Knovvmads Magazine

Libraries in Laundromats and More: Meeting People Where They Are

The neighborhood where I grew up was a perfectly standard suburb, with all the amenities you might expect: bookstores, cafés, little shops, parks… but no library. There was easy access to knowledge, but no community space to foster exploration. 

Friends of mine have told me about their own library experiences growing up: cozy chairs, working your way up to higher and higher reading levels, summer programs introducing new topics and new people. It’s a lovely thought: a library, it seems, can be a hallmark of a childhood brimming with curiosity and comfort.

In my time at Libraries Without Borders US, I’ve learned that a library is not only the epitome of a curious and comfortable childhood, but also a resource hub for communities and a place of resilience in difficult times. To become the vital spaces that they are, libraries continuously ask themselves: how can we adapt? How can we better reach and better serve our communities? How can we stay relevant and useful in a constantly changing society? Libraries Without Borders US is attempting to innovate even further and support libraries as they search for answers to these questions.

Alejandra González

Libraries Without Borders US (LWB US) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization committed to expanding access to information. We’re based in Washington, D.C. but run programs across the US, including in Puerto Rico, and Chihuahua, Mexico. A small team of eight full-time and four part-time team members, we design innovative, pop-up libraries in nontraditional spaces and partner with local library branches and community organizations to run effective, impactful programming. Through this model, we bring library resources and services to people who are most in need of the library yet are unable to access the facility. 

Diving into the details of our innovative, pop-up libraries, in 2016, we designed the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI), which transforms laundromats into access points for digital learning and community development. WALI functions to better serve urbanites without the time, resources, or know-how to access their local library. In 2018, we then expanded our work to Puerto Rico, reimagining how to bring library resources and services to a community devastated by successive hurricanes through the Ideas Box. The Ideas Box is a portable, durable kit complete with books and other educational supplies that transforms into a school, a library, or a community center. Most recently, in 2020, we designed the Manufactured Housing Initiative, which serves individuals and families living in rural America by transforming public access spaces in manufactured housing communities (pejoratively known as “trailer parks”) into learning and digital literacy hubs. 

In all of these endeavors, Libraries Without Borders US and its partner institutions have sought to increase access to library services. But why is increasing access so important? Many of our partner libraries have informed us that the communities they serve often feel intimidated by the library. So, where do you begin when someone is not comfortable stepping into a library or speaking with a librarian? What do you do when someone is uncomfortable facing aisles of books? For many, the library seems like a universe meant for someone else, but there’s no such thing as someone else at the library. Libraries have something for everyone. The library lives to serve, but millions of people feel like they don’t belong. What then?

For many of these individuals and families without the time, tools, resources, or know-how to get to know their local library, our programs have shown that the library is not the austere, esoteric place many imagine it to be. The library does not have to be confined to a blank-walled, cold building. The library is not static, but instead a dynamic and transformative institution that is defined, not by its space, but by the community that participates in its services and engages with its resources. 

So, how do we at Libraries Without Borders US transform the image of the library from an esoteric, austere building into a community learning hub, accessible for and serving all? Well, we first analyze why the individuals in the specific community we are targeting might not be visiting their local library. For some constituents, there may be a library in their zip code, but it’s still too far out from their usual routine, and nothing incentivizes that first visit. For others, maybe it just so happens that the local branch is particularly small and underfunded. Others may not even realize the library, with its plentitude of services, is there. Others might not get off work until after the library has already closed. The list goes on. What then?

LWB US pondered these questions in 2015 and decided to bring the library to the people, rather than push the people to visit their local library. Our first success was the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI), a program that brings library services to laundromats—places where people happen to have a free hour that they’d otherwise use to just wait on laundry machines. Through partnerships with local libraries and other, similarly minded organizations, we’ve set up storytimes, tax prep, resume coaching, ESL classes, and more in these small spaces.

At its most basic level, our programming intends to serve as that first connection to the library. Consider this: if you meet a librarian at the laundromat and realize your child enjoys that hour very much, it might be the right incentive to plan a visit. Moreover, maybe the visiting librarian is only there to run storytime for the day, but also hands out fliers for a workshop of interest taking place at the library. For some, the realization that libraries offer services is enormous: these services are usually free and specifically tailored to local interests and needs.

The libraries in laundromats tagline led us to interesting people and opportunities to continue pondering the big questions: what exactly is a library? How do we connect more people to them? Increasingly, we questioned the everyday inequities in access to information. Why is the digital divide so pressing and stark across the US? Why is useful information about health or finance or law so burdened by jargon and paywalls? Throughout, we’ve set our minds to bypass the jargon and paywalls and to bridge the digital divide, in order to ensure everyone has equal access to information.

Libraries Without Borders US’ most recent response to these questions came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We shut down most of our in-person programming and community learning hubs in the spring of 2020 in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But we knew that libraries, and the services they provide, were more important for communities now than ever before. With many community members facing unemployment, eviction, food insecurity, and dire health problems, the library needed to step up its programming efforts rather than shut down. In Baltimore and San Antonio, Libraries Without Borders US thus partnered with the local library branches to design our ConnectED Technology Kits. These kits, held in a friendly blue backpack, contained the resources needed for families and individuals to continue learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. We filled each backpack with a laptop, a hotspot, and a resource packet geared towards a variety of local organizations and resources. 

In a year when society has changed so abruptly, when it has been turned upside down and all the cracks in the system have renewed, stark visibility, Libraries Without Borders US has worked with local libraries to respond to a myriad of challenges. Together, we have implemented innovative and useful solutions to pressing problems, reminding the public that libraries are more than just a four-walled building full of books. As we move into the new year, we have high hopes for our work and our partnerships in 2021, especially as we begin to look at reopening the work we paused last spring. We can’t wait to share it all with you. 

Libraries Without Borders US is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.  committed to expanding access to information. Learn more on our website or follow us on social media: Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Subscribe to Knovvmads Magazine & Get Your Copies Mailed Directly to You. Knovvmads Magazine Offers Print Subscription, Available quarterly at Your Library.

Subscribe now and be part of the Knovvmads Community.