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Nonstop Learning at the Public Library

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Learning rocks and never stops at the public library. Libraries have evolved from being book warehouses to learning labs and one-stop-shop community centers for all ages. Patrick Remer, Senior Community Library Manager at the Pleasant Hill Library, grew up in Pleasant Hill. “As someone who used this library when I was a kid in the eighties, for me it was this awesome edifice filled with books. Now it’s an explosion of resources. Kids come to talk to authors, they come for hands-on learning, our Lego Club, our Maker events.”

I’m here for a virtual author event for the library’s Citywide Read program. The library is “Skyping in” children’s author and comedian Chris Grabenstein from his apartment in New York City. His book Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library takes us on an adventure through the radically high-tech, old school universe of a fantasy library. At first, I feel weird sitting among tweens and teens, their parents and an array of yellow balloons. Soon, though, the room’s enthusiastic discussion about books and writing and the kids’ bottomless curiosity makes me feel at home.

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I’m also here because I’ve been thinking about how institutions that serve the common good, like libraries (schools, community health clinics, universities, newspapers), communicate their value.  Over the last twenty years, and especially since 2008, funding cuts and technology have radically altered the nature and viability of these institutions. Among other challenges they face, they must learn how to market themselves.

“How do we demonstrate our value to the entire community and communicate what we can accomplish and then make sure our stakeholders realize this is a really valuable resource, it’s not just warehouses full of books,” says Remer. “If they don’t know what you do, why would they vote for a bond to build a new facility.

“We’ve seen changes in funding and the ability of our institutions to meet those challenges, I’m thinking of schools. If you talk to school librarians (they’re called media specialists now), school libraries have been decimated and when times get really really tight, schools look to librarians to fill other needs (taking them away from their core function).”  What used to be taught in schools, skills like research, how to look through an index, how to search, now may fall through the cracks at school.

“I’m on a mission to build a new library – it’s been 50 years. This is a once in a generation opportunity for this new generation of kids to have what I had growing up,” he says. (To see details about the local Task Force to bring a new library to Pleasant Hill read here).

Changes in Learning at All Ages
“The diversity of our community and the technology changes are radical and the reasons people come to the library (has changed) and the information literacies that attend those needs — it’s not just basic literacy, print literacy, but also about digital literacy – our information seeking literacy has changed,” says Remer.

To address its community needs, the library system offers programming by age; youth, teen and adult services. For adults, learning to read may be a priority need. “For Contra Costa County we have an adult literacy program called Project Second Chance, and they’re housed in the same building with us. They have a computer and tutoring lab and share several rooms with us. They also run the weekly English as a Second Language group (on Wednedsays) where you may see folks who have only been here two weeks in the country to people who have been here for years,” says Remer.

Other services for adults include social security workshops, explainer sessions about the new health care law, and help filing taxes (the Concord branch focuses on tax assistance).  Adults also conduct job searches at the library.

As an adult who has always used public libraries, I view them like my nearby parks, places where I get my learning and recreation needs met and see my neighbors. It’s my own learning lab, a space where I can test an idea by roaming through the stacks, tracking related books, or asking a reference librarian for alternative search tactics and treasures.  Sitting at home and googling stuff has its limits. Ordering new books messes with my streamlined life. When I moved two years ago, I gave away 14 small boxes of books to my neighborhood library’s Friends association.  I knew the library would have tons more I would want to read (and didn’t have keep and lug and dust).

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Spreading the Word
Remer and his colleagues prioritize reaching out to under-served communities. “We recognize that a lot of programming is taken advantage of by folks who already have certain supports in their life, maybe they live in proximity to the library where they can just walk here or there’s a strong love of reading the household. We want to know who’s not showing up to these events.  A few hundred people is not every kid in Pleasant Hill. We need to figure out why not.”

The library plans to doing geographical mapping of card holders to figure out areas of non-users and then follow up with research that asks why non-users  don’t have a library card.

Another way to reach under-served communities is to get out of the building and do story time at Head Start and First Five programs.

Meanwhile, Remer, his colleagues, volunteers and Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library continue to cook up cool stuff for the young and no longer young.  “Eco Studio is something we do almost every week on Wednesday afternoons. We have a teen advisory group that we go to and ask – what do you want to do after school? They want creative outlets, crafts, to make their own fashion. This is a partnership with the waste service provider, Republic Services. They have an outreach program focused on recycling and reuse. We secured a bunch of sewing machines and fabric and set up a studio for kids to make things. And we have a set of volunteers that is over the moon that this new generation is interested in learning these traditional skills.” The Eco Studio, and other programming illustrate the radical high tech, old-school sweet spot that is the public library.

(Story Time photo courtesy of the library’s facebook page)

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3 Comments

  1. James O'Hanrahan says

    Awesome and informative article! I had no idea how much Patrick Remer and the Pleasant Hill library do for our community. Wow — thank you!!!

    • Haleh says

      I was also surprised by how much libraries offer each of our communities. This just scratches the surface!

  2. Norman Remer says

    It is so inspiring to see what can happen with modest funding and a few good ideas. If Patrick’s approaches can become the model for other public libraries, the future looks bright, indeed. I am immensely proud of all his accomplishments and look forward to celebrating the many victories to come, victories of the heart and imagination.

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