How they remain vital (or even relevant) in the digital age
By Ken Mammarella
For a decade, Alta Porterfield has been helping to plan the future. It’s her job, as statewide social innovator for the Delaware Division of Libraries. Not just following Aerosmith’s “Dream On” (one of her favorite songs), but making the future happen.
Thanks to her, other librarians and people and organizations with money and power, the state’s 33 public libraries have hosted weddings and dance classes. They make makerspace equipment available. Social workers and navigators have office hours. For those on the other side of the digital divide, there are spaces to meet confidentially. Patrons can check out museum passes, Tonieboxes, Lego kits, blood pressure cuffs, thermal leak detectors and kits for picking up trash and becoming citizens.
Of course, libraries are still built on books, with 603,000 showing up in a recent search of the statewide catalog, starting with 31 copies of various New Castle County budgets.
“We were anchored in print and anchored in reading, and that’s still the foundation,” says Annie Norman, who for 20 years has served as the state librarian. “But people learn in different ways, and so we provide experiences. Libraries have always been community centers. I describe them as community help desks. We help you take the next step, whether it’s an individual or community.”
One program in that vein is Delaware Humanities’ Community Conversation, a series of facilitator-led chats at libraries asking local residents, among other things, “How can we preserve our stories and histories?” and “How can we improve?”
Libraries are “civic bridges and centers of community engagement,” says Diana Brown, who as New Castle County’s community services manager supervises 10 libraries. Today’s libraries partner with nonprofits, businesses and government agencies on concepts, such as a giveaway of the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner at the Woodlawn Library.
Some activities notch multiple achievements, she says, exemplifying with a Jack and Jill of America program at the Middletown library, where students developed their engineering skills in building a structure from food to be donated to the Food Bank Delaware. “It was engaging students, a STEM activity and doing good.”
Building The Future
Delaware libraries today cover about 600,000 square feet, more than doubling in the past decade, on the way to get a million square feet, or the state’s goal of 1 square foot per person, Norman says.
“Libraries should have flexible spaces because needs evolve,” she says. In the pandemic, libraries saw a demand for outdoor spaces, and so the system is assessing outdoor amenities. “The future depends on what the community, what Delaware needs. We’re watching trends across the nation.”
Sometimes, simple rooms are all that are needed, say for civic association meetings, workshops by nonprofits and quiet places to study. Increasingly, the space is specialized.
“Every library we do, we add a little more,” Brown says, noting that the Middletown library has presentation equipment and software, because local high students asked for it to complete homework.
The county is now planning the replacement of the 49-year-old Newark Library — with a two-story structure, that will offer 50% more interior space and 80% more parking spaces — on the same site. Details of what will be inside will be developed with public hearings this year.
Porterfield says timing is important for changes. The Brandywine Hundred Library closed its cafe more than a decade ago, using that space for events, but the Route 9 Library — the state’s newest library, opening in 2017 — hosts the Reader’s Cafe, a restaurant open three days a week.
Ambiance is also key. “The library is a friendly, welcoming place,” she says, contrasting it to the pigeonholing people might see elsewhere. “When you’re in a crisis, it’s hard to think. People don’t want to feel like they’re just a piece of paper pushed from one place to the next. We listen. We care.”
That feeling powers several initiatives. In 2017, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services started placing social workers in libraries. Social workers have scheduled hours in six New Castle County libraries (Bear, Kirkwood Highway, Newark, Route 9, Wilmington and Woodlawn), and Appoquinimink will add the service this year.
The state library system also maintains a Get Connected page (https://lib.de.us/getconnected) that proclaims: “We connect you with the technology and/or social service resources you need.” Menus and links start with Unite Delaware (people type in their needs, and the platform will find help). Librarians will help people with inadequate computer literacy skills get connected.
“Libraries are second responders,” Norman says, noting people turn to them in crisis and when they simply need internet access (Delawareans can check out Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots).
Some programs bridge the digital world and real life.
During the pandemic, librarians were surprised to learn how much people relied on them to print out hard copies of leases and other documents.
Key to many programs are partners, as disparate as the new Delaware Journalism Collaborative and Keep Delaware Beautiful. The week of her interview, Norman received pitches from the Delaware Academy of Medicine and the University of Delaware to get involved.
