The next hot idea: the fun library

September 16, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

THE FORSYTH COUNTY Library, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, does more than lend out books: It has a full adult continuing-education program to help residents earn degrees, learn new trades, hunt for jobs, gain computer skills.

In Jacksonville, Florida, the recreation department isn't satisfied with basketball hoops. Each afternoon it's in 23 middle schools, filling kids' time with arts and crafts, field trips, jobs training and homework with tutors on hand.

The Botanic Garden in Cheyenne, Wyoming, doesn't limit itself to growing exotic trees and shrubs. It's a conservatory that grows food for low-income people's kitchens, provides plants for city parks and volunteer opportunities for at-risk youth, the disabled and elderly.

Unusual experiments like these are sprouting around the country, says Robert McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Communities in Washington. With help from the Surdna Foundation, Partners (202-887-5990) has just published a booklet -- ''Institutions as Fulcrum for Change'' -- telling three dozen of the best stories.

Mr. McNulty is especially enthusiastic about the potential of libraries: ''I think the next hot idea as a downtown anchor will be the fun library. ''

A fun library? Yes, he says: A library can be ''the great good place in the city'' -- a literacy and Internet and special film center, a place for lectures, concerts and exhibitions. And not just that, he adds: The library (often housed in a grand, historic old building) can also host coffee houses and restaurants, serve as an information center for visiting tourists, be a safe place for kids, a meeting spot for civic groups.

A number of big city libraries -- Atlanta, San Francisco, Louisville, San Antonio among them -- are trying to make themselves into great good places at their city's heart. Others are starting the effort in more modest ways.

All have good reason to think more expansively. For 20 years now, libraries have been hard-hit by budget reductions. To survive and grow, they're virtually obliged to be entrepreneurial and prove they're abreast of the times.

A prime example is the Mecklenburg, N.C., Public Library, which now sponsors Charlotte's Web, one of the nation's leading community and Internet services. Another is the Flint, Mich., Public Library with its KidsWebStation -- library materials, programs, Internet access specially tailored for children.

Boxing at the library

There's historic precedent for these imaginative efforts. Andrew Carnegie's original idea in founding free public libraries was that they would be gathering places for young people, who, once drawn there, would learn to read. Carnegie built a boxing gymnasium into one of his Pittsburgh libraries, a swimming pool into another.

The same outreach idea, Mr. McNulty argues, can be applied to many public institutions. Take the performing arts -- dance, music, theater, and their potential to address basic human concerns such as self-esteem. The Fort Wayne, Ind., Dance Ensemble uses nonverbal expression to help at-risk girls and battered women strengthen their sense of self and capacity to solve problems.

Public markets, too, are into outreach. Seattle's Pike Place Market operates a downtown food bank. Center Market Square in Wheeling, West Virginia, helps its merchants sharpen business skills. Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Farmers' Market trains residents to run their own nutritional campaigns and community markets.

Museums can become neutral meeting grounds to discuss such explosive issues as racism. Historical societies can help citizens set goals for their communities. Universities can serve as research and policy centers to solve urban problems.

But for some librarians, curators and academics it's easier to be protective than entrepreneurial. How can communities get institutions out of their shells, looking for ways to serve their communities more imaginatively?

That job seems tailor-made for America's growing ranks of LTC community foundations -- now 400 strong -- based on bequests and gifts from local donors. Geared to community goals, these foundations' total assets have now passed $10 billion. They could focus on untapped skills and potentials instead of the familiar but dreary ''needs assessments'' that charities make -- focusing on communities' social and physical shortcomings, running from child abuse to drug use to crime.

John McKnight and Jody Kretzman of Northwestern University have developed just such an ''asset-based development'' technique for neighborhoods, looking at residents' untapped skills. Often there's an electric new sense of a neighborhood's potential.

Community foundations might create citizen committees to conduct active reviews of local institutions, from libraries to theater companies to universities. The goal would be an optimistic search for untapped potentials, often with special reference to other cities' best examples. The result would be more active citizen leadership. And energized institutions could count on gaining new advocates and supporters.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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