“There’s a new crop of people at the library.”
That’s what Gregor Smart, head of Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center at Boston Public Library said when mulling how it’s changed since before the pandemic.
Libraries were badly affected by the various shutdowns during the peak Covid-19 years. But now, thanks to the remote working boom, they’re experiencing a windfall.
“There has been a whole new population of people that didn’t even know about the library,” said Smart. “I feel like word has gotten out about our innovation center. People are realizing it’s different.”
And it’s not just Boston’s Public Library, other libraries across the U.S. are seeing attendance rates outstrip pre-pandemic years, or at the very least, match them. And this influx of interest in using libraries as a third working space, is challenging the age-old view of libraries as dusty spaces whose silent atmospheres were fiercely guarded by stern librarians. In their place are thriving, collaborative hubs for people who want to connect with others, while doing focused work, with access to smart tech.
For example, Boston’s 5,000-square-foot public library mirrors coworking spaces in many ways. It has bookable conference rooms for small meetings, access to WiFi, and access to experts who can help assist with technology concerns. Smart said they think of themselves as an “original coworking space.”
The library’s innovation center was added during its 2016 renovation to create a maker space with a 3D printer and innovation lab with a green screen where you can book a time to record podcasts, Mac desktops with photoshop and more.
“Over the past six to nine months we have really resumed and the space is full,” said Smart. “You can tell people are on business calls, people are doing job interviews, people are on Zoom calls, in small meetings. People are coming to our space.”
While remote working has risen in popularity, it can feel isolating to be at home all day. Many have gravitated toward coffee shops or other coworking spaces to gain personal contact, but the library has an advantage over both: it’s free.
Smart has been personally enjoying seeing remote workers in the library have serendipitous moments with each other, aka the water cooler effect. “During Covid we weren’t having those occasional conversations with a variety of people,” said Smart. “Coming here, you just have those opportunities. I think it’s a real benefit, versus just being at home. I’ve heard from people who say ‘I can work from home, but I’m just kind of lonely.’”
And at Boston’s public library, lively conversation is encouraged. “We have a motto ‘shush has left the building.’ If I see the space completely quiet, you almost feel like ‘oh, this isn’t working how I want it to. I want there to be more conversation and more meetings and more of that,’” said Smart.
What’s happening at the Boston Public Library reflects a nationwide trend. The Urban Libraries Council, which has 170 other libraries as members, found that most library programming had to shift after the pandemic. With more people wanting to spend their workday at the library, libraries have adapted to build their community spaces, meeting rooms and other reservable spaces.
“It all comes down to the fact that libraries have those amenities that people who are teleworking are looking for like internet access, physical space outside of their homes,” said Elise Calanni, communications manager for the Urban Libraries Council. “But the most important thing is that libraries are the most cost effective place to work from home. It’s a perfect combination of factors for people to really start using these libraries as community hubs.”
She welcomes this change in the dynamic at libraries.
“I think with this influx of people working there, it’s really just a time to see libraries become more lively again and being able to just be in the space gives people opportunities to connect with their communities in a lot of different ways,” said Calanni. “Public libraries are really great at shifting with what the trends are and adapting for the communities. They’re seeing it as a great opportunity to introduce more people to the space.”
Even before Covid, libraries were spaces for entrepreneurship and incubators for new businesses. Calanni said that libraries consistently support new business owners, in ways like providing one-to-one support, filling gaps for internet and device access and other resources like skill building programs.
The Boston Public Library has had an entrepreneur in residence for the past eight months. This person is a small business owner who worked in the library for 15 hours a week mentoring other small business owners.
Another aspect of why remote workers are flocking to their libraries is because these establishments are often core to their communities. Claudia Strange, PR and marketing director for Fulton County Library System, said people come to the Atlanta libraries because they’re a part of their neighborhood. The network of public libraries recently finished a 10-year, capital improvement project which included the creation of eight new libraries, significant expansions to two, and modernization of 24 others. Strange said it helped create a more modern, attractive location for teleworkers to come to.
“We have the resources to really host that kind of activity now,” said Strange. “For the central library, we wanted to have that space and really an entire floor dedicated to that possibility. You can hop in, throw your computer up, have a seat, do some work, and hop in and out as you need. We wanted this to be a remote work location.”
Similar to the Boston Public Library, Strange says they are trying to get away from “libraries of yesteryear that are ‘hush hush.’”
“We’re not the silent spaces we used to be,” said Strange. “Part of that is because we are welcoming work activities.”