It’s a business incubator. It’s a tech hub. It’s a knitting school. It’s a free-speech zone. It’s a homelessness help center on wheels.
It’s a … library?
Thanks in part to grants administered by the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, local libraries are developing an increasingly wide range of identities.
Grants fund more than books
The federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) distributes funds from the national Institute of Museum and Library Services to states, which use the money to support special projects in local libraries.
In Arizona, the LSTA grants are managed by the Arizona State Library, which is overseen by Secretary of State Michele Reagan.
In 2017, Reagan’s office distributed $800,000 in LSTA funds to 56 programs across the state. The grants ranged in size from $2,500 for “Programming in a Box” at Prescott Valley’s library to $57,800 for a “Grow and Play” space at the Pima County Public Library.
This year’s grant applications will be accepted until March 9, with funds awarded as soon as May 1.
Grants are awarded to the programs that are most likely to provide lasting benefits, and to address needs specific to local communities, Reagan explained.
“We look for unique projects,” she said, “especially something that’s unique to the area and needed locally.”
Because the grants are separate from libraries’ regular operating budgets, they provide a chance to expand beyond traditional services.
“Libraries are really going through a transformation across the entire country, as well as in Arizona,” Reagan said. “They’re not just for books. Libraries are the places to go to find the technology or the classes or to fill whatever gap there is in a community.”
Meeting community needs
In the Phoenix area, libraries have used the funds to meet surprisingly varied needs.
Avondale Public Library used a 2015 LSTA grant to encourage outdoor exercise with basketballs, trekking poles and other recreational gear that patrons can check out like books. Phoenix libraries used LSTA funds for robotics labs; Maricopa Public Library purchased virtual reality headsets; and Buckeye Public Library opened a mobile computing lab that provides laptops and computer classes to all ages.
Other LSTA grants have broadened libraries’ literary offerings, such as Mesa’s Writer-in-Residence program, in which professional authors coach local writers.
And several libraries have used the money to equip “Makerspaces” with supplies and classes to empower patrons to do everything from sewing clothes to carving wood. Some, like Scottsdale Public Library’s Senior Makerspace, are designed to help older adults maintain cognitive and social skills, while others are open to anyone who wants to make things.
In Peoria, a group of creative residents made their own Makerspace.
Librarian Jennifer Crowell was working in her lower-level office at Peoria Public Library one Sunday in 2016 when a rambunctious group of knitters came down the stairs. They’d been meeting in the main level of the library, until another librarian suggested that their rowdy get-togethers — while welcome — might be better suited for the activity room.
As she got to know the knitters, Crowell learned that they possessed other not-just-for-grandmothers skills, including crochet, quilting and embroidery.
Other library patrons started dropping by, asking for lessons or for help mending family heirlooms. Crowell was so impressed with the knitters’ willingness to share their talents that she proposed formalizing their Sunday library time with classes and group projects. They agreed, and she wrote a 2017 grant requesting funds to purchase five sewing machines, an embroidery machine, a serger, as well as scissors, a cutting table, and enough yarn, thread and needles to outfit anyone who might drop by in search of a little Home-Ec redux.
The Peoria Makerspace quickly became so popular that the library added a Wednesday sewing session with free kits that allow beginning crafters to complete a small project.
As the program expanded, the original spirit of generosity has persisted. Makerspace participants frequently devote sessions to knitting things like breast prostheses to donate to women who have undergone mastectomies, or caps to give to newborns at area hospitals. Others sew dog beds for animal shelters or make stuffed animals for the library’s storytime events.
“It’s this very caring, loving group, so they keep expanding into other ways to serve,” Crowell said. “You see how the community gets bigger and it spills out into other areas. The future of libraries is as a space where we can get together.”
Dr. Cate McNamara, who is on the library faculty at South Mountain Community College, which co-operates the South Mountain Community Library in partnership with the city of Phoenix, also sees libraries as an inclusive space.
During the 2016 election, McNamara became concerned about the lack of opportunity for polite civil discourse and decided to address that absence by installing a whiteboard — nicknamed “Democracy Wall” — in the library. By asking simple, open-ended questions, then photographing and recording the answers, she hoped to give people a place to share their thoughts about issues ranging from library services to ballot initiatives.
“We want people to be able to express their voice and know that it will be heard in an equal setting with everyone else,” McNamara said. “And you might never know the full impact of your words. Maybe somebody else sees what you wrote, and that gives them an idea, or just another way to think about something.”
The low-tech project was so popular with library users — even small children got involved by dictating answers for their parents to write — that 11 other Phoenix libraries agreed to join it, leading to a 2017 grant to purchase more boards, markers and signs. In addition to coordinating questions across the branches, the library started collaborating with other city departments to get street-level input into city policies and services.
