Patrons at the Pueblo City-County Main Library use library computers on a sunny afternoon. Libraries across are becoming bridges for patrons to access digital services and social services – as they are shifting what it means to be a library of the future. (Photo PULP)

In Southeast Colorado, Libraries are access in the digital divide

Across Colorado, libraries that were built over one hundred years ago are still serving their communities.

These libraries don’t just check out books, however. Colorado libraries are taking on new roles, from social services to cutting edge technology.

In the small town of Trinidad, technology draws many people to the library, which serves the largest land area of any public library in Colorado.

“Our computers are full most of the day,” said Mallory Pillard, director of the Carnegie Public Library in the old mining town. “People play games, check Facebook or print important documents for taxes or file for divorce. It’s entertainment or important life work, and everything in between.”

The Trinidad Library is named after Andrew Carnegie, a steel industrialist from Pittsburgh who funded thousands of libraries across the United States between 1883 and 1929. Those library buildings are now historic structures that are referred as Carnegie libraries. Across Colorado, 18 Carnegie libraries still operate as public libraries, but look very different from the days that they offered only books and newspapers.

Pillard said that in Trinidad the library building itself had to transform to accommodate the needs of a modern community, including a rewiring project last year to allow faster internet speeds. “Obviously Andrew Carnegie and the people that built this library didn’t think we would need networking stuff here,” said Pillard.

In Pueblo, the Pueblo City-County District Library is redefining what it means to be a library.

In recent years, the library has studied what Pueblo residents need to lead informed, active and connected lives. The result is a library that looks and sounds very different from the quiet book depositories of yesteryear.

“It’s very busy, full of children, with lots of people in the neighborhood,” said Midori Clark, Director of Community Relations for PCCLD. “The library is a busy place with a lot going on.”

In May, Pueblo City-County District Library was awarded the National Medal of Honor for Museum and Library Service, the highest honor in the United States for cultural institutions.

In granting the award, the Institute for Museum and Library Services commended PCCLD’s “responsive services for unique needs.” The library’s responses to community needs including opening three new branch library locations in 2014 in the neighborhoods that needed services the most.

The services offered at Pueblo’s libraries include much than just books. At PCCLD, Pueblo residents connect with much-needed social services like housing or food resources.

“People don’t think of the library as a place where you can get a high school diploma,” said Clark. In May, five Pueblo residents graduated from high school through a library program designed to help adults earn diplomas online.

Library staff saw some residents visiting to check out books needed additional help, like finding affordable health care. In response, the library hired a social worker to help the Pueblo community. Residents visiting the library could also find out where to get shelter, legal help or food resources.

While it may seem unusual for the library to offer social service connections along with books, Clark says many libraries across the country are transforming into resource centers for people in need.

“Other government agencies might seem scary or daunting if you don’t have all of the paperwork or all the the answers,” Clark said. “We strive to be that non-judgmental place where everybody is treated with respect.”

Libraries across Colorado are looking toward the future. Many libraries responded to the explosive growth of e-readers by adding digital books that can be borrowed and downloaded directly to a tablet or smartphone. Other libraries respond to the digital divide by providing a place where people can connect in person, seeing a role for the future as a community center.

“The library is that place where anybody can come,” said Clark. “We are friendly and welcoming and everyone is invited to be here.” In addition to social services, PCCLD helps connect people with creative outlets. Pueblo residents can visit the library to record an oral history or take a belly dance lesson.

Juan Morales, chair of the English and World Languages department at Colorado State University Pueblo, is a frequent visitor to the library.

“The library does a lot for the community and the community really relies on the library,” said Morales.

“There seem to be less books on the shelves – but they’re doing community engagement with lectures, events, and adult summer reading,” Morales said. Morales sees the community using the library at events like Latino Book Festival or IDEA Con, which he describes as Pueblo’s version of Comic Con.

Outside cities like Pueblo, rural libraries are also transforming to be the digital hub because access to speedy internet is still a problem in rural Colorado..

Heather Maes, the director of the Woodruff Memorial Library in La Junta, says her library has changed dramatically. She grew up in La Junta and started working at the library shelving books after school 26 years ago. “You had books, newspapers, and magazines,” Maes said. “Libraries are no longer just about books. They’re your community hub where people go to find things out.”

Maes said her library helps people with genealogy research, local tourism information, even football stats.

People from all over Otero County visit to connect with each other. Library visitors can leave with more than books – the library also loans iPads and laptops.

Sharing technology is a major role for libraries, especially in small communities and rural areas. While a shelf full of iPads may seem a far cry from a shelf full of paperbacks, libraries have always been a place where communities pool their financial means in order to share reusable goods. All the fifth graders in a small town might check out the same exciting adventure novel. Now, they might all get a chance to try 3D printing.

“It’s about showing what’s possible,” said Kieran Hixon, president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. He said there are over 50 libraries in Colorado that serve small communities and rural areas.

Hixon said it can be hard for small libraries to add new technology, like 3D printers. Annual budgets for small rural libraries are under $250,000 and include staff pay, health care, building costs, and of course, books.

Despite the challenges, Hixon understands exploring new technologies is a crucial role for libraries. Exposure to technology can lead to better school performance or jobs in expanding industries. Hixon explained that people in rural areas have more limited options for getting familiar with new technology.

“There’s not a big box store in my community. For somebody like myself, I would have to drive over an hour. With new stuff like virtual reality glasses or 3D printers, just getting it into the library and people can see one and touch one is a big deal,” Hixon said.

Rural librarians see themselves helping people in their community get ready to compete in future job markets. In order to make their communities tech-savvy, librarians need to get ahead of the curve. A federal grant program, Future Ready with the Library, launched in 2016 with the goal of equipping librarians with the skills needed to teach the latest technology.

From Trinidad to La Junta, library staff are already putting their tech skills to work. “The Pueblo community really embraces the library in the sense of using it for their internet access,” said Morales. “Pueblo is an example of where libraries do serve the community.“