Libraries: The New Engine of Community Engagement and Walkable Neighborhood Advocacy

This is a guest blog by Noah Lenstra, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Noah has been keeping an eye on how public libraries support walking since 2016 as part of his Let’s Move in Libraries initiative.

Contact: / @NoahLenstra

Ask for a phrase using the word “book” you might go straight to “curling up with ….”  And libraries mean books, right?  

Right, and very very wrong! The slogan of the Nashville Public Library is “Books are only half the story,” and across the country the rest of that narrative consists of engaging communities around community concerns. 

Libraries have always been incredible engines of community engagement (more on that later), but this pandemic summer has seen an explosion of walking and outdoor activity programs from local libraries. To illustrate, here’s activity from just one ten-day period:

  • June 21 – Iowa’s Sibley Public Library: “The first Front Lawn Frolics  featured an obstacle course in front of the library [painted on the library’s sidewalk]. Twenty children participated in the in-person event.” 
  •  June 22 – Kentucky:  “The Henderson County Public Library’s first StoryWalk® in partnership with the Housing Authority of Henderson and the Henderson County Schools is up now! Visit [a local public housing complex] to enjoy reading ‘Jonathan and His Mommy’ by Irene Smalls. Enjoy a nice walk outdoors with your children as you read this story together!” 
  • June 23 – Tennessee:  “the large parking lot at the Loudon Public Library will serve as a concrete canvas on Wednesday for a ‘Chalk the Walk’ event. ‘We’re going to go around the library and create art,’ director Kate Clabough said.” 
  • June 24 – Massachusetts, Amesbury Public Library:  “Children of all ages can take part in the scavenger hunt in downtown Amesbury. Pictures of mythological creatures will appear in downtown buildings and businesses” for families to walk around and discover.  
  • June 25 – Illinois: “a sidewalk obstacle course at the Polo Library. Painted prompts run kids and adults through different activities as they take a daily stroll.” 
  • June 26 – Nebraska, Kearney Public Library: “Each entity will have artwork in one of their windows. Patrons will travel to each place and ‘spy’ or locate a letter displayed in the window. They then record these letters on their scavenger hunt sheet to spell a phrase. When patrons complete that, they can turn in their completed sheets at the Kearney Visitors Bureau to be entered for prizes.”
  • June 27 – Kentucky: “Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library (HCCPL) has introduced its first StoryWalk. This project was completed in part by a grant from Kentucky Humanities and in partnership with the Hopkinsville Parks and Recreation Department.” 
  • June 28 – Ohio’: “the Ashland Public Library is engaging families outdoors by expanding StoryWalk program.” 
  •  June 29 – Wisconsin: “A new project through the La Crosse Public Library hopes to continue the conversation of race in our community.” The library “is partnering with ‘Hear, Here’ for a self-guided audio tour that centers around Black lives and experiences in the community. The route consists of seven different stories involving discrimination and racism” that patrons can experience as they walk throughout La Crosse. Learn more about this initiative on the library’s website. 
  • June 30 – North Carolina: “As part of the Summer Reading program, the Watauga County Public library has partnered with the Downtown Boone Development Association to offer a StoryWalk in downtown Boone until the end of July. Walk along King Street and Depot Street to see if you can find all 26 letters of the alphabet on the book pages that are posted in the windows of downtown businesses.”

That’s just a sampling. You could look at any week this summer and see that libraries have adapted to the pandemic by expanding their outdoor offerings.  But let’s be clear – libraries have always focused on delivering these types of programs.  

Public libraries engage the hearts, minds and bodies of the entire community

Public librarians do not sit around all day reading books and waiting for people to ask them questions. Many spend their time out in the community learning about community needs and working collaboratively with others to address them. Virtually all urban libraries have Outreach Librarians or even entire Outreach Departments, and even in rural communities public librarians strive to be out in the community as much as they can. 

What does this ten-day journey into the world of public libraries tell us? First, it shows that public libraries across the country are working with partners to increase walking by injecting literature, stories, and sometimes difficult local histories collected and curated by librarians into our built environment. Second, it shows us that libraries are engaged in placemaking activities that extend beyond books and information. The example of the sidewalk obstacle courses and the sidewalk chart art programs illustrates how librarians work creatively to encourage creative engagement with both their indoor and outdoor spaces. Third, it shows that librarians are not doing this work alone, but are instead working with everyone from parks and recreation departments to downtown associations to grassroots groups to make America a great place to walk. 

