116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
On Nov. 5, 1895, richest man on earth, Andrew Carnegie, attended the grand opening of the Pittsburgh Public Library and gave an address extolling the virtues of wise philanthropy.
Carnegie’s own rags to riches story was briefly recounted for the occasion and cited as the inspiration for his desire to build 1,700 libraries, including over 100 in the great state of Iowa. His ribbon-cutting speech reads much like the comments section of a news story about the current labor crisis, lamenting the nature of mankind to sloth and vice if provided unrestricted financial resources while paying virtually no tribute to the exploitative nature of the business practices that earned him his wealth. His gift to the nation, however — his “Palaces for the People” as he described them — have offered an incredible public resource that continues to uplift, educate, and build our communities to this day.
My first memory of the orderly rows of leather-bound encyclopedias, dark-jacketed murder mysteries, and brightly colored large print children’s books at the public library was at age 4. My mother and I lived in a small apartment across the street, and visited several times each week.
‘Over time the method of transmitting information has changed. Our role is to keep up with emerging technologies in order to bring information to our patrons.’
The library was our source of entertainment; every night, we would sit silently in our living room, she devouring the latest Stephen King or John Grisham and I with a stack of stunning picture books, covers emblazoned with Caldecott awards.
Our little library was bustling with quiet noise: the rustling of the Times and the Post from the armchairs by the tall windows, the whirrr of someone flipping through catalog cards, the murmurs of a study group preparing their research project. I watched the people flowing between the rows as we waited in the checkout line … and there was always a line.
These days, a trip to the library is a different affair. The expanses can feel uninhabited, echoey. For those who haven’t made a trip to the library in years, the rise of technology may give the impression that the libraries are becoming obsolete.
“Not by any stretch of the imagination,” says Hiawatha Public Library Director Jeaneal Weeks. Renovations have just been completed on the library, now undergoing strategic planning. “We are thinking about what the library’s role might be in the future and planning what we can bring to informational services. Over time the method of transmitting information has changed. Our role is to keep up with emerging technologies in order to bring information to our patrons. If our role has been to provide access, then we need to be part of the discussion and solution about the digital divide, particularly as it pertains to urban and rural residents. We also see a widening of inequities due to poverty and race.”
The evolution of libraries has meant that many of the services offered have been converted to digital format, making it difficult to see just how many people are really accessing their resources. Some materials are completely online, including Kanopy (video streaming) and Libby (audiobooks) both accessible with a library card.
Jeaneal highlighted the dramatic shifts the library underwent in 2020 as an example of agility. “We changed a great deal with COVID and the derecho. We had to brainstorm what our role can/should be in serving the community in disaster situations. We switched to virtual programming, curbside holds pick up, created craft kits for adults, teens, and children to take home,” she explained.
I reflected on Carnegie’s vision for the future. “How does the Hiawatha Library support people in reaching their own American dream?” I asked.
“By providing many and varied resources, programs and gathering spaces. We offer many services that people may not realize — proctoring, notary, social service referrals, employment and education, homework help, materials with differing viewpoints, language learning. Our services and materials are free.”
The Hiawatha Public Library Grand Opening is today from 4-7 p.m., with ribbon cutting and speeches at 5:30.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org