The changing role of public libraries

The train rattles along the tracks as colorful graffiti flashes by my window on the Link Light Rail heading toward downtown Seattle. We pass through a progression of neighborhoods—Rainier Beach, Columbia City, Beacon Hill—and it soon becomes clear that some districts are more prosperous than others.

Debarking at the underground University Street Station, a gritty little elevator delivers me up into city skyscrapers and rain-soaked streets. Waiting for the light, I catch a glimpse of curious silver architecture peeking from behind the rows of dark towers. There, like a candle in the window, sits the Seattle Public Library.

Unique, surprising, and stunningly beautiful, the library is one of Seattle’s top tourist destinations. But, in a city with the nation’s third-largest homeless population, Seattle Public Library (SPL) is also known for its efforts to quietly assist thousands of citizens who find themselves struggling to fill basic needs like food, housing, or internet and phone access.

Despite Seattle’s economic boom, or perhaps because of it, rents in the metropolitan area have risen steadily over the last decade. Rapid population growth, an apartment shortage, and other factors leave at least 12,000 people seeking refuge in King County shelters, tent encampments, or tiny house villages on any given night. Along with being unhoused comes inevitable mental and physical distress. According to the Seattle Times, 2018 was the deadliest year on record for homeless people in King County with an estimated 191 deaths, up from 78 in 2012.

Finding themselves on the front line of rapid social change, SPL librarians have stepped up to fill gaps in their community that are not covered by other service organizations. Day-by-day, these dedicated public servants help thousands of people access the information, support, and tools necessary to survive and succeed in an increasingly disparate and digitized world.

In many ways, Seattle Public Library and thousands of others like it, have become what is known as a “third place” in society—not home or work, but like the old-time grange, a neutral ground where diverse community members can gather without obligation. A place where people can simply feel human and accepted.

Indeed, with their welcoming environment and free and equal access to an extensive range of knowledge, ideas, and opinions, public libraries have been called America’s last bastion of true democracy.

It’s an ideal upheld by WSU alumni librarians in Seattle, Spokane, Colville, and other cities throughout the state and nation. With their mission to educate and improve lives, they each ask the same question, “What are the needs of our community and what can the library do to help?” As it turns out, these librarians can humbly achieve almost anything they put their minds to.


Waiting at the reference desk on the third floor of Seattle Public Library, Linda Johns ’82 approaches me with a friendly smile. Dressed in a classic houndstooth sheath and low heeled boots, she deftly leads me on a tour of the facility.

Built in 2004, the expansive, geometric steel and glass building exudes an air of order and tranquility. On the third floor “Living Room,” patrons, homeless or not, are quietly seated reading or working on laptops. Rugs, individual lamps, a large planter box, and small coffee shop give the space a homey ambience.

“I love this building,” says Johns, reader services librarian and author of a dozen children’s books, including the Hannah West mysteries set in Seattle. “Instagram just named us the most instagrammable library.”

As we turn the corner to ascend a ten-story fluorescent-yellow escalator, it’s easy to see why. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas together with Seattle-based LMN Architects, the colors and textures resemble a set from Star Trek more than a typical book repository.

On level four, for example, stairs descend into a shadowed, curving, red hallway that holds a series of meeting and conference rooms. Stainless steel floors throughout the building are adorned with flower-like vents which increase air flow and diffuse problems with musty books, humidity, and poor hygiene.

On every floor, people are busy at computers, intently searching for jobs or housing, conducting university research, or just using email or Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends—relationships that, for the homeless, often fall by the wayside.

“We have about 4,000 visitors each day to the Central Library,” says Johns as she points out features along the way. “People are still excited about books and circulation is strong.” In addition, the library offers an astonishing assortment of nonbook options ranging from free museum passes and concerts by local musicians to tax preparation assistance for those with incomes up to sixty thousand dollars.

As the housing crisis has grown over the last five years, however, Johns says the library has shifted its attention toward equity, social justice, and removing obstacles such as lack of income or education that prevent people from succeeding in society.

