Living Libraries

Libraries in the time of COVID-19
by Nancy Slote, Older Adults Program Manager, The Seattle Public Library

Yes, it’s true. I always wanted to be a librarian. My kindergarten report card even mentioned that I loved helping “Miss Sterling” in the school library every week. Fast forward to the mid-1970s when I earned my MA in Library Science and detoured into the field of historical documentary editing. But twenty years of searching in far too many basement archives made me realize how much I missed the direct contact with library patrons.

The public library has often been called a “third place.” As we’ve lost many traditional places to gather as community, institutions like the library and businesses like cafes have become the new bowling allies and fraternal organizations. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg sees public libraries as part of our social infrastructure in his thoughtful 2018 book, Palaces for the People. Surely people will always turn to libraries for reference help (even in our digital world) and use the libraries’ collections, but I believe that an equally critical role for the library is to bring community members together in one physical space. At the downtown Seattle Public Library Central branch, you can see this every day in the reading areas, in the book stacks, and in programs. Where else do you see people experiencing homelessness sitting next to office workers sitting next to students and families? We mostly live in our atomized lanes, and I love libraries for breaking down some of those barriers.

For all ages, but especially important for adults who are most likely done with formal education, the library is a place for lifelong learning. It’s an old role, built into the founding of public libraries in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century, albeit with a healthy dose of paternalism and exclusion. Going beyond the physical collections, libraries have an incredible array of digital resources. Take short and long video courses in business, technology, computer and creative skills in Learn one of seventy languages in Mango. And get a personalized list of resources on any skill or hobby from Seattle Public Library’s Your Next Skill. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the accordion. I’ll let you know when I’m ready for prime time.

During the pandemic, public libraries quickly pivoted from in-person programs to virtual ones. I know that Zoom can never really take the place of gathering together in person, but check out the offerings of your library system. At SPL and KCLS, you can find a multiple creative arts workshops from Silver Kite, discussion groups in Wisdom Cafés, and informational programs on legal, health and financial topics. For those who are tired of a computer screen, phone into the SPL Lit Line and listen to library staff read short fiction and nonfiction pieces.

I can’t wait for the libraries to open up again so that I can say hello in person to my neighborhood community. My five year-old self got it right.

Resources for Lifelong Learning & Connection