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For those who haven’t stopped by their local library in recent years, it’s not just a place to pick up and drop off books anymore.

In the post-pandemic era, libraries have become meeting places, remote work spaces, play areas and more. Rather than the repositories of books and other print media they once were, libraries are taking on more of a community center role, staff members at Denver-area library districts explained.

“They’ve always had that role,” said Holly Grant of the Clear Creek County Library District. “But now, it’s about … not just seeing (a library) as a storehouse of knowledge and scholarship.”

To that end, libraries have diversified the items and programs they offer to address community needs.

Depending on the district, patrons can check out everything from camping equipment to virtual reality headsets. Additionally, patrons can access video- and audiobook-streaming services for free with their library cards.

Plus, along with children’s storytime and book clubs, library events and programs can range from puppy yoga to snowshoe hikes.

“It’s a very different library than what many of us grew up with,” Holly Whelan of Arapahoe Libraries said. “ … We have everything, everything, everything.”

Items and resources aplenty

Whelan’s words aren’t an exaggeration, as staff members from multiple districts said their libraries offer so much it’s hard for them to remember everything. So, before buying, renting or downloading something, check the library first.

Along with books, movies and comics, districts have nontraditional items for check-out. Many offer laptops, iPads, Kindles, mobile WiFi hotspots, passes to local museums, cookware, GoPro cameras and science kits.

Mark Fink, executive director of Anythink Libraries — which has branches from Thornton to Bennett — said his district’s TryIts collection includes musical instruments for various experience levels; lawn games; outdoor gear like snowshoes and backpacks; 3-D printers; sewing machines and crafting kits; and microscopes.

People have borrowed them for weekend barbecues, camping trips, one-off projects, or to see whether they’d want to buy their own. Fink said the TryIts collection has been so popular, Anythink Libraries has “expanded the level of items we provide.”

Offering items like these saves patrons money and helps the environment too, Grant pointed out, as people aren’t buying things they might only use once.

Along with physical items, districts have several online resources patrons can access with their library cards. Through these apps and online services, patrons can download e-books and audiobooks, stream movies and TV shows, and access tutoring services and online classes — all for free.

Lizzie Gall of Jefferson County Public Library said patrons who used to spend money on Audible and Netflix have saved money by finding their items through the library instead.

In-person services are also crucial, whether it’s answering technological questions or notarizing documents. Grant said Clear Creek patrons have asked for help setting up their Kindles and reviewing their emails, and tourists often stop into the Idaho Springs and Georgetown branches to ask questions about local sites and museums.

As Whelan summarized it: “If you think the library isn’t for you, or we don’t have anything to offer, think again. … We have something for everybody.”

Unique programs, events

Beyond summer reading and book clubs, libraries have expanded the type of events and programs they offer — ranging from outdoor and out-of-library adventures, to arts and culture, to physical and mental health.

Almost all are free and open to everyone, including out-of-district attendees. Some may require preregistration and/or tickets to cover event costs.

Clear Creek has hosted everything from snowshoe hikes to American Sign Language classes. It also has free present-wrapping stations in December, which are immensely popular, Grant said.

Both Jefferson County and Arapahoe libraries have hosted after-hours laser tag for teens, which are well-attended and sometimes have fun themes like “Star Wars.” Gall highlighted other teen events, like this August’s Teen Iron Chef and the ongoing Coding Camp, which has expanded to include preteens.

Summertime outdoor concert series are popular at Anythink and Arapahoe library districts, with each concert drawing hundreds of attendees.

Fink noted how Anythink Libraries also has an artists-in-residence program through a partnership with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. The district’s also partnering with the City of Thornton to build a 35,000-square foot nature library so people can engage with nature in an accessible way, he commented.

For Arapahoe Libraries, Whelan highlighted the Library For All program, which is for adults with disabilities and their caregivers. It also has a Memory Café for adults with memory loss, their caregivers and families.

Events like these have become crucial ways for participants to connect and interact with those in similar situations, Whelan described.

At Douglas County Public Libraries, the popular brew tour is returning this year, which encourages patrons to support local breweries and coffee shops. Kerri Morgan, special events manager, said the district also hosts several literary trivia nights, library-wide scavenger hunts and similar events throughout the year.

Its thrice-a-year Storybook Holiday events are especially delightful, she added. These themed nights at the library bring classic stories to life at springtime, Halloween and the winter holidays. This fall’s will be “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”-themed, complete with interactive trick-or-treating.

“When you walk into the library, it’s almost like walking into a living expression of that piece of literature,” Morgan said of the Storybook Holiday events. “ … It’s all about making positive, lifelong memories inside the library.”

During the pandemic, virtual events became incredibly popular, and districts continue to offer hybrid options. Whelan said, for Arapahoe Libraries, it’s about engaging people no matter where they’re at — in the world, or in life.

“When we talk about getting people into the libraries, that doesn’t physically have to be walking through the doors,” she continued.

Preserving the ‘third place’

With libraries evolving as technology and community needs do, staff members emphasized how libraries are increasingly important meeting places. So, the buildings must reflect that.

More libraries now feature built-in cafes for people to relax, meet and/or work. Fink said Anythink Libraries wanted its branches to feel like “high-end bookstores,” and help patrons “create special moments of joy or delight” through their library experiences.

Fink described how, in sociological terms, libraries fall into the “third place.” The premise is that a person’s “first place” is their home and their “second place” is work. Thus, “third places” like parks, churches, coffee shops and gyms are crucial for civic engagement and social interaction.

Libraries as “third places” are increasingly important for young parents looking to get their children out of the house and meet other local families, Morgan described. Their popularity’s also growing among work-from-home folks who’ve lost their “second place” and want to work in an office-type environment.

Morgan emphasized how, unlike some “third places,” libraries are completely free and open to everyone.

“It’s a place where, if you want, you can be entertained or educated,” she said. “It’s almost like a choose-your-own adventure.”

Gall, Grant and others emphasized how library districts should reflect the people they serve, and adapt to their needs and interests. Thus, their districts are very responsive to patrons’ feedback for new items, events and programs.

“(The library)’s something that everybody can enjoy without feeling like there’s a price tag attached,” Grant continued. “ … If the library wasn’t there to offer all those elements of service, where would (people) get them from?”