“Throughout the SPL system, our librarians have a large focus on outreach—being out of the building and working in the community,” she says. “Whether that’s bringing hot spots to tent cities, signing up people for library cards, providing free meals at after-school programs, or teaching a class in a housing project, it could be anything.

“We even have two courtesy phones for public use. It seems like a basic thing, but few pay phones are available anymore and if you don’t have a cell phone, you’re stuck.”

Pausing by a dark gray wall, Johns turns a key that seems to magically open a door to the library staff offices. Down the hall, she introduces me to Hayden Bass, SPL outreach program manager, who, for the last four years, has overseen many of the library’s social initiatives.

“At their best, public libraries are engines for equity,” says Bass. “We try to eliminate barriers to library services and community resources for low-income populations as well as immigrants, communities of color, and others.

“We do this by providing access to education, job skills, Wi-Fi, and internet—things that are a daily part of life for many people but for others are a huge barrier to basic human needs like housing or applying for a job online.”

A key part of this effort involves bringing services to homeless encampments and day shelters, she says. Through city funding and private grants, they have installed Wi-Fi hotspots in tiny house villages throughout Seattle, including Georgetown with its tidy rows of brightly-painted homes.

To assist with the ever-growing number of requests, Bass says the library recently hired a full-time social worker to counsel patrons and connect them with emergency shelter, housing, food, childcare, healthcare, and other services. The social worker also helps people obtain identification cards and locate space to store their belongings.

Though their overall personal experience has been positive, Johns and Bass agree that some citizens are put off by the sight of homeless people using the library. Indeed, there are occasional conflicts with staff or other patrons and problems with drugs, alcohol, and mental health.

“But, the regulars, the unhoused patrons who come in all the time, they want to do what’s right,” says Johns. “Those who respect and value the library want to help keep it safe and welcoming.”

“When you’re homeless, it’s so stressful trying to constantly figure things out and survive day to day,” she adds. “Shelters are very loud and there is no privacy. So, just having your own chair and a little perimeter of space around you as you read is so valuable.”

Like all libraries, SPL has posted rules of conduct but they’re basic common sense—you can talk but not too loudly. If listening to music, use headphones. No eating but you can have a beverage in a covered

There are fifteen security officers on staff throughout the SPL system who Johns says are instructed to be gentle and not aggressive.

“They greet patrons at the doors when we open at 10 a.m. and give them as many chances as possible,” she says. “They’ll often start a conversation by asking, ‘I don’t know if you’re aware of this rule but… .’ They give them a chance to adhere to it—like you need to wear shoes inside the library.”


On the other side of the country, Tara Murphy ’05 faces many of the same challenges in her role as assistant director of information technology at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Not to be confused with America’s first lending library— the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, which charged members a fee to check out books—the Free Library of Philadelphia was created in 1891, and for the first time, gave average citizens free access to library materials and programs.

Tara Murphy at the Free Library of Philadelphia
Tara Murphy at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Courtesy Tara Murphy)

Murphy, who supports many public outreach efforts alongside her IT responsibilities at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), says their city, like Seattle, is one of diverse neighborhoods and the library has a presence in 54 of them.

“The digital divide is incredibly high—50 percent of the population has no access to high-speed internet or computers in the home,” she says.

“That changes our role dramatically from being a place where people check out books to one where people come to apply for jobs and kids can do their homework. We have a free drop-in after-school program where we see around 2,000 kids every day throughout our system.

“Outside the library walls, the Techmobile—loaded with Wi-Fi, six laptops, and an instructor—allows us to take technology into the different neighborhoods,” she says. “We can park on the corner and have people come on board for résumé instruction, editing, printing, help designing business cards, or to just watch videos for an hour.”

Murphy says Philadelphia, named GQ 2018 City of the Year, is renowned for its culinary history, and also, unfortunately, for a recent spike in opioid addiction. “People come from all over to get cheap heroin in the Kensington neighborhood,” she says. So much so, in fact, the Philadelphia mayor’s task force calls the opioid epidemic their greatest public health crisis in a century and has mobilized every effort to fight it, including the library.