A recent question: “What could the city do to encourage you to ride your bike more?” was suggested by Phoenix’s bicycle coordinator, who was able to incorporate some of the best responses into a proposal for transit improvements.
Another question: “What is one thing you’d like to tell Mayor Stanton?” prompted McNamara to send photos of the boards directly to the mayor’s office.
“We’re giving the data to the folks who can use the data. That always feels good,” she said. “Plus, this is a great learning opportunity about participatory democracy.”
Help for small businesses
The Glendale Public Library also found a way to enhance city services, by collaborating with the city’s economic-development department to establish an Innovation Development and Entrepreneurial Assistance (IDEA) Center.
The IDEA Center, which was awarded a 2017 LSTA grant to buy furniture and equipment, aims to be a “one-stop-shop” for people looking to start a business or find a job, according to librarian Michael Schor.
“It’s a gathering place and hub for anyone who has an idea that they want to grow into a business or career,” Schor said.
Conference tables provide space for networking and consultations; databases allow small business owners to do market research, and two of Glendale’s economic-development managers keep office hours at the center so they’re accessible to anyone with questions about starting or expanding a business in the city.
Job seekers come in for skills classes, free advice from a career coach, and to use the center’s computers to search for jobs, write and print resumes and fill out applications.
Inventors and hobbyists use the center’s 3-D printer and scanner to create and revise their prototypes — or, occasionally, to accessorize a Comicon costume.
And the center hosts classes on such issues as trademark law and 3-D programming, as well as quarterly sessions of the ASU Start-up series, in which attendees learn how to write a business plan and market products during a six-week course in entrepreneurship.
To round out the one-stop-shopping, the library is installing an audio-video production space with a green screen and enough digital recording and editing equipment to let people create podcasts, commercials or social-media promotions. Use of the room will be free, Schor said, as are all of the Glendale IDEA Center services, except for a small supply charge for the 3-D printer.
“The city of Glendale is really focused on helping small businesses,” Schor said, “so this is a natural fit. It’s a great way to serve our community.”
Taking it to the streets
With libraries providing so many services, it was probably inevitable that some would spill outside the walls.
Tempe Public Library’s Outreach and Marketing supervisor Nick Escalante was searching for a way to reach more people, especially those who are most underserved, like the city’s veterans and homeless residents. He thought about a Bookmobile. But he wanted something less expensive and more versatile. Something like a Book Bike.
With a 2017 LSTA grant, Escalante purchased a customized Icicle Bicycle — originally designed for selling ice cream — and hired Sean King, Tempe’s first Book Bike ambassador, who hit the streets in October, bringing books to the city’s parks, senior centers, schools and farmers market. He rides down Mill Avenue and along the Tempe waterfront, offering reading materials to all.
“The idea was to take away all the barriers that might keep people from the library,” Escalante said. “So not only do you not have to get to the library, but you don’t need a library card for the Book Bike. If you don’t have an ID, you can still check out a book.”
King, who is a veteran himself, stocks the bike with up to 150 titles at a time — including a mix of mysteries, Westerns, biographies and children’s books — and rides three days a week, lending books with no more collateral than a name on an index card.
“At first people didn’t know what it was all about,” King said, “but it’s starting to build as people learn more about it. I’ve got some regulars now and they request certain genres.”
The books are all donated, and Escalante and King know that not all of them will be returned, but the books are, in some ways, only the hook. Although the conversation might start with James Patterson, King keeps chatting to ask what else his patrons might need. When he meets homeless residents, he gives them cards that list phone numbers and addresses for showers, food pantries, mental-health counseling and housing and employment assistance. When he encounters families with small children, he distributes brochures about free preschool options — plus colorful stickers.
“It’s simple but it’s huge,” said Escalante. “Because a lot of times people don’t know they have these resources available to them. And if they don’t know a program is happening, how are they going to be able to use it?”
While Makerspaces and the Book Bike used LSTA grants to purchase equipment that can keep going indefinitely, other projects are more ephemeral, like technology upgrades, data-collection projects and artist residencies.
Regardless of the differences between the projects, librarians noted two key commonalities: each one fills a need in their communities, and few would happen without the LSTA funds.
“We wouldn’t be able to do these programs without these grants,” Schor said. “We really need these grants to get us over to the next level of serving our community.”
With the 2018 grant deadline just days away, Secretary Reagan said she’s excited about the chance to help libraries take on even more roles within Arizona.
“Some of the things we’ve funded are things I would never have imagined,” she said. “The diversity is amazing. This isn’t how libraries were when I was growing up!”
All this — and they still have books, too.
More information: Applications for 2018 LSTA grants are due March 9. Visit: www.azlibrary.gov/libdev/funding/lsta