Turning Libraries into Cultural Centers

Article excerpt

ALA'S PUBLIC PROGRAMS OFFICE BRINGS HISTORY, LITERATURE, AND THE ARTS TO LIBRARIES ACROSS THE NATION

American libraries are known the world over for their superlative information services, offering the practical tools people need to improve their quality of life and to increase individual options in a complex society. At most U.S. libraries, materials and programs about health, literacy, business, computers, job searching, child care, hobbies, and numerous other useful topics are firmly in place.

Libraries can also offer something less tangible, yet just as essential to a satisfying and productive life - nourishment for the spirit. Cultural programs that encourage adults and young adults to think and talk about ethics, other cultures, history, art, literature, music, and the creative process are also an important component of the library's mission to serve community information needs.

The ALA Public Programs Office has been privileged to work with more than 500 public and academic libraries during the past decade on grant-funded educational and cultural programs for adults and young adults. Some of the libraries participating in these projects have years of experience in creating programming for adults and children, some have offered only children's programming, and others are just venturing into this sphere of library service. All of them have summoned up the energy and enthusiasm to create marvelous programs that encourage their communities to look to the library for cultural enrichment.

Supported primarily by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund in the past, ALA Public Programs projects bring exhibitions, reading and discussion programs, nationally known writers, and important films and videos into libraries large and small throughout the nation. Other project funders have included Time-Warner, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Beneficial Management Corporation.

A message we hear time and again from librarians who coordinate cultural programs offered through ALA is this: In spite of the sometimes enormous demands these programs make on staff time and library resources, they are immensely satisfying and challenging professional experiences. And just as important, they help libraries establish an enduring profile in their communities as centers for cultural activities that can make a difference in patrons' lives. ALA's traveling exhibition programs in particular have provided opportunities for libraries to develop firm cooperative relationships with community groups and to gain equal footing with other civic institutions - especially in the eyes of local government.

Examples of ALA's grant-funded cultural programming include the currently touring exhibitions "The Frontier in American Culture," "Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington," and "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution." "Poets in Person," "The Nation That Works," and "Exploring the West. . . Whose West?" are ongoing discussion programs. Another project, "Writers Live at the Library," has brought prominent authors into libraries throughout a nine-state area of the Midwest since 1993.

Several themes recur in reports from participating libraries. Librarians describe the feeling of teamwork, pride, and enthusiasm that develops among library staff at all levels as they work together on cultural projects. Surprisingly strong positive responses and various levels of monetary support and contributions come from local businesses, civic organizations, and the media.

Libraries report that attendance at some cultural programs is larger than that at other library programs and includes many people who do not regularly use the library. One library's attendance figures went from 4,000 to 13,000 during an ALA exhibition period. Circulation and library card sign-ups often rise dramatically during major programs. Exhibitions have helped coalesce community support and raise the library's "recognition factor" among local residents. …