Off the Shelf: The Library as a Community Space

Off the Shelf: The Library as a Community Space

Brittany R. Jacobs, Library Director


There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” This was not the piece of wisdom I was expecting to hear after leaving the Chicago suburbs for Minneapolis as a bright-eyed and bushy tailed 18 year-old beginning my college career. It was October and my professor was quoting British author Alfred Wainwright in an effort to gear us up for our first winter in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. As the days were getting shorter, the temperatures lower and the hint of winter in the air, we were encouraged to find a collection of indoor places to go to spend the cold, dark evenings and weekends during the not-so-nice Minnesota winter.

One place that I and many others found solitude in was the downtown Minneapolis branch of the Hennepin County Library. While libraries offer countless points of resources, they are often used as safe spaces. They’re cool in the summer, warm in the winter and open to all; and this is true from the Hennepin County Library to the Burlington Public Library and every other public library in-between.

Public libraries serve a wide variety of needs ranging from information requests to computer help, safe places for kids to play, access to computers and the internet and help finding that book that you loved so many years ago that you can’t remember the title of but know that the cover is blue. The most exciting part about being a librarian (in my opinion) is not knowing what any given day will look like because we never know who will walk in or what they’ll be looking for. To help us prepare for and anticipate patron needs, we’ve started looking at the services we offer through the lens of four key areas: Space (the actual building), Customer Service, Programming and Collection.

With the completion of our Sensory Certification right around the corner, we’ve really focused on the library building and its components (shelves, tables, desks, etc.). We’ve secured a grant to have a space consultant come in at the end of the month and help us audit the building and start the process of thinking about the design of our space in a more user-friendly way.

To be an organization with a mandate to serve all people regardless of age, economic status, cognitive or physical ability, or any other potential identifiers is a tall order, akin to hosting a party where you don’t know how many people will show up, who they’ll be, what they’ll want to do or how they’ll all get along with one another. It’s a daunting task, but we are up for the challenge and in thinking about how people interact with our space we’re setting not only our staff, but the users up for success.

Our resident ‘space-expert’ Sam Watson, Manager of Public Services, has already started this process of looking at our building and how people use the space. Though our building is fairly new, having reached its 16th year at this location this fall, there is still lots of room for growth and improvement. We’ve got several stand-out components to this building that help to set us apart as exceptional. Our location, for one, is prime real estate with fabulous river views and a minute walk to Jefferson St. The great window, that we’ve recently adopted as our new logo, overlooks the Mighty Mississippi and provides a tranquil background to the genealogy room, the computer lab and our three small group rooms.

Thanks to several donors, we’ve got several beautiful pieces of art hanging throughout the perimeter of the building. The local stained glass club has also added beauty to our space by creating the stunning lamp shades throughout the building along with the stained glass windows in our children’s department. The sheer size of our building and the amount of resources we have on hand is another aspect of what makes us extraordinary, and brings me back to our look at the space.

With nearly 150,000 items available for circulation, that’s a lot of shelf space required for holding. The shelving that we currently have in place, though efficient in that it holds everything in an organized fashion, has created little to no sight-lines, hiding our aforementioned assets and making it difficult for the staff to monitor the building for safety. Our hopes for the space consultant are in line with creating a space that feels more inviting, highlights our artwork, the views and creates spaces for gathering with easy access, and easy navigation, of our resources.

We are currently collecting survey responses from library users to get your input on our space. What do you like? What would you like to see more or less of? Do you feel welcome and comfortable in our space? Etc. With the feedback from patrons paired with our space consultant and staff input we’re excited to embark upon this new and exciting process. To remain a cutting edge system, we are in a constant state of change; shifting and transforming with the community and our users’ needs.

I hope that as the weather begins to shift and the days get shorter, you layer-up, brave the cold and continue visiting us at the library. We would love to hear what you think about our space and how we can further create an inviting and welcome environment. Our survey is available on the website in addition to printed versions available in the library.