America Walks is a new and exciting partner with libraries to improve walkablility

I’ve been working with America Walks to deepen their partnership with libraries across the country.  Public libraries and the walking movement may at first glance to be “unusual bedfellows,” as an April 2020 America Walks webinar on the topic suggested, but in fact public libraries may be the most critically underutilized partner in grassroots efforts to make America a great place to walk.

In 2018, for the first time ever America Walks funded a public library. The High Point Public Library in North Carolina received a Community Change Grant. City staff in High Point noticed that community members sometimes used unsafe walking routes along busy roads, despite better alternatives being available. Working closely with the High Point Public Library and the Parks and Recreation Department, an AmeriCorps VISTA! worker for the city applied to America Walks to begin to rectify this situation. The goal of this project was to visually highlight walking trails that already exist but are sometimes forgotten. The team wanted to create visibility and education around the sidewalks and safe walking routes that connect local destinations, all beginning at the High Point Public Library, which, as in so many communities, is at the heart of Main Street.  

The High Point Public Library served as the anchor institution. The library staff’s ability to work with information and data proved indispensable to the project. And the library’s ability to roll with unexpected obstacles, like a global pandemic, illustrates the resiliency of this local infrastructure. 

The city has planned to launch the maps in Summer 2020 with a kick-off event that incorporated a walking group, door-to-door outreach to energize the community, helpful handouts on city health and wellness programs, and a presentation on why walking, and bolstering walkability in the community, is key for individual and community health. The kick-off was to take place at the High Point Public Library, in conjunction with the High Point Farmer’s Market, which is hosted in the parking lot of the library. 

Due to COVID-19, plans changed, and instead of in-person kick-off, the library and parks and recreation department organized a virtual High Point Public Library Urban Hikes Challenge. The event description states: “Let’s get hiking! In collaboration with High Point Parks & Recreation, the Library has created an Urban Hikes Map with 8 trails in 5 directions starting from the Library. All the hikes are safely accessible by sidewalk—and if you complete trails in all 5 directions by June 13, you’ll earn a PRIZE at the following Farmers Market (June 20)!” 

As part of the kick-off the library installed a permanent sign with walking route information. In this photo you can see two of the Urban Hikes challenge participants standing in front of the sign, with the America Walks logo in the corner!

America Walks has come to this library, and can come to yours too.  The grant opened up new networks so the city can work collaboratively on other innovative, inclusive, walkability-driven projects in the future. 

Stories and walking in Little Rock, Arkansas

In 2020, another public library received a Community Change grant from America Walks. This time the recipient was the Central Arkansas Library System, based in Little Rock. The library plans to install a permanent StoryWalk at one of its branches, the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center. According to a press release created by the library: “The StoryWalk will enhance the existing walking trail at the library. Book pages will be placed in display signs along the trail, inviting patrons to follow the path of pages. Mile markers will be placed on each sign allowing participants to measure the distance walked. The StoryWalk will include literature focused on health, wellness, and fitness.”

Youth Services Coordinator Ellen Samples said “The StoryWalk is a fun way to connect the love of learning and reading to physical activity. Wellness has been an important part of the library’s goals. Over the last year, we’ve offered more opportunities for library users to get active, learn about healthy eating, and even attend meditation sessions.”

Libraries more than indoor spaces, part of the built environment

Although we tend to think of public libraries as indoor spaces, in communities across the country public libraries also have outdoor spaces, including parking lots, park spaces, trails, and much more. In High Point, the public library used its outdoor space to host a farmer’s market, community gardens, and now a permanent sign encouraging safe walking. In Little Rock, the library uses its outdoor space to display stories along a trail. The key thing to recognize is that among the over 17,000 public libraries in the U.S. there are literally hundreds of acres of prime outdoor spaces that could be utilized to enhance community walkability. Many of these acres are either at the heart of downtown or nestled deep in the core of historically marginalized communities. 

In the small town of Columbus, Wisconsin (population 4,991) the local paper stated in 2019 that “Children can walk with Columbus Public Library staff in July 4th parade: This year, children and library staff will be dressed as the planets, celebrating the library’s summer reading theme, A Universe of Stories. On July 1, join library staff in making costumes from 1-3 p.m. at the library, and then wear the costume in the parade. Participants don’t need to attend both days, but it is cool to make your own costume.” So put your stereotypes of librarians back on the shelf, and go for a walk with some help from your local library. 

Harnessing the power of public libraries

How widespread are the trends discussed in this blog post? We don’t have a definitive, quantitative answer to that question – yet – but the evidence we do have suggests that across America public libraries want to do their part to support walking. Are you ready to harness the power of public libraries to transform your community?

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