“One of our biggest outreach initiatives is using Narcan, the antidote for narcotic overdose,” says Murphy. “We also have training on how to assist with ODs in our bathrooms and reading rooms. We have required people to leave their ID at the front desk when they use the bathroom because so many ODs happen there.”

Murphy pauses and sighs. “Sometimes an overdose happens when kids are in the library and staff have to go over and administer Narcan. So, we have a lot of challenges.”

Like Seattle, the FLP has social workers on staff to help connect patrons to appropriate services, but Murphy says they could use a few more as the number of unhoused people continues to rise.

Beyond this aspect of their service, the FLP sponsors an immense array of programs and events spanning every imaginable topic and also provides 1,000 computers for public use.

“The library is such a multifaceted information hub for the community,” Murphy says. The library card is magical.

“In the Central Library, for example, we’ve turned a rooftop space into a culinary literacy center. The idea grew out of a survey asking teens what programs they’d like to see. Their response was a desire to learn how to cook—to learn a marketable skill to help feed and provide for their families.

“And, it’s not just for teens—we now have a program called Edible Alphabet that helps new Americans learn English and connect to our culture through recipes, cooking, and measuring.

“So, this is one way we’ve shifted as far as what people are looking for in a library—as not just a place to be shushed. We’re really a cornerstone of the community, especially in our neighborhood libraries.”

Their compassionate outreach is clear as Murphy describes a program they run in conjunction with the People’s Paper Co-op in the Village of Arts and Humanities.

“The co-op assists incarcerated women who are returning to society after 10 or 20 years of imprisonment,” she says. “First, they take the rap sheet and shred it. Then, over the next 6–8 weeks, the women take courses on how to dress, use a computer, cell phone, and apply for a job online. At the end, they make clean new paper from the old rap sheet and print out their résumé.

“It says, ‘The rap sheet is not who I am. This is who I am.’ They want to be members of society and the library is helping them.”


On a chill wintry day, I climb the steps of Downtown Spokane Public Library to meet with marketing and communications director Amanda Donovan x’99. As with other libraries I’ve visited, the mood is calm, Zen-like. Patrons, quietly seated at tables, still abide the rules they first learned in grade school.

Donovan begins our tour on the spacious third floor, where an enormous curved wall of windows delights visitors with the city’s best view of Spokane River Falls. The floor is also the setting for the library’s award-winning “late-night” talk show, Lilac City Live!

Along the way, she introduces me to a number of enthusiastic coworkers. Donovan herself is clearly excited about the new programs and changes taking place at Spokane Public Library.

A recently passed bond measure will allow them to build three new branches as well as remodel four existing branches, all with an eye toward making the library a third place and providing services in a more modern way, she says.

Throughout their six branches, the Spokane library already offers many nontraditional programs including STEAM technologies like 3-D printing and Ozobot coding that may not be available in local schools. Additionally, the Downtown Library recently established a Library of Things, managed by Cindy Wigen (03 Hum.). She says the popular program allows patrons to check out items like snowshoes, guitars, telescopes, sewing machines, energy efficiency kits, and much more. They even provide free music and voice lessons.

But, the library’s biggest effort, says Donovan, is an ongoing partnership with Spokane Public School District 81, the second largest school district in Washington. The collaboration has drawn national interest and stands as a role model for other communities hoping to implement similar ideas.

“All staff and students get a fine-free library card that’s good for books and all other resources,” she says. “So kids have access to all digital materials, online classes, e-book downloads, homework and business databases. We have an online language program that offers instruction in 87 languages as well as ESL.

“We also help provide laptops and hotspots to students. You need a laptop to be successful in school today and a lot of our Spokane students don’t have them. So, we asked how can we partner with the Spokane Public School District to help provide that to students.

“We’re constantly looking for what the community needs and then finding ways to meet those needs.”

That creativity is cleverly on display at the Spokane Public Library Hillyard branch where a quaint old card catalog has been repurposed as a seed library for local customers. Each drawer contains assorted edible and ornamental plant seeds including heirloom varieties.

“There are several community gardens in Hillyard and we hope to see people growing vegetables with their families to help reduce food insecurity,” says librarian Cathy Bakken. “The Hillyard neighborhood is a very low-income area.”

