BUFFALO, N.Y. — It’s been a tough few years for libraries. The COVID-19 pandemic left them empty; book bans have threatened access to information and stories for all ages; and then there are the safety issues librarians navigate every day.

Knowing that and their importance to communities, those tasked with keeping libraries open are getting creative and reinventing the facilities.

It’s all about building bridges to social and health services. At least that’s what the American Library Association says in its 2024 State of America’s Libraries report. How are our libraries doing that?

What You Need To Know

  •  Libraries are branching beyond four walls and offering social opportunities 

  •  At the downtown Buffalo library, a teen space is taking shape to give young people ownership and a safe space

  •  American Library Association says in its 2024 report this year is about building bridges to social and health services

“Libraries are about community to libraries are about places where people can come together, where they can discover each other, where they can discover themselves and where they can, where they can learn,” said John Spears, director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

At Buffalo and Erie County’s Central Library, a teen space just recently opened. The library hopes to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony next month.

“The kids have really kind of come to see the library still is that place to be as a place to go,” Spears said. “Are they all here to read a book or do homework? No.”

The downtown location has experienced its fair share of issues. Fights and other havoc forced leaders to change hours at times. That served as a starting point for change.  

“We have traditional places where people can come and sit together; you have booths over there against the windows,” Spears pointed.

Soft seating and conversation pits are designed to give teens a choice and a place of their own.

“We want to work with the teens to make sure that they know that this library is as much for them as it is for everyone else,” Spears smiled.

Spears says libraries' bread and butter is still being a place to check out books. However, it’s become clear they’re a pillar of the community in many other ways.

“If people want to learn a new skill, learn how to write a resume, learn how to use a digital device that they just purchased, we can assist with that,” Spears said.

Social workers are available, too.

“Serves people who are going through a crisis, people who might be dealing with addiction issues, children who are having issues at home, victims of spousal abuse, people who just need help navigating the system of Medicare,” Spears said.

Spears has been a librarian for nearly three decades. He says the libraries’ plot hasn’t changed, just how it unfolds.

“We help people meet their needs, but the needs have changed substantially,” he said. “And the things that libraries are doing to meet those needs, I think have grown.”

That includes what kids pull off the shelf.

“We are seeing, for instance, kind of a return of more illustrations in books, something that's not quite manga, but not quite full ... written prose that's becoming a format,” Spears explained.

Spears says what might seem surprising is that all ages keep coming back, despite the popularity and accessibility of e-books.

“A lot of millennials and a lot of Gen Z actually like physical books,” he said.

Spears adds the library will always provide two things: the right answer and people.

“It’s that human element that I think more and more, if anything, people are going to want,” he said.

Also in that ALA report, besides keeping a close eye on artificial intelligence and the challenges it could bring, libraries are using it as a way to streamline services. They’re using it in innovative ways as well, like creating virtual reality tours of collections and helping personalize a person’s reading recommendations.