In 2021, the state launched a teleservice program with kiosks in three libraries downstate. It’s the nation’s first statewide service for situations calling for privacy and high-speed Internet access, such as digital job interviews, medical and legal appointments, and meetings with government agencies. Kiosks or reconfigured rooms have spread to the Route 9 and Woodlawn libraries, and they’re due this month in the Bear, Elsmere, Newark and North Wilmington libraries.
Porterfield shared a feel-good anecdote involving a veteran living in a shelter who took classes at the library to improve. “He worked hard,” she says, and when he got a full-time job, he reached out to the library staff to thank them for his success.
The Library of Things is a growing group of, well, things that are not books or other media. New Castle County libraries with things include Appoquinimink, Brandywine, Elsmere, Newark and Route 9, says Sarena Deglin, an administrative librarian for the state. “I believe more of the NCC libraries will be circulating items as well within the next year.” A search on a recent day included 528 things, starting with three full-page magnifiers and ending with a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
The statewide catalog counts 2.2 million items, including 603,000 books, 137,000 digital items, 60,000 videos, 36,000 magazines and newspapers, 30,000 audiobooks and 29,000 music items. Plus, a link to 43 million open-access articles.
Yet books will not be forgotten. “We have to shift to have a culture of reading, and reading in depth,” Norman says, calling that habit essential to civic engagement.
And one more yet: Even though interior space is increasing, librarians regularly weed their collections, say for too many copies of old bestsellers.
“Library shelves are basically real estate,” Brown says. “If it doesn’t circulate, it’s taking space for materials that could be used.”
Wilmington Library is a Leader
In 2022, the Wilmington Public Library was one of three winners of the National Medal of Museum and Library Service. “We’ve reinvented ourselves from a traditional library to an institution that values experiential learning and transformative life experiences,” says director Jamar Rahming.
The transformation has featured programming aimed at its service area, which is 80% Black. That has included a reunion of the TV series A Different World (“next to Oprah, we made history”) and speakers like Angela Davis and Levar Burton. On the way: Phylicia Rashad, possibly Cornel West, and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with Slick Rick. No taxpayer dollars are used for such programming, he notes.
Library staffers also recognize that their location, in the heart of downtown, means that it is “a sanctuary space for people experiencing homelessness,” he says, and that many needy families live nearby. That’s why, with the help of Through the Word Church, it hosted a free Thanksgiving dinner for 250. And thanks to groups like Harper’s Heart and A Mother’s Love Foundation, it has hosted giveaways of food, diapers, shoes, strollers and backpacks.
The library is the “intellectual, recreational and social hub of the community,” Rahming says. Throughout the year, young people can turn to the library as a place away from troubles on the street.
When asked what the library has stopped to accommodate its new mission, he gives a surprising answer. “We’ve decided not to say ‘no.’ We always find a way to say ‘yes’ to our community.” That has meant letting people host weddings, funerals or other events that matter to them at the library.
School Libraries Changing, Too
Harry Brake, president of the Delaware Association of School Libraries, has a grand idea for the libraries in the state’s 250 public schools. “They should be a resource hub for every discipline, everyone in the schools,” he says. “Not just ‘Here’s your book.’”
That said, “books are still available and are not going away.” In fact, books are becoming more available, since those schools, following a pilot with Colonial School District, are linking their catalogs to the statewide library catalog, increasing the access for all borrowers among all the collections. Most libraries in Delaware are members, and Norman says the rest have been invited.
Meanwhile, censorship, which Pen America calls a “full-fledged social and political movement,” is reducing access to books across the country, most often for titles with LGBTQ+ themes or important characters of color. The advocacy group’s latest report tracked no cases in Delaware.
“School librarians are champions for social justice,” says EveryLibrary, which calls itself the only national political action committee for libraries. “Librarians are experts in the location, evaluation, and curation of books that allow students to ‘see’ themselves in the stories.” That’s of particular importance in Delaware, where 58% of students identify as a race or ethnicity other than white or Caucasian, the report says.
Things that are not books are becoming increasingly important in schools, too. The library at Woodbridge High, where Brake works, has a 3-D printer, a Cricut machine that prints and cuts paper, a green-screen studio and audio recorders and microphones for podcasts. He’d like to add a laser cutter, a soldering iron, a 3-D printing pen, electronic building kids and a sewing machine to replace the one that was released.
He ended recent emails with a quote from the This American Life podcast: “Libraries aren’t just for books. They’re often spaces that transform into what you need them to be: a classroom, a cyber café, a place to find answers, a quiet spot to be alone. It’s actually kind of magical.”