Modern libraries are much more than books

Want to record a song? Learn to sew? Try virtual reality? Head to the library!


It all started with a state parks pass.

Areli Alcazar, a teacher at Kenton Elementary School in Aurora, stopped by the Schlessman branch of Denver Public Library a couple years ago, where a librarian told her DPL checks out passes to Colorado State Parks.

Before long, Alcazar and her family were hitting the trails in Roxborough and Chatfield state parks for the first time, toting a library-provided knapsack filled with binoculars, field guides and other gear.

“The pass gave us an incentive to be adventurous,” Alcazar said.

When she dropped off the pass at the library, she asked what else the library had to offer. The answers are still unfolding, and Alcazar is hooked.

An avid biker, Alcazar uses the library’s bike repair kits. Her desk is scattered with keepsakes and doohickeys she’s 3D-printed at Denver library makerspaces. She learned to sew LED lights into clothing. She helped her mom test the efficiency of her home appliances with a power check meter. She and her friends check out passes to local museums. Now, when she’s bored, Alcazar said she drops into a library and asks what they can teach her today.

“If it’s all at our disposal,” Alcazar said, “why not try it out?”

‘The sky’s the limit’

Across the Denver metro area, libraries are redefining themselves, with innovative offerings meant to expand minds and lives.

“When people say libraries are obsolete, we say, ‘Are they? Let’s find out,’ ” said Anthony White, the manager of web systems for Arapahoe Libraries, which operates eight branches in Arapahoe County.

The district now features three recording studios outfitted with green screen walls and video and audio editing software. The Koelbel branch has a 39-seat theater available for plays, films and performances. The Castlewood branch will reopen in April with a purpose-built makerspace, featuring 3D printers, laser cutters, a ceramic kiln and more — double the size of the old makerspace, housed in a repurposed conference room.

“We really want to explore all the roles a library can play in a community,” White said. “The sky’s the limit.”

For some, that can mean learning skills that are otherwise out of reach.

Emily Roberts, a university librarian herself, wanted to try working with wool.

She bought $15 worth of raw wool online, then headed to Castlewood Library to process it on a drum carding machine.

“I could invest $15 to learn something new,” Roberts said. “What I couldn’t do was invest $300 in classes and studio time. The library staff walked me through it — there’s only so much you can learn from a book.”

For others, it can mean a welcome reprieve when life throws them a curveball.

Anthony Montoya, a tax attorney in Castle Rock, found himself jobless when his law firm laid off his division.

“I was on my own all of a sudden, and everybody said I needed a commercial,” Montoya said. “Studios wanted to charge a lot of money, but the library in Parker had a green room, cameras and editing software.”

A Douglas County librarian gave Montoya and his wife a crash course in the equipment, and over a couple visits, he produced his own commercial.

“Another attorney told me recently they really liked my commercial, and asked who I hired to make it,” Montoya said. “I was pretty tickled by that.”

‘A beautiful thing’

New library offerings can be a powerful force for self-sufficiency, said Ashley Kazyaka, the program coordinator for Denver Public Library’s IdeaLAB, a group of makerspaces spread throughout the DPL system.

“I think there’s a beautiful thing that happens when you learn to do something yourself,” said Kazyaka, amid a hum of activity in the Central Branch’s IdeaLAB. “People can come in here and learn to sew on buttons or fix their cell phones. We’ve even had people experiencing homelessness who come in and 3D-print replacement parts for their backpacks. The ability to solve problems can translate into bigger things in people’s lives.”

At a nearby sewing machine, Markie Arendelle sat at a sewing machine, repairing a rip in their winter coat.

“This place is empowering,” said Arendelle, a singer and DJ. “I’m self-employed, and here I can print my stickers and iron-on patches — it saves me so much money.”

Libraries can also give people a chance to try out tech and toys they might not otherwise have access to, said Andrea Wyant, a collection development librarian for Douglas County Libraries.

Wyant heads the district’s “nontraditional items” collection, where patrons can check out items ranging from high-end digital cameras, virtual reality headsets and karaoke machines to digital projectors and retro video game consoles.

“We can give people access to things they can use and return without cluttering up their houses or unnecessarily duplicating things,” Wyant said. “Sharing is caring. How much stuff do we all need in our lives?”

Looking to the future

A wide range of new offerings doesn’t mean libraries are skimping on the reading material, said Donna Walker, the executive director of Jefferson County Libraries. In fact, she said, they’re exploring new ways to deliver that, too.

Jeffco’s libraries are expanding their e-book offerings, and for those who prefer the printed page, they’re rolling out Redbox-like book vending machines and Amazon-style lockers. Patrons can also schedule home or office visits from librarians who specialize in fields like academics or business.

Meanwhile, Jeffco is in the process of remodeling all 10 of its branches, including, yes, more makerspaces.

“We want to stay a step ahead of the community,” Walker said. “A decade ago, people said: ‘Who goes to the library anymore?’ Now, we’re hearing from people who have cards to five different local library systems.”

Walker said in a time of expansion, it’s important that libraries endear themselves to the community. While the economy is hot now, they’ve got to prepare in case things get tight.

“During the recession, libraries faced a lot of hardships,” Walker said. “Hours were cut. Positions were cut. Our job is to manage our growth and our finances, and build relationships. Libraries are an essential service. They’re part of the bedrock of democracy.”

The big picture, Walker said, is that libraries are expanding beyond the buildings they’re housed in.

“We talk about the library being everywhere,” Walker said. “Libraries can be in your pocket. We can come to you.”

While libraries don’t charge users for services, Walker said, everyone chips in.

“People are paying for this through their taxes,” Walker said. “You might as well use what you’re paying for.”


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