In Public Libraries, “Books are Just the Beginning!”

–Besides borrowing books, what else can public libraries offer to the public?

(The Boston Public Library at Copley; photo by Yaling Hou)

From yoga classes to art exhibitions, local public libraries are attracting loyal patrons and new explorers seeking a social hub in a digital world. And library institutions are purchasing books and other collections too. Libraries are becoming the new community centers.

“We are really like the heart of the community,” said Gianna Gifford, the chief of adult library services for the Boston Public Library. “Public libraries are a central resource for every citizen and a city or a suburb.”

Less than a decade ago, some of neighborhood libraries were slated to close, but today, “Not only are they open, we invested over $100 million in renovations for libraries in Mission Hill, Brighton, Roslindale, Dorchester, Roxbury, Chinatown, and other neighborhoods,” Mayor Marty Walsh said in the speech.

Public libraries used to be seen as homeless shelters, study rooms and warehouses of books. Through Gifford and other librarians who work for other branches, the local library has shed that image and taken on new roles in education, entertainment, and community services.

The city’s library now hosts weddings, concerts; a radio studio; lectures for adults; activities for children; a restaurant, a three-D printer, coding classes, computer software and consulting workshops for entrepreneurs.

And its traditional role as a reading resource has taken an up-to-date look. Kristen DeCortin, the reader services librarian of the Boston Public Library, said that search engines are improved and the number of electronic books has swelled.

(Data resource: Institute of Museum and Library Service; data collected and visualized by Yaling Hou)

“We have the largest e-books collection in the state of Massachusetts, so you can read them in your phone or computer,” Gifford said. “But we are really a place about community and civic engagement as well.”

Broadcasting in the Library

“Mr. Mayor, do you have any plan to make Boston streets to be more clean and also to set up bicycle lanes in Boston?” A man on the phone was asking questions to the Boston mayor, and everyone on the studio scene could hear it clearly.

“That’s a good question,” said a voice from the crew.

Mayor Marty Walsh answered questions directly and promised to follow up after the show, if needed.

(WGBH Boston Public Radio invited Mayor Walsh to their studio in the Boston Public Library; photo by Yaling Hou)

It was Friday in the lobby of Boston’s main library. WGBH’s Boston Public Radio show invited Walsh to the studio for a Q & A session. The studio is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and people on Boston’s busy Boylston street paused to look at what’s going on inside of the studio.

The studio with professional broadcasting cameras and lights is situated in the front corner of the Newsfeed Café. The most popular program in this studio is Boston Public Radio, and the shows air every weekday.

(During the show; photo by Yaling Hou)

“We support it. The radio show is not only on the radio,” Walsh said. “People want to see behind scene.”

“It’s more approachable. I will be allowed to ask a question if I want to,” Catherine Baker, a local writer, said. She moved her chair closer to the set in order to listen to the talking clearly.

The audience laughed and clapped during the live show.

Baker said she often stops by this Newsfeed café to see live programs in BPL. She said Maura Healey, chief lawyer and law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Walsh come to WGBH studio in the library every month to speak and answer questions about social issues, local news, and things that people care about.

“You see there is a microphone, and sometimes, people in the library can directly come up and ask questions on the scene,” Baker said.

WGBH’s library studio was built in 2016. “As far as I know, we are the only television and radio studio within a public library in the world,” Linda Polach, producer of the Boston Public Radio of WGBH, said. “I heard that Amsterdam has a radio outlet in their library, but nobody has both TV and radio capacity like we do.”

Polach said a Connecticut public library had come to visit because they wanted to do the similar thing in their library. “It’s really a civic engagement thing,” Polach said.

(Johnson Building, the Boston Public Library; photo by Yaling Hou)

Chief operating officer of WGBH Benjamin Godley was the first to consider using the library’s space for their media station. More than three years ago, the library wanted to improve the rate of engagement in the Johnson Building, which was not used as much as the adjoining McKim building. Thus, the library selected a 4,500-square-foot space and began to collect proposals.

Godley led a team and created an idea of setting up a satellite studio in the space. However, the big room would be too much space for a TV studio.

“Ben said why don’t you find out who is the caterer for the library, see if they would like to partner with us to offer food,” Polach said. “And when I called the caterer, it turned out that a woman (named) Holly Stafford who was the caterer in my wedding 35 years ago. That’s how we came out with the Newsfeed café. We’ll make it feel like a news location.”

After the studio and the café store were born at the library, WGBH had to figure out how to engage patrons and local citizens and develop a deeper relationship between WGBH and the library itself.

