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A Look At The Evolving Role – And Shifting Spaces – Of Today's Public Libraries

A new public library that opened in Pacific, Missouri, a few months ago is one of a handful of freshly imagined Scenic Regional Library spaces – made possible through a $20 million bond-financed project – serving towns in eastern Missouri.
Jon McKee | JEMA
A new public library that opened in Pacific, Missouri, a few months ago is one of a handful of freshly imagined Scenic Regional Library spaces – made possible through a $20 million bond-financed project – serving towns in eastern Missouri.";s:

Want to check out a telescope – or maybe a fishing pole? To hear library director Steve Campbell tell it, the local library’s probably got you covered.

He’s confident there’s a library-related service or program for “any subject that you can think of that someone could have an interest in” these days, especially in smaller communities like the ones his Scenic Regional Library district serves in eastern Missouri.

The examples Campbell gives range from learning to clean fish and deer – yes, in the library – to programming involving escape rooms for teens and quilting for adults. But it’s not a variety show simply for the sake of variety – there’s a community-driven rationale to the wide-ranging activities.

In some towns, after all, the public library is the only place to acquire a passport, connect to Wi-Fi or use a photocopier.

John Mueller (at left), Scott Bonner (center) and Steve Campbell joined Tuesday's talk show.
St. Louis Public Radio & American Library Association

“We have a tremendous amount of computer usage, and it’s really critical,” said Campbell, whose district serves a total of nine communities and towns ranging in population from 2,000 to 10,000 people.

And for students working on homework, he added, those services can make or break a project.

“They might go home and not have wireless,” Campbell explained. “Same with the desktop computers [and adults]. People might be wanting to apply for a job, and it has to be done online, and they have no place to do that other than coming to the library.”

He joined Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air for a conversation alongside Scott Bonner, library director for the Ferguson Public Library District, and John Mueller, founder of JEMA and a lead architect on a series of renovated and newly constructed Scenic Regional Library spaces.

Mueller told host Don Marsh that the design of today’s libraries aims to take their rapidly evolving role in society into account and help people think about them as more than depositories of books – important as those books still are.

In the case of the handful of smaller regional libraries JEMA has been reimagining in recent months and years, the concept of “third place” comes into play.

“A lot of planners and sociologists like to use that term – the first place being our home, the second place being our work and the third place being this place in society where we go to make community,” Mueller explained. “It could be the barber shop, it could be the coffee shop. For a lot of these small towns, the key third place is the public library.”

How all of that is reflected in library facilities themselves, of course, varies greatly – and is heavily dependent on available funding.

“We can’t afford a new building [in Ferguson], and we can’t afford to do lots of dedicated spaces for different purposes,” Bonner noted, quickly adding that he and his coworkers have found some workarounds.

Budget-friendly updates like fresh carpet and furniture purchases “designed to make the [existing] spaces modular” and more flexible for a range of community purposes has made a difference for the Ferguson Public Library and its patrons, he said.

But a library is also more than the building itself or its collections, the guests agreed.

“The purpose of a library is to fulfill its mission, which is lifelong learning and cultural literacy and bringing the community together,” Bonner said. “And we’ll chase whatever practical and economical means we can to do that, which is part of why libraries are so strongly associated with books – because books are an extraordinarily effective way to do those things.

“But they have never been the only way, and more and more we are finding other ways and more creative ways – and really strange ways, sometimes – to really chase down the possibilities.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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