Libraries provide community outreach

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 5/23/2016, 8:36 a.m.
When Andrew Carnegie was a 17-year-old immigrant “working boy” in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now Pittsburgh’s North Side) in 1853, he ...

(George Curry Media) – When Andrew Carnegie was a 17-year-old immigrant “working boy” in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now Pittsburgh’s North Side) in 1853, he wanted to be able to borrow books to improve himself – but in the era of predominantly private libraries he was stopped by an annual $2 library subscription fee. At the time, he expressed his frustration in a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch and got the fee waived.

Years later, after building the steel empire that made him “the richest man in the world,” Andrew Carnegie gave $60 million to fund a system of 1,689 public libraries across the United States, with hundreds more in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Canada and other parts of the world.

The Carnegie libraries were often the first free public libraries in their communities and popularized the “open stack” system that allowed people to browse through a library’s shelves themselves instead of having to request books from a clerk. They helped transform the expectation of public access to books and in the process transformed lives.

The library was often the grandest building in town, and the typical design included a front staircase as a visual symbol that visitors were elevating themselves by entering the building. One injustice was that many libraries were initially segregated and some towns received grants for racially separate Black libraries but several Carnegie libraries broke those barriers, too. Washington, D.C.’s library was integrated from its 1903 opening and for many years was one of the only places in the city Black citizens knew they could use the public bathrooms. Across the country Carnegie libraries set a standard as centers of their communities and pioneered new ways libraries could serve people that went beyond the gift of books.

Today’s libraries continue to find ways to extend the tradition of community outreach in the 21st century. I recently had a wonderful visit with staff heads of the Los Angeles Public Library system and library foundation. Its 73 locations serve the largest and most diverse population of any library system in the country. I loved hearing about all the ways their system reaches out to their community – especially their services for young people. Carnegie libraries featured some of the first children’s rooms and most of us are now familiar with library story times and other vital literacy programs for young children. The Los Angeles Public Library features these and much more.

Some library branches provide free lunches in the summer targeting children who qualify for free or reduced price meals during the school year, pairing summer meals distribution with programs like the Summer Fun reading club, art and science activities, free eye exams and eyeglasses, and jobs skills training for teenagers.

“Full STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Ahead” programs offer popular activities like robotics, coding, circuitry and stop-motion animation. Student Zones in libraries provide homework help, computers, tutoring and areas for collaborating on school projects. Online tutoring for children in kindergarten –12th grades and adult learners provides one-on-one live homework help with math, science, social studies and English accessible from any Internet-connected device.