Polach explained:

Dining in the Central Library

(Courtyard Restaraunt is located at the Map Room in the central public library; photo by Yaling Hou)

Besides watching TV shows in the public library and enjoying some salads or drinks from the cafe, people can also drink afternoon tea in a more elegant and fancier environment than Newsfeed café in the public library.

Courtyard Restaurant is in the Map Room of McKim building. It is a gallery style dining hall. Giant arched windows provide natural lighting. The color tone consists of the milky white ceilings and light-purple wallpaper with marble walls. Suede dining chairs and gold-colored metal back dining chairs surrounded tables. White cotton tablecloths are accompanied by pure white plates, silver cutlery sets, plus iris-plum color goblets. Light yellow roses are inserted in glass vases in the middle of tables.

(Inside of the Courtyard Restaraunt; photo by Yaling Hou)
(The restaurant puts menus in real books; photo by Yaling Hou)


According to marketing manager Alyssa Nichols’s introduction, due to the restaurant’s location in the public library, the menu of the Courtyard Restaurant is unique.

They add menu-sheets in real books, so guests will hold books to order food. What’s more, each table offers wax paper for tea strainers, but the unique part is the wax paper’s pattern is newspaper print. These little details make the process of eating there interesting.



Offering a Safe Place for Non-English Speakers

(Malden Public Library’s historical building; photo by Yaling Hou)

Other public libraries also are reaching out to the community. In a meeting room of the Malden public library just north of downtown Boston, librarian Stacy Holder faced a room full of residents who spoke little English. Holder asked Naina Baghlouch, a new immigrant from Morocco, if she met a leprechaun and had the pot of gold, what would she do.

(An English as the Second Language class in the Malden Public Library; photo by Yaling Hou)

Baghlouch said she would like to use the money to help sick children and build up more schools in poverty areas. “That’s a really good answer! I love it,” Holder said.

Holder has taught a class every Wednesday for English language learners at the Malden Public Library for over twenty years. Today’s topic is about St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish holiday that will come in the next few weeks.

Baghlouch is fluent in Arabic and French, but English is still a big challenge for her. She has lived in Malden for only five months.

“I want to learn English. It can make me a better life. If I know English, I can take a permit-driving test, and I can start to apply community college or other schools next to get diplomas,” Baghlouch said.

(Student Naina Baghlouch in the class; photo by Yaling Hou)

Based on Data. USA, 50 percent of Malden residents speak a non-English language. At today’s class, more than twenty people came and joined this weekly conversation. People from Brazil, Fiji, Guatemala, Thailand, China, Haiti, Congo, and El Salvador had different backgrounds, religions, cultural values, and different ages. They got together in one conference room to try to learn English and American culture.

Holder asked her students what “legendary figure” means, but most of them did not know. Only Ana Sousa, a Brazilian young woman, got it, but found it difficult to explain it well to others in English. Holder still encouraged Sousa to try it and praised her explanation.

Then Holder asked everyone to give the class an example of a legendary figure. Lady Gaga, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and more names showed up on the whiteboard. And then names like the first president of Indonesia, a tech-business tycoon in China, a soccer athlete from Brazil were jotted on the board as well.

(ESL teacher–librarian Stacy Holder; photo by Yaling Hou)

“Who is it? Can you tell me a little bit more about this person?” When an unfamiliar name came out, the students asked each other to get a better understanding.

Even though other learning resources, such as learning apps, online courses and textbooks have been blooming in recent years, the immigrants at Malden still thought that a real environment was important.

“My English listening is really bad,” Jun Xu, a worker from China, said in Mandarin. He came to the United States two years ago. “I think online recourses are good, but they all too standard. In reality, people speak faster than machines, and people usually have accents as well. Go to a real English learning environment can help me involve in, so, I’m here.”

For most new immigrants who are not students in schools, even if they are in an English environment, opportunities for them to communicate with native speakers are very limited. “It’s not enough for me. I hope I can have more this kind of class,” Baghlouch said.

“My hope is they can feel better,” Holder said. “At least will be welcome in the public library. They know they could come to a place where is safe to speak up. And it’s all about respect everyone’s culture.”

During the class, Holder gave everyone a chance to speak. A few people could not even blurt out two words, but Holder still was patient to lead, prompt, explain, and in the end to praise speakers. “These new immigrants are strongly diligent,” Holder said.

(Students was reading an article introducing St. Patrick Day; photo by Yaling Hou)

When people have to apply and wait for a while to enroll in language schools, public libraries like Malden Public Library offer walk-in language classes. People will come here to learn freely and to enjoy well-organized English-environment conversations regularly. At the same time, from a viewpoint of librarians, a safe and welcome environment is what they are building up carefully.

