Fellowship of Libraries

Librarians as Community Partners Ed. Carol Smallwood

In an age in which books can be downloaded on e-readers from the comforts of home, and the internet provides the same information as encyclopedias at a faster rate, appreciation of libraries is decreasing at a rapid and alarming rate. However, the value of libraries has not decreased. People still depend on libraries in a variety of ways. Some students with disruptive home lives need a quiet place to study; those who cannot afford their own technology can apply for jobs on the communal computers; some children depend on literacy programs in order to succeed in school. The value of libraries is rooted in community, and that is still alive due to librarians and patrons who serve their local libraries, and in turn, reap the benefits of community. Libraries are not a world of information to navigate in solitude, but a realm of communal knowledge to be explored in fellowship. The difference between a room full of books and a library is community.

There are two types of patrons at every library: the passers-by and the utilizers. The first type, the passer-by, takes part in sharing the library’s resources, including: books, movies, periodicals, and internet access. However, they do not enjoy the full benefits of what the library can offer. The second type is utilizers. They are the opposite of passers-by and are active participants in the library community. The relationship between patrons and the library is similar to that of a student and teacher: The passer-by goes to class, learns from the teacher, and then struggles with homework independently. The utilizer, on the other hand, asks the teacher for help. The student understands the correlation between success and communication, just as the utilizer recognizes the value of community in the library, and therefore use library offerings in a more full way. “The library facility as a gathering place has value. This includes the phenomenon known as the ‘living room’ experience, meeting and conference rooms available, all-inclusive, safe and friendly environment, and a unique forum for social networking, book clubs and reading groups.” Utilizers do not only take—they also give. Contributing to a library community can be done by volunteering for and supporting library programs. The role of a utilizer varies based on factors such as age, the type of library (public, elementary/middle/high school, college), and the needs of the community. Library outreach can range from organized activities, such as book clubs and intercultural events, to using the library as a common ground for socializing and meeting.

College libraries are the quintessential paradigm of library communities. They provide assistances such as tutoring and disability services, as well as an opportunity for students and professors to help one another while working. Sarah O’Boyle is a biochemistry student and Murray Library employee in her first year at Messiah College. She enjoys the community she experiences at her job in circulation. Sarah noticed a vast difference in how the library is utilized in high school and in college. “If you’re in high school and you have to get an assignment done, you just go home, whereas the college library is the place to go. I always see the same people. There’s a consistent group of people that I see on a daily basis at the same times, and a lot of them are friends.” Due to the fact that many students spend vast amounts of time studying in the library, it becomes a social hub where they study and write with their friends. In addition to the patrons, Sarah also recognizes that the effort of librarians greatly influences one’s attitude toward the library. She said, “The librarians really try to help you with harder research topics. One time I went before I started working there and the librarian emailed me a day after I asked her for help with a list of sources I could use for my paper.” Sarah learned that the staff of libraries is the heart of the community. While librarians offer much to the students, they must be aware of the library’s benefits and actively participate. There are too many “passerby” students unaware of the assistance librarians can provide in their academic endeavors. Although not everyone makes the most of the support available to them, utilizers are able to improve their studies and college experience due to the services and community offered by the college library.

Unlike libraries in higher education, middle and high school libraries are most often not used to their full potential. They are a great resource for student research, but lack the community of public and college libraries. Creating a community in middle and high school that revolves around the library benefits education; it equips students with an interactive and interpersonal learning experience not available in the typical classroom. Unfortunately, a majority of school libraries close their doors when the school day ends due to limited funds and staff. If libraries were open for even an hour after classes let out, students would have a place to collaborate on projects, meet with teachers or tutors for extra help, or start study groups and book clubs. The availability of a library is not something that students merely desire, but something they need for study space, school supplies, computers, and research databases (Smallwood 49). Although many students are able to go home and complete work in a quiet place, some students are unable to concentrate at home for a variety of reasons. Also, when librarians and peers gather in one place, help is easier to access. Libraries can be just a building of books or go above and beyond to form a community of learning. Perhaps if middle and high school libraries functioned more like college libraries, students would have a greater appreciation for their role in society and be more prepared for higher education.

