No longer simply the sound of silence: Local libraries offer gathering areas for community groups

If you walked into the Kent District Library’s (KDL) Cascade Branch at 10 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, you were not greeted with the silence for which libraries are typically known. A local mountain dulcimer group, the Northern Strings, was performing inside the library’s entrance. 

Nine women and two men played music — two on fiddles, two on guitars, and seven on mountain dulcimers, which are a string instrument of the zither family originally played in the Appalachian region of the United States. The circle of musicians was surrounded by attentive library patrons, including dancing young children. 

The Northern Strings jams together every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon at Plymouth United Church of Christ in southeast Grand Rapids. The group has performed for assisted living facilities, nursing homes, funerals, and — the most regular of their venues — libraries. 

Photo by Kelsey SandersKent District Library is creating a community Third Space. Study rooms are being booked for a variety of activities from dulcimer rehearsal to Girl Scout meetings.

More than books

You may have memories of the library being a place of silence, but that’s not the case anymore. 

“As librarians, we want to welcome you into the library exactly as you are,” says Penni Zurgable, regional manager I of the Plainfield Township and Comstock Park branches. “We have high-speed internet, comfortable chairs and working spaces, and we will not ask anything of you. If you have had a childhood shushing experience, please know that times and librarians have changed.”

The library is for much more than just borrowing books and using the computers. Individuals use their library for work, for small gatherings, and for events that are open to the public and can be found in the KDL event calendars.

“We have several groups that come in and utilize the library for meetings,” says Lulu Brown, the regional manager I for the Cascade and Caledonia branches. “Often we will have Girl Scout troops come for meetings or to participate in a library scavenger hunt for a special patch. We also have musical groups that will play from time to time. Every Tuesday at 1 p.m. we also have a Sit and Stitch group that meets in the history room to chat while working on their knitting, crocheting, or sewing projects.”

The KDL Plainfield Branch also has a Tuesday afternoon Sit and Stitch group where individuals can chat and work on whatever craft project they have. And at the Comstock Park branch, members of a group called the Lit Wits “have been discussing books for decades, outlasting several staff leaders.”

Some such programs are or have been official KDL programs that are advertised in the events calendar, while other groups get their start simply by reaching out to their local library branch.

“[If a group] needs a place to meet or wants to share their gifts with the community and we can help them with that, we try,” Brown says.

Photo by Kelsey SandersSome gatherings at KDL branches include Teen Cram Session, Kids Zone, Spanish Conversation Hour, Tea Towel Block Printing, Mama Bear & Baby Cubs Support Group, Open Craft Lab, Awesome Adults, Craft & Create, and Dungeons & Dragons.

How to host small gatherings

While many individuals use their local library’s private rooms (formerly called study rooms) to work, bigger spaces are free to use for small group gatherings. KDL's large branches have private rooms that can be reserved online or by calling the main number, 616-784-2007. Room capacities vary from two to eight people. 

“We also have spaces in the libraries where groups can gather that aren't entirely private,” Zurgable says. “Libraries are not silent anymore. The Plainfield branch recently redesigned our old magazine room to serve as a community gathering place.”

One such group is the Plainfield Grand Rogue Historical Society

“We are fortunate to be in the neighborhood of the KDL Plainfield branch,” says Deborah Havens, president of the Plainfield Grand Rogue Historical Society. “This exceptionally well-run facility has a friendly, competent staff, a vast array of media, and comfy nooks for meetings, and always seemed to be open whenever we needed space. When we were getting organized, the library was a perfect spot for us because of the roomy conference room and easy scheduling.”

While the group now conducts board meetings elsewhere, it still uses the library’s conference room and will hold its first fundraiser in the Plainfield branch community room.

There are few restrictions on use of those rooms, though individuals using them cannot charge admittance. Some larger rooms — often holding more than a hundred people —  are run by the cities and townships that own the library buildings, and each municipality has its own rules as to how their program rooms can be used. Some KDL municipalities charge for use of these large program rooms. 

The private rooms would be ideal for those looking to host a book club, a study group, or tutoring sessions. Some gatherings at KDL branches include Teen Cram Session, Kids Zone, Spanish Conversation Hour, Tea Towel Block Printing, Mama Bear & Baby Cubs Support Group, Open Craft Lab, Awesome Adults, Craft & Create, Dungeons & Dragons, and Gather 2 Grow: Lunches at the library, a summer food program for youths 18 and younger.

“Our goal is to make this a place everyone feels welcome and seen,” Brown says. “That includes highlighting local talent when possible and giving space to groups that need it. We want our patrons’ experience to reflect the community they live in.”

Havens agrees. 

“I want everyone to know how versatile [their library’s] facilities are,” she says. “The things we take for granted, that we expect in a library, such as books, magazines, music and video, are here and plentiful. But there is so much more that continues to surprise me. As a historical society, we have been able to promote our events, and it has brought us new members, too. And just on a personal level, I've checked out audio materials for long car trips, used the computers for personal research and printing projects—it's just an amazing place with the most helpful people on the planet.” 

The best way to learn more is to visit your local library. Check out each branch’s Facebook page for public events or take a look at all the KDL events online

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 
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