Unlocking potential: utilizing library space for community engagement and recreation


In recent years, few people have been as vocal in their support for public libraries as Eric Klinenberg.

The Helen Gould Shepard Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, Klinenberg is also the author of Palaces for the People, in which he advocates passionately for social infrastructure as a means to fight inequality, polarization and the decline of civic life.

In his book, Klinenberg reports on the important role that schools, parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, churches, community organizations and barbershops play in keeping community members engaged. It's the public library, however, that has the greatest potential for connecting people.

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Creating stronger social ties

In an article he wrote for his publisher's website, Klinenberg noted the following:

During my research, I learned that libraries are not only important for providing books, films, internet access, and other vital information, but also for ensuring a neighborhood’s vitality and promoting stronger social ties. Palaces for the People—a term I borrow from Andrew Carnegie, the great sponsor and champion of libraries around the world—reports on all kinds of surprising programs one finds in modern libraries: virtual bowling leagues for older people who might otherwise stay home alone; early literacy programs for bilingual children and families that can’t afford books; karaoke sessions where children with disabilities sing along with elders who are looking for meaningful daily activities; morning tea-times for unemployed men who are striving to find dignity and respect.

Community members working collaboratively

The American Library Association (ALA) defines community engagement as "the process of working collaboratively with community members — be they library customers, residents, faculty, students or partner organizations— to address issues for the betterment of the community.

According to the ALA website, "As champions of lifelong learning, libraries are a place to quench curiosity, access technology, and explore new ideas, hobbies, and careers. Increasingly, libraries also offer patrons a welcoming space to meet their neighbors to discuss and resolve important issues."

One of the most effective ways that libraries can create more community engagement is by making library space and resources available so that patrons can come together and share ideas, work on projects or just have fun.

Here are a few examples of public libraries across North America that are doing just that.

Vancouver Public Library


Vancouver Public Library's Inspiration Lab (at VPL's Central Library branch) is a "free space dedicated to digital creativity, collaboration and storytelling". The Inspiration Lab allows patrons to:

  • Record professional-quality audio and video in a recording studio

  • Convert photographs, slides, audio cassette tapes, VHS tapes, and 8mm video cassette tapes into digital file formats at a Digitization Station

  • Edit and create images, audio, video, eBooks and more using specialized software on one of the library's Creation Stations

Brooklyn Public Library


The Teen Tech Center at BPL's Crown Heights branch provides ongoing technology instruction and a number of workshops that focus on web design, graphic design, programming languages, video game design, podcasting and robotics. Teens get the chance to lead drop-in programs for their peers, as well as opportunities for creative project-based work. 

The library also engages with the future tech professionals in its community through the Teen Techies program, which gives participants the opportunity to:

  • assist adult librarians, working as lab assistants in delivering computer training

  • help patrons to use windows-based software and online library services and resources

  • assist library technology resource specialists by troubleshooting more advanced tech problems, applying the skills they have learned in training workshops

In addition to learning about tech, Teen Techies participants receive stipends following successful completion of training and library service hours in addition to earning community service credits for school.

Calgary Public Library


In addition to a variety of event and meeting rooms as well as other flexible spaces for community engagement, Calgary Public Library patrons are able to book time at creative studios dedicated to audio and video recording or post-production.

Future YouTube stars or budding podcasters in the community can also borrow an array of equipment for their projects, including microphones, video cameras, headphones, and audio interfaces.

Los Angeles Public Library


The Los Angeles Public Library has a number of initiatives that focus on community engagement, including programs that help connect residents who are experiencing homelessness with resources and services to help them transition to stable, independent or supported living.

The library's Community Outreach Team brings the services and resources of the library to the community through direct engagement and collaborative partnerships, prioritizing outreach to underserved communities and groups with barriers to access.

LAPL patrons also have access to the following facilities:

Octavia Lab

Named after the award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, the Octavia Lab is a do-it-yourself makerspace located inside the historic Central Library. The space provides library cardholders with free and unlimited access to state-of-the-art design, fabrication, preservation and story-telling technologies.

The DIY Memory Lab, located within the Octavia Lab, contains archival-grade equipment that patrons can use to digitize their personal archival collections.

Koreatown Media Lab

Located in the Pio Pico Koreatown Library, the Koreatown Media Lab is a makerspace and business center that gives library patrons access to high-quality, professional-grade computer hardware, software and equipment to support their educational, entrepreneurial and creative endeavors.

Toronto Public Library


Across its 100 branches, the Toronto Public Library has an impressive array of venues available for members of the community to rent, ranging from small meeting rooms to 260-seat performing-arts theatres.

The Entrepreneurs Suite is a dedicated co-working space where small business owners can connect with other entrepreneurs and social innovators, and access staff assistance and training to help them start and grow their ventures.

In addition to wireless internet and access to printing, scanning and photocopying, the Entrepreneurs Suite also gives users access to the technology and software in the library's Digital Innovation Hub.

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