As a result, many students turn to their local public library to get work done. One librarian noticed a competition for resources among students and other patrons. “It was challenging to manage the library as students competed for space and staff time with other patrons. While we received complaints about noise, crowding, and messiness, staff saw this as an opportunity to develop a new service. We could do better than allowing students to study in the stacks or watching as other patrons found refuge in the quiet reading room or left” (49). Teens are stereotyped as loud and rowdy, making them disruptive in a library setting. However, students are a large percentage of the patronage at public libraries. Using resources to serve students ultimately benefits the students, schools, library, and community, especially if done in a constructive way. The library implemented a study program by creating a ‘teen zone’ for students to study, and even provided snacks during finals week. “We could have implemented rules to discourage them. Instead, the library welcomed students and provided a structured but flexible environment. In doing so, staff were better able to serve all patrons, and in turn patrons of all ages, including the Library Board of Trustees, congratulated us on supporting these important members of the community” (51). The library achieved its full potential not by distributing books and information, but by recognizing a need in the community and creating an environment for patrons to learn in fellowship.

Libraries are not just for current students. Aspiring students, whether they’re children yet to enter elementary school, adults hoping to further their education, or graduates who appreciate the intellectual community, can find smaller communities (book clubs, literacy programs, etc.) to help them achieve their goals. The mutual benefits of these programs are the result of a community that requires give and take. Librarians, books, and technology are wonderful resources, but the library cannot be utilized unless the community recognizes what it has to offer. A program for families below the poverty line called Head Start and a local library in Orange County attempted to combat the issue of illiteracy by starting a reading program for young children. Both Head Start and the library benefited from the initiative.

“Head Start centers and the library enjoy several benefits from this partnership. The centers are able to introduce an additional free educational activity into their curriculum, ensure that each child receives a book recommended by a library expert, and enhance their curriculum. By promoting its services to over 1,500 kids, their families, and teachers each year, the library has an opportunity to increase the number of library card registrations, circulation numbers, door count, and program attendance” – Vera Gubnitskaia

Education is supposed to be the key out of poverty. However, when children below the poverty line are illiterate upon entering kindergarten and have very few resources, it’s almost impossible for them to catch up to their upper-middle class peers. The partnership between Head Start and the library helped many children gain literacy, and allowed some kids to attend school that wouldn’t otherwise. Libraries can positively impact one’s education before it even begins. Early childhood literacy programs can mean the difference between a college education and poverty for some children. With the declining community in libraries, more and more families will continue in the cycle of poverty. A young love for reading occurs not just because of the books and information found in the library, but due to the outreach of librarians and application of the community.

Community in libraries has always been an important cornerstone of towns and schools alike, but now is more significant than ever. In fact, in the age of mobile technology, community could be necessary for the survival of public libraries. Why go to the library and look something up when the answer is at one’s fingertips? Also, books can be purchased at bookstores, or even online, as well as borrowed from friends. A library offers so much more than tidbits of information. In fact, there is even more to a library than books. The pinnacle of a library is the interpersonal learning experience that transcends demographics. Members of a community who are unable to afford or access technology on their own can do so in the public space of a library. There is also help that librarians can offer in person that an electronic source cannot. Many fear that reduction of books reduces the value of a library, but it does the opposite by bringing more people into the communal area. Community involvement can be largely attributed to librarians, but also requires active participation of the patrons. An empty library cannot function as a community, but a library that embraces the “living room experience” can become a new world of learning and fellowship. Said poet, author, and playwright Dr. Maya Angelou:

“All information belongs to everybody all the time. It should be available. It should be accessible to the child, to the woman, to the man, to the old person, to the semiliterate, to the presidents of universities, to everyone. It should be open…. the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.”


Maya Angelou found her voice in libraries because they helped her realize that she was not alone. Libraries offer solitude and quietness, but never loneliness. On the contrary: they offer community, and the work of countless authors like Maya Angelou attests to the timeless value of libraries in a constantly changing world.

Everyone contributes to and benefits from libraries in different ways. For example, families can mean enroll young children in a summer reading program; students can organize study groups and book clubs. A popular activity among the elderly is memoir-writing classes. There are also community activities available to those of any age or interests, such as guest speakers, intercultural festivities, or book drives. Regardless of one’s demographic, whether at a public, school, or college library, a library card is a ticket to the future.

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