Bringing Science and Fun into the Library

(Cambridge Main Public Library; photo by Yaling Hou)

This year was the 13th anniversary of the Cambridge Science Festival. MIT, Harvard, WGBH, the Museum of Science and the city of Cambridge sponsored the festival. It attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually.

More than 70 different events were located in different venues in Cambridge during April 13-21. The Cambridge Main Public Library held part of the events. “Sound Science Fun!” was one of them.

In the public library’s conference room, performers Chris Thompson and Meredith Thompson used household items, like keys and cups, and real instruments to model scientific concepts. It was a family-friendly activity. Many children with their parents participated in the activity. The Thompsons conducted two sessions on that day.

(Children tried instruments and other household items to learn what are vibration and speed; photo by Yaling Hou)

At the beginning, the Thompsons used an original song to draw people’s attention. “You guys actually bring instruments with you,” Chris said. “Clap your hands, stomp your feet, pat your knees, beat your chest. They all can make sounds. Why? Vibration.”

“Scientists use models to explain things,” Meredith said. She and Chris utilized special drums and strings to explain vibration and explained how speeds of vibration produce high tones and low tones in some instruments, like trombone, flute, guitar and ukulele.

The Thompsons interacted with audiences a lot during the activities. They asked questions, asked for movements and produced sounds and music using items they brought.

Click here to listen to their opening song: “All the Instrument is in Me”.

“It’s so fun,” said Haitao Chen, a local resident of Cambridge. He is a visiting scholar at Harvard University. His two young boys just enrolled at a local elementary school. He took them with his wife to participate in the event.

“We always come to the library. It’s in the central of the town, and for us, it’s quite convenient to go,” Chen said. “We joined other activities of this year’s science festival in Cambridge, and I feel that the venue at the library is the best. The hardware, software, and even the renovation is the best compared with other venues.”

Chris said she enjoyed the experience performing in the library. “It’s a very nice place to show our work, and people can come to learn,” she said when the activity ended.

(The Thompsons played instruments at the library to model science concept; photo by Yaling Hou)

The central library live news shows, catering services, ELL classes and the science festival were just a microcosm of what people can do in public libraries. Free workshops, lectures, and cross-cultural events are going on the public libraries every day.

At the Chinatown branch, Deguang He brought acupuncture and herbal to the library.

(Audience of members were curious about Chinese herbal; photo by Yaling Hou)
(The far right of the photo is Deguang He; photo by Yaling Hou)







A special event named “Author Talk Lecture” opens the stage to authors and readers to let them talk closely.

(The “Author Talk” is a “name card” of the Boston Public Library; photo by Yaling Hou)
(The author was signing his name to a reader; photo by Yaling Hou)







In the West Roxbury branch, Alice G. Hennessey Community room, Chinese New Year Celebration and other cross-cultural exhibitions were held in there. The library can help residents promote and publish investing information to wider audiences.

(A cross-cultural event in the library; photo by Yaling Hou)
(They used their heritage language to sing a song for a memorial; photo by Yaling Hou)







Genealogy workshop answers family mysteries in a scientific way, using maps and professional systems.

(The library offered the best hardware and software to teach a workshop to explore genealogy; photo by Yaling Hou)
(The workshops in the Boston Public Library are all free to the public; photo by Yaling Hou)








Since 2004, the Institution of Museum and Library Service started to record the programs that host in public libraries nationwide. Let’s narrow down to the Boston Public Library main branch at Copley. We can see that from 2002 to 2016, the number of visits increased obviously following the rise of programs.

(Data resource: Institute of Museum and Library Service; data visualized by Yaling Hou)


Visits and Total Attendances Showed the BPL Engaged the Community Better than Before

(Data resource: Institute of Museum and Library Service; data visualized by Yaling Hou)

More and more citizens and visitors started to utilize the Boston Public Library’s resources based on the trends of visits and total attendances. The public library is becoming a cultural center of gathering local residents together. Engaging the community, the library has done a better job than a decade ago.

As Linda Polach said, the mission of a public library is to educate and to inform. During the interview, many people expressed thoughts like “I love Boston Public Libraries” and “I almost live in there (public libraries).”

“No matter you are rich or poor, this place will always open to you,” Brookline resident Grace Leung said, “and everyone can come and sit together to learn.”


  • About the author:

Yaling Hou

Project: Public Libraries in the Greater Boston Area

Yaling Hou is a bilingual graduate student in the Journalism Department at Emerson College. She focuses on education, culture, public service and business. She interned both in China and America as a multimedia reporter for broadcasting news stations. She loves stories and wants to become a videographer and a producer. Her dream is to have her own studio with her team to make non-fiction documentaries one day as a professional.