“Fifty-six percent of Spokane Public School students live in poverty according to federal levels,” Bakken says. “In Hillyard, there are two elementary and one middle school within walking distance and 80 percent of the children live in poverty—one area is actually 88 percent.

“These families often don’t know where they’ll be sleeping. They have a suitcase maybe, or a garbage bag. They don’t have many books.”

Bakken leads a team that reaches out to schools and families with information about the library-school district partnership and available resources. She also attends neighborhood council meetings and coordinates with the community court.

“Housing and rents have gone way up, so housing is more insecure,” she says. “Students often lose books and have overdue fees, so we want to remove that barrier to get them back into the libraries with books and technology in hopes we can better their future.”

Thanks to the passing of the bond issue, Bakken says they will be building a new joint public-school library across the street at Shaw Middle School. The facility—called a community-oriented school—will be the first combination library in Spokane and will serve students, the public, and two alternative high schools.

“We’re working to improve reading levels with the ultimate goal of increasing graduation rates and improving the students’ chances of having a good future,” she says.


Seventy miles north, in the small timber town of Colville, I’m greeted by Sarah English (’94, ’95, ’96), manager of the stately Colville Public Library. The ultimate Coug, English sports a red dress, WSU bracelet and watch, and crimson-rimmed eyeglasses.

Her cheerful soft-spoken demeanor is a bright spot in a county that has long been economically depressed. Access to computers, internet, and television are further limited by Colville’s mountainous terrain but English says the library helps level the playing field both in terms of technology and community spirit.

Such was the case with the 2015 Light Up the Park event held in nearby Chewelah when English was manager of Chewelah Public Library.

A newspaper survey had just designated Chewelah as the poorest city in Washington state, she says. Though the townspeople knew they were materially poor, they always believed there was wealth in their hearts. And, so, after discussion, they decided to take on the Guinness Book of World Records.

The project started that spring when English handed out free pumpkin seeds at the library and enlisted Master Gardener Mary Sety to hold a planting class. Participants tracked their vines’ growth and compared notes. The mayor gave presentations.

Eventually, just before Halloween, Chewelah’s 3,000 citizens had grown and carved 1,951 pumpkins—each complete with eyes, eyebrows, a nose, and mouth—and toted them to the park.

“There was a real sense of pitching in together to make a beautiful event,” English recalls. “People may think our city looks shabby, but, by gosh, we looked like a Hallmark movie that day. Hundreds of carved pumpkins glowing in a light evening mist.

“We lined them all up in a serpentine formation and ended up with the world’s longest continuous line of carved and lit jack-o-lanterns for one week. That’s a pretty heady thing when you supposedly live in the poorest town. I like to think the library had a big role in that.”

English says small towns typically have few places for community members to gather, and the library offers a chance for people to network, learn about the world, and feel a part of humanity.

“It’s a real cultural exchange,” she says, “We’ve even had a woman selling eggs and turkeys here.” At Colville’s library, public computers are loaded with Word, Excel, and databases like Learning Express that offer practice tests for jobs such as postal inspector and nursing, as well as for GRE, SAT, and citizenship tests. Printing and scanning services are provided and English even proctors tests for students in distance education courses, enabling them to get online degrees.

They also extend their wireless network into the library parking lot, giving citizens 24-hour internet access from their cars. The password is posted on the library door.

“No matter your monetary or housing status, there’s a place for you here—like all these books, you belong and contribute to the richness of the library,” she says. “I think our staff helps foster that idea by greeting people by name and being welcoming.”


Web extra

Infographic video: Spokane Library of Things


More information

The Room of Requirement: Libraries aren’t just for books. This American Life (National Public Radio) presents stories of people who roam the stacks and find unexpected things that just happen to be exactly what they required.

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library, goes behind the scenes of one of the greatest knowledge institutions in the world and reveals it as a place of welcome, cultural exchange and learning. (from PBS)

The Public: A film that dramatizes the social advocacy and support mission of a library (Rotten Tomatoes review)