BEYOND THE BOOKS
Wisconsin’s libraries provide patrons with accessible resources and a sense of community
by Mason Braasch
It’s loud. It’s noisy. And it’s exciting.
It’s the library.
Meadowridge Library, which is within walking distance from Akira Toki Middle School, is home to after-school programs, gaming computers and rooms for socializing.
For many kids in the surrounding community, it’s the place to be after school.
On Fridays, the kids who have completed their reading goal for the week are rewarded with a Get Down party, where they can play video games and use virtual reality equipment. They also receive a warm meal.
As the library supervisor, Yesianne Ramirez-Madera watches the library come alive each afternoon. As the socializing room fills with conversation and board game competitions, and the computers are powered up by tweens, Meadowridge Library becomes a hub for community and youth engagement.
“They feel loved and cared for, and we want to create that kind of environment for them,” Ramirez-Madera says. “The majority of the staff knows the names of our kiddos here, and we know their troubles and worries.”
Meadowridge Library’s impact on the community is not an exception — it’s the standard for libraries in Wisconsin. Across the state, libraries support the people in their communities by helping them overcome obstacles without barriers. From resources in housing and health care to refugee and immigrant services and creative learning programs for court-involved teens, the services libraries offer go well beyond books to provide accessible resources and a thriving sense of connection in their communities.
“I think that the library is one of the last places that people can go and feel welcome and feel like they’re not being judged for going,” says Kristin Wick, the director of public services at the Madison Public Library. “I also think there are a lot of people that come to the library just because they’re kind of isolated … So, whether it’s giving someone the right book at the right time or just being that personal connection, I think there’s a lot of different ways that we can impact the community.”
Within the Madison Public Library system, a variety of services focus on different issues within the community. The We Read/Nosotros Leemos program aims to foster a love for reading in all ages, and the Dream Bus, a mobile library where visitors can apply for library cards and check out books, supports this love of reading by making the library and its books more accessible.
Beyond books, the Madison Public Library engages its community through services such as the Teen Bubbler Program, which aims to support “teens who struggle in the traditional classroom or identify as non-learners” by connecting them to local artists and experts.
The Making Justice program, which is part of the Bubbler, connects at-risk and court-involved teens with an artist-in-residence and fosters relationships while giving them opportunities to create projects such as video game design, podcasts and classroom mixtapes.
The program also holds weekly workshops at the Dane County Juvenile Shelter Home, a temporary living facility for juveniles awaiting court activity, where students can focus on a project led by an artist while connecting with program leaders.
Jesse Vieau, a teen services librarian and project manager for the program, says the goal of these workshops is to encourage conversation and connection.
“[The students] are focusing on some project that can be completed in an hour and a half, while we’re all focused on conversation and building them up and learning about the past without bringing out trauma, but also addressing it when it comes up,” he says. “It’s the best day of the week because every little win is bigger than the big losses.”
In Milwaukee, the public library system has made a significant effort to provide resources for refugees and immigrants. At the English Reading Hour and English Conversation Hour, which are held virtually once a week through the Milwaukee Public Library system, participants can practice reading and speaking English in a free, safe environment. At the library’s job literacy class, non-English speakers can acquire cultural knowledge and job vocabulary that will help them be successful in their job search.
Eric Johnson, a librarian and program coordinator of adult literacy and refugee services at the Milwaukee Public Library, says these services are a response to the increasing requests for education at the library in English as a second language. Through community outreach, Johnson has grown the program, which teaches English and other skills to speakers of other languages including French, Arabic and Rohingya.
“The foundation of what we do here at MPL for refugee and immigrant services is breaking down walls and going into the community,” Johnson says. “The focus has to be going out to where people are and not just assuming they’ll come in these doors.”
Outreach has been an essential part of Libby Richter’s job as well. As the first library social worker in Wisconsin, Richter, who works at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire, has worked with library staff in order to make them more trauma informed by teaching them how to recognize signs of trauma and respond accordingly. In turn, she has been able to take library services one step further.
“I could stand outside the library all I wanted to with a sign that said there’s a social worker here, but unless someone’s actually catching a person in a moment of distress and letting them know about these services, then that’s just another person that they’re gonna have to wait and see,” Richter says.
At her library, Richter provides free and confidential social work services and referrals for issues such as mental health, substance abuse and parenting. However, she says the number one issue that she helps people with is housing.
“It’s how to navigate a system where you have a very low income and all of the rent is extremely high and people are being discriminated against because of records or lack of history or credit or whatever else is going on and how to move through that,” Richter says.
In other areas of the library, Richter is looking to fill in gaps and meet the needs of the community. One way she’s doing this is by expanding the tangible resources that the library can provide. In an effort to expand what she calls the Library of Things, Richter and the L.E Phillips Memorial Public Library have created kits that community members can check out to explore new resources that go beyond books.
“Let’s not just think of libraries as books and DVDs and things like that. It’s wellness, it’s getting to explore new things,” Richter says. “These kits can be things like robots, but they can also be things like a meditation kit or a kit of sensory items … It’s just all about reimagining what services we can have here, and that is the community’s living room, right? It’s a place to live, it’s a place to connect, have fun and grow.”
The Library of Things concept is present at Meadowridge Library as well, where a seed library encourages community members to grow native prairie plants at home, and a large selection of diapers in every size are available for those in need to take home.
“Libraries are powerful,” Ramirez-Madera says. “They’re just a vital place in the community that enhances the quality of life overall, and also they can be fun. It is a place that if you need information on how to have fun, just come to the library! We’ll help you with that.”
Featured photo by Mason Braasch.