Grand Rapids Public Library — not just by the books

The Grand Rapids Public Library (GRPL) is committed to expanding its offerings to meet the evolving needs of its patrons. In recent years, the library has broadened its collection to include diverse materials, such as e-books, digital resources, and games, all to keep up with the rapidly changing world of technology and the needs and wants of its community.

It’s a commitment that goes back more than 150 years. In 1871, GRPL’s Main Library was the first free library and provided access to literature for Grand Rapids residents. Over time, the library grew and became a hub of knowledge, learning, and community. In 1904, the library found its permanent home on Library Street, on the northeast side of town. The building quickly became a landmark in the community and many neighborhood branches were established to serve the growing Grand Rapids community.

Young men and women are shown sledding on a toboggan at Kent Country Club in this Grand Rapids History Center archive photo.

“I think that the GRPL branches have a good idea of what the neighborhood needs, so it’s good they’re neighborhood-specific,” says Jennifer Andrew, a librarian at the Grand Rapids History Center on the Main Library’s fourth floor. “Sometimes, it’s hard for people to come downtown, so I think making them walkable and easy to get to, as well as just having the staff the neighbors know, is important.”

Today, the Main Library remains a vital part of the Grand Rapids community. It has undergone many renovations and updates over the years but still stands tall as a symbol of knowledge and learning. The library's collection has expanded to include digital media, and the building, itself, has been modernized to meet the needs of today's visitors. Despite these changes, the library's commitment to serving the community remains as strong as ever.

A Christmas tree in the Grand Rapids Public Library in 1949.

Modern GRPL

In addition to physical materials, the library also provides access to an extensive collection of digitized content and online resources, making it a go-to destination for anyone seeking information or seeking to broaden their horizons.

“We’ve got Hoopla (for streaming books, movies, etc.), Libby for e-books, and we’ve got lots of online databases for research,” says Erin Hart, librarian I of the youth services department. “We have mostly rebounded from pandemic downturn, (and) we’re still not at the levels we were in 2019 of people coming into the library, but we have seen a huge growth in e-books, e-audiobooks, since people really discovered those during the pandemic.”

In addition to its vast content library, GRPL also represents a welcoming space for anyone looking for refuge.

“There’s a trend of libraries becoming more of a community space and being more than just books,” Hart says.

In fact, GRPL staff have identified its enthusiasts with a special nickname: Power Users.

“Those are the kids and families that are going all the time, they love the library, and we’re serving them,” Hart says. “But we also really try to bring in people who aren’t connected to the library. They don’t know what we do. They maybe don’t live near a branch, so we do a lot of outreach into the community to try and show people who’ve maybe never stepped foot in our building before who we are.”

Most importantly, though, no matter who you are, the library welcomes anyone, and its services have the potential to be life-changing for some individuals.

“We provide a lot of services to people that don’t have them, and those same people will go on to attend college, or become the next Google expert, or some other large company. And they wouldn’t have had those services if it weren’t for (GRPL),” says Angela Black, library assistant II, who has been with the GRPL for 16 years.

The GRPL system employs nearly 200 staff members who work together to assist the Grand Rapids community. One of the library's lesser-known and appreciated aspects is its events. These events cater to a wide range of interests and age groups. For instance, there are storytime events for young children that foster a love of reading from an early age.

But the Main Library is more than just a repository of knowledge and entertainment. It's a bustling hub of activity that hosts a diverse range of events throughout the year. There are events like 'Mindstorms Saturdays,' which offer coding, construction, and other skill-building activities that help kids and teens create and program robots. For those interested in various history topics, History Detectives is “an award-winning, day-long event that gives a stage to local historians,” according to GRPL’s website.

A photo from the Grand Rapids History Center archives shows the Alger Market in May 1954.

Family Storytime is one of many offered storytime events that occur throughout the year, while many tech classes help anyone from young to old learn more about email, online privacy, or data management.

Not only are events present, but also private and public spaces for kids, teens, and adults alike. Specifically, kids' spaces are especially important.

“For youth, we’re trying to dispel the stereotype that the kids have to be really quiet and serious here,” Hart says. “You can be loud in the kids' area because it’s a kids' area. You can play and have fun. That’s something we really encourage.” 

The future of GRPL

Recently, GRPL has been expanding in a new way.

“Our communications director has been working with an outside company for about a year or so now to update the look (of the library),” Black says.

The new look of the library is in the same line as several prior rebrandings — this time, reimagined for the 21st century. 

“The library isn’t going to go anywhere — it’s going to change,” Black says. “Libraries are thousands of years old. And everybody was concerned when things were going digital, but I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, and I think the community should know that libraries will evolve but won’t go away.”

Some of that evolution includes growing a newly implemented board game collection, plus a growing vinyl collection.

There are library-specific events, however, are perfect just the way they are. The Friends of the Library book sale — popular before it paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic — received record attendance when it returned in October 2022. 

As for future events, there are mainstays such as Black History Month in February, the summer reading challenge, Hispanic Heritage Month in the fall, along with other programming. Many events, such as the summer reading challenge, are youth-oriented and help foster a love of reading that will stick with adolescents of all ages forever. 

To the more than 40,000 GRPL cardholders and those yet to join, what is your next chapter?

To learn more about Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here. This series is made possible via underwriting sponsorships from the Steelcase Foundation, PNC Bank Foundation and Kent ISD

Luke Fann
Luke Fann is a freshman at City High Middle School, where he has been an editor since 2022 and a journalist since 2021 for the school newspaper, The City Voice. He writes about anything from current events to the history of Guy Fawkes Day. He also enjoys creative writing, especially fantasy stories. This carries over into his reading habits, which consist primarily of fantasy, with a good mystery or nonfiction novel thrown in there from time to time. Baking is another love, as making a brownie or cookie recipe is not too different than crafting an article or story. But at the end of the day, Luke lives by Pablo Picasso's quote: "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."

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