Once access has been achieved, there remains a large gap in people's online abilities and skills. For many communities, the public library is the only agency offering free computer classes, information technology learning and an affordable, interactive way to build digital skills. Public libraries have a long history of functioning as community centers or public spaces for reading, study and formal and informal public meetings.
In , Andrew Carnegie, a prominent library philanthropist, built a library in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where his main steel mills were located. Besides a book collection, it included a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, basketball courts and other athletic facilities, a music hall, and numerous meeting rooms for local organizations. It sponsored highly successful semi-pro football and baseball teams. They served as much for social gossip and the meeting of friends, as coffee shops do today.
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Today, in-person and on-line programs for reader development, language learning, homework help, free lectures and cultural performances, and other community service programs are common offerings. The library storytime, in which books are read aloud to children and infants, is a cultural touchstone.
Most public libraries offer frequent storytimes, often daily or even several times a day for different age groups. Some libraries have begun offering sensory storytimes for children and adults on the autism spectrum. One of the most popular programs offered in public libraries is "summer reading" for children, families, and adults. Summer reading usually includes a list of books to read during summer holidays, as well as performances, book discussions or other celebrations of reading, culture and the humanities.
Many libraries offer classes to the community such as tech clinics where patrons can bring in laptops and electronic devices and receive one on one attention in solving their problems and learning how to use them. Libraries may also offer free or inexpensive meeting space for community organizations and educational and entrepreneurial activity.
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The addition of makerspaces in libraries, beginning with the Fayetteville Free Library in , offers the potential for new roles for public spaces and public libraries. While in the past libraries were merely buildings to house their collections, most now utilize their space to offer programs or clubs regularly.
Although some libraries will have similar programs with different names, such as book club, writing club or computer programs, most programs will differ based on the specific library and the community they serve. The [example of service response] offered at one library may vary significantly from [the same example] offered by another library.
The differences are perfectly appropriate if they result from a tailoring of services to address local needs. The New York Public Library offers over 93, programs to its patrons every year at its 87 different branches.
Adult programs include Excel classes, writing club, adult coloring club, chess club, knitting club, and a jewelry making class. The Tampa—Hillsborough County Public Library System has 31 branches that offer the usual book clubs and writing clubs for adults.
However, they also offer an early morning walking club, chair yoga classes, beginning computer classes, genealogy classes, walk-in tech help, and a coffee and French talk class. The Springfield Greene County Library has writing and book clubs as well as a tech training class, board game nights, movie nights, craft classes, and a My Little Pony club. The Pikes Peak Library District has math tutors for their teen patrons. They also offer writing and book clubs, a Dungeons and Dragons club, a coding lab, an anime club, guided meditation , and an occasional Super Smash Bros. The Chelmsford Public Library has a plethora of story times for ages birth to preschool.
They also offer baby yoga, stay and play time, toddler rhyme time, a dads and donuts day, and an annual Gingerbread Festival. A significant goal of American libraries is to become more culturally diverse throughout the country. Public libraries are an equal access facility and want to make everyone feel welcome no matter their religion, race, ethnicity, sex, or financial status. To accomplish this goal, libraries are striving to find ways in which to make both staff and the library programs they provide more culturally sensitive. A starting point for most libraries is to find out the demographics in which they are located.
Once the library system learns more about the community they serve, they can start building a collection and programs around it. Another suggestion from multiple experts says to hire staff that represents the society that the library is located in order to better relate and serve members of that society. By making culturally diverse programs, a library can be inviting to many members of the community.
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A few ways libraries accomplish this goal are by providing programs which are inclusive to many different cultures such as having lectures or events in different languages, including celebrations and holidays that are diverse, and by inviting speakers and authors from different cultures to come and talk. Librarians at most public libraries provide reference and research help to the general public.
This can include assisting students in finding reliable sources for papers and presentations; helping the public find answers to questions or evidence in a debate; or providing resources related to a specific event or topic. Reference assistance is usually provided through a reference interview which is usually conducted at a public reference desk but may also be conducted by telephone or online.
Reference librarians may also help patrons develop an appropriate bibliography or works cited page for an academic paper. Depending on the size of the library, there may be multiple reference desks that deal with different topics.
Large public, academic or research libraries may employ librarians that are experts in specific topics or subjects. Often the children's section in a public library has its own reference desk. At a smaller library, circulation and reference may occur at the same desk. The Internet has had a significant effect on the availability and delivery of reference services.
The rise of search engines and crowd-sourced resources such as Wikipedia have transformed the reference environment. In addition to the traditional reference interview, reference librarians have an increasing role in providing access to digitized reference works including the selection and purchase of databases not available to the general public and ensuring that references are reliable and presented in an academically acceptable manner.
Librarians also have a role in teaching information literacy , so that patrons can find, understand and use information and finding aids like search engines, databases and library catalogs. Public libraries may answer millions of reference questions every year.
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The Boston Public Library answers more than one million reference questions annually. In addition to their circulating collection, public libraries usually offer a collection of reference books , such encyclopedias, dictionaries, phone books and unique or expensive academic works. These books may not be available for borrowing, except under special circumstances. Reference books that are frequently used, such as phone books, may be housed in a special section called "ready reference.
Some libraries also keep historical documents relevant to their particular town, and serve as a resource for historians in some instances. The Queens Public Library kept letters written by unrecognized Tiffany lamp designer Clara Driscoll , and the letters remained in the library until a curator discovered them. Collections of unique or historical works are sometimes referred to as special collections ; except in rare cases, these items are reference items, and patrons must use them inside the library under the supervision or guidance of a librarian. Local libraries' special collections may be of particular interest to people researching their family history.
Libraries that are focused on collecting works related to particular families are genealogical libraries and may be housed in the same building as a public library. Many libraries—especially large, urban libraries—have large collections of photographs, digital images, rare and fragile books, artifacts and manuscripts available for public viewing and use. Digitization and digital preservation of these works is an ongoing effort, usually funded by grants or philanthropy.
In , the New York Public Library offered the " NYPL Digital Gallery " which made a collection of , images viewable over the web; while most of the contents are in the public domain , some images are still subject to copyright rules. Depending on a community's desires and needs, public libraries may offer many other resources and services to the public. In addition to print books and periodicals, most public libraries today have a wide array of other media including audiobooks , e-books , CDs , cassettes , videotapes , and DVDs.
Certain libraries stock general materials for borrowing, such as pots, pans, sewing machines, and similar household items in order to appeal to a larger population. Libraries' storage space and lending systems may be used to lend a wide range of materials, including works of art, cake pans, seeds, tools and musical instruments.
As more government services move online, libraries and librarians have a role in providing access to online forms and assistance with filling them out. In rural areas, the local public library may have a bookmobile service, consisting of one or more buses or pack animals such as burros , camels, donkey, or elephants furnished as small public libraries, some equipped with Internet access points or computer labs, and serving the countryside according to a regular schedule. In communities that are extremely isolated or that have poor digital infrastructure, libraries may provide the only access to online education, telemedicine , or telework.
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Libraries also partner with schools and community organizations to promote literacy and learning. Libraries promote cultural awareness; in Newark, New Jersey , the public library celebrated black history with exhibits and programs. Libraries have in important role during emergencies and disasters, where they may be used as shelters, provide space to charge phones and access the Internet, and serve as locations for the distribution of aid, especially financial aid, which requires access to computers and the Internet.