of the public library is the pursuit of happiness first, and education second. When those are your inspirations, happiness and education, it’s all good.

Libraries are places where you can create and collaborate. We have tools to share, like this 3D printer. You can learn how to do digital photography, or you can make a video. This is our studio. One of our most important resources are actually our staff. This is Moe, our studio guide. We think all of our staff are part wizard, part genius, part explorer, and the work that they do everyday changes people’s lives.

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Libraries are learning places. We used to rely on books for learning, but now we know that people have different learning styles. That’s why we have community gardens at our libraries. People come together and they learn from each other, they work together, they show each other how to plant and how to grow the best vegetables. They learn how to get along. We work with Denver Urban Gardens. Their mission is building community, one garden at a time. Our community gardeners get to know their neighbors, and that’s as important as knowing how to grow those vegetables.

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