‘The Friends’ supports the building plan proposed by St. Paul’s Library. Here’s why – Twin Cities

In St. Paul, we have the opportunity to invest boldly in our future through our public libraries. With ongoing challenges and uncertainties, we need resources, people and trusted spaces to support us, connect us and help us move forward.

According to a recent study by the St. Paul City Council Audit Committee, the St. Paul Public Library is the most trusted and valued public institution in our city. When we invest in our library, we invest in the possibilities. We invest in each other.

St. Paul Public Library has proposed a vision and direction for its facilities that are dynamic, responsive and accessible to today’s library users and our entire community. Transformative investments in Hayden Heights, Riverview and Hamline Midway Libraries will say, “We see you. We welcome “residents of all abilities, ages, socio-economic and educational backgrounds, races and ethnicities, identities, interests and circumstances. Additional system-wide investments will address the need for technology-rich spaces as well as spaces for children and their adults to play and learn together.

St. Paul Public Library has led remarkable community engagement processes across our city and has engaged hundreds of residents to imagine libraries that will serve us all for decades. Friends welcome their process. And, we unequivocally support the vision proposed by St. Paul Public Library for system-wide investments that honor our history and will make all of our libraries more welcoming, more accessible, and better prepared to meet any challenges ahead.

We believe in the Library. The Friends of St. Paul Public Library has a long and successful history of advocacy and investment based on the core principle that libraries matter. We believe public libraries are essential to healthy neighborhoods, thriving families, budding individuals, and our sense of identity and pride as residents of St. Paul.

If, like me, you are someone whose vision of a public library is based on memories of childhood trips to consult books or attend story times, I invite you – I implore you – to visit a branch of the Saint-Paul library. You will find people who read. You will also find children singing, teenagers playing, students sewing, musicians recording, neighbors laughing, adults learning and always… library staff helping you.

Today’s library offers books – and more, all in response to community needs. Even at the height of the pandemic, our library consistently showed up for us. In 2021:

  • Library staff, in partnership with Ramsey County Workforce Solutions, conducted 2,700 career assistance sessions for displaced and unemployed workers.
  • The St. Paul Public Library offered more than 18,000 books to children and families and served 3,500 participants during outdoor storytimes in the summer.
  • Community specialists working with Somali, Latina, Karen, Hmong and African American communities interacted with 14,000 residents in five languages.
  • The library hosted 48,000 Wi-Fi sessions to serve people of all ages who have limited or no digital access.
  • The library distributed 792 TechPaks (including a computer, internet access point and digital training) to households in Saint Paul.

E-books and digital document downloads made up a growing share of the 2.2 million articles distributed.

And now, with library hours and staff restored to pre-pandemic levels, our homework centers and reading programs together are filled with students catching up on their reading skills and academic performance after two years of deeply disturbed educational experiences. Children and families gather for in-person story hours. Neighbors and co-workers gather for community meetings, workshops, classes, book clubs, trainings, and more. City-wide celebrations like Juneteenth and Northern Spark have events and homes in our libraries. And, in just a few short weeks, Summer Spark, the library’s citywide summer reading program, kicks off with another year of book giveaways, artist-led get-togethers, and more.

Even in the most “normal” times, investing in the public library makes sense. These are not normal times. Over the past three years, our community’s economic, educational, employment, health, public safety, digital access and social disparities have been laid bare. For every example of inequality and inequity that has been exposed in our city since the start of the pandemic, the library is expected to come up with an answer and a solution. And, more often than not, he did – for our greater good.

The St. Paul Public Library system requires an investment equivalent to what it is asked to do in, for and with our community today. And investing in transformative spaces that will serve us all is the first step.

Why now? Because we can’t afford to wait. We deserve spaces that welcome us all with services, resources, technologies and information that serve us well beyond building walls.

The Friends’ vision is of a vibrant library at the heart of every community. Our organization has a 75-year history as a philanthropic partner of the Library (and therefore of the City). We know that Friends have a role to play in realizing the Library’s transformative vision; we are completing our own fundraising and community engagement feasibility process to understand how Friends can contribute financially to this effort. And, in line with our decades-long public-private partnership, we will also continue to advocate with local and state leaders for more public investment.

When we construct and update buildings, we do more than just pay for bricks and mortar. We invest in people and in neighborhoods. We invest in all of our futures.

Beth Burns is president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.