Our library provides meeting spaces for community groups as one of our essential services. At Monday's meeting of the Capital Facilities Committee, examining the need for a new library building, one of our Alderpersons questioned plans to include expanded meeting spaces, asking:
"Why should the library incorporate everything for everyone? Why should the taxpayers pay for this when other structures exist? Why did the library provide space for a state legislator's listening session?"Thankfully, another Alderperson, Michael Meyer, had a good answer, showing a strong understanding of the importance of public spaces in a public library. He said many of the same things I would say.
My answer is that of course we are not incorporating everything for everyone. We are doing specific things for specific reasons, in this case providing public gathering spaces to community groups, educational and cultural presentations, government, and library programs. I think we're doing it for some well considered reasons:
- It's our mission: "The Appleton Public Library is a center of community life, offering opportunities to learn, know, gather, and grow."
- Public libraries support democracy and democratic processes
- we're the new town square
- we're neutral ground, not on one side of issues
- we are freely accessible -- the ability to use the library is not dependent on ability to pay
- we promote free speech in collections and policies
- we promote access to information -- and public access to government, including legislators, congressional representatives, schools, and local, state and national committees and boards
- We're a well-known gathering place for all ages -- children, parents, seniors and families -- as well as all socioeconomic groups, all religions, all ethnic groups, all political viewpoints. The library is visibly for everyone
- We support community groups, through providing resources, information, a place to post public notices, as well as a place to gather
- Meeting spaces are integrated with library services:
- we provide library programs, and educational and cultural events, for all ages
- we provide a great many programs in collaboration with other organizations -- often the schools, but also colleges, the Multicultural Center, hospitals, social service agencies, and coalitions like the Project Promise Poverty group, and MoneySmart Week.
- we view collaborations and other meeting room use as an opportunity to help people become aware of books,reading, and other library materials and services -- once we've got them in the door, I love it if they walk out carrying a book!
- Our rooms are heavily used by a broad cross-section of the community: when I looked at several years of records, I found many uses by the local school district and various aspects of government (chiefly local), but also scouts, 4-H, religious groups, the League of Women Voters -- the list is LONG!
- Use is growing steadily over the long term, despite the fact that we have to turn groups away with no space available an impose limits both on the types of users and number of uses. We have a supply and demand issue and a staff cost to meet the demand.
- A new or updated building would allow for:
- Expanded meeting room hours -- available before and after library hours if designed for secure access
- Permanently set-up rooms (board rooms, lecture hall/auditorium) allowing for increased use with decreased set-up times & reduced staffing cost
- More use by business, perhaps on a fee basis, if there's enough space available that a sales meeting wouldn't mean there's no space for the soccer club
- The possibility that we could find donors to subsidize the cost of creating meeting spaces in exchange for naming rights.