The Role of the Boston Public Library in the 21st Century

The question “Where is your favorite spot in the city?” is a complete no-brainer for me. The answer will always be, “the Boston Public Library.” It has been there for me more than any sort of entity has been in the past three years (well, at least until nine o’clock). It’s where I spend my time, where I get my textbooks and where I go to get a slice of life. It was the number one place we had to go when my family came from Minnesota to Boston. Not that I would ever diss a library, but let’s just say the Galaxie Library in Apple Valley is not the kind of place that instills a sense of wonder in its patrons. I’m pleased to say my 10-year-old sister was just as amazed at the Boston Public Library(BPL) as I am every time I go there.

A window to Boylston St.

Recently, the library announced it would be opening up a cafe and a broadcast station for WGBH, the public news channel for Massachusetts. The modern side of the library, the Johnson Building, has been under going renovations for the past year and is set to be complete in the summer of 2016. While the new cafe and station are most certainly an attempt to bring in revenue for the $78 million renovation taking place, it also changes the definition of what a library could be.

When most people think of libraries, they think of books. While they’re not wrong to think that’s what a library should offer, the 21st century library can do so much more for its community than share books. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a library as “a collection of sources of information and similar resources, made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing.” This definition most accurately describes what public libraries are, even if it seems broad. Libraries are centers of information for a specific community. In the 21st century, that’s more than just books.

Wall decor inside Teen Central

Take for example, the BPL’s teen center. A place where history books, coloring books and anime volumes can exist among each other and still make sense. In one of two rooms adjacent to the main room of teen central are Macs and PCs loaded with the complete Adobe Creative Suite, the kind of software found in my college’s computer labs. Installed in this lab is also 3D printer. All of these high-tech exemplars of luxury are available for young teens to use for free.  And the sole purpose of “The Media Lounge” is to enjoy playing Xbox 1, Playstation 4 and Wii U. Video games? In a library? The BPL knows enough that video games can be educational, but also realize the value of them as a stress relieving activities. In addition to Teen Central, the library also offers a a college planning center sponsored by American Student Assistance (ASA), a non-profit organization that helps students plan financially for secondary education.

Of course, the BPL offers plenty of services for its users that aren’t teens. But it’s crucial to note that at the forefront of all the changes occurring in the renovation is an emphasis on making the library a place for young people. The Children’s Library is a rainbow splattered room that is filled with books, but also glowing lions, touchscreen tables and a sensory wall. Engaging Bostonians from a budding age and keeping them involved in their adolescent years is key to letting them know libraries are a place for them too.


I remember the awe of my 10-year-old sister as she walked through the children’s section of the library. It had completely changed her schema of what a library could be. Despite our ten year age difference, the library of my youth is completely unrecognizable to hers. The next generation isn’t going to have the same library experience as we did and perhaps won’t even need to know what the Dewey Decimal System is. What they will hopefully have is an excitement for libraries; and an enthusiasm for libraries translates to an enthusiasm for reading and learning in general.

The incoming broadcast station should be seen as good news for the 167-year-old institution. By making news more accessible to the public, allowing citizens to possibly be involved in the news making process (or at least watch it unfold), the BPL is continuing it’s tradition of bringing the power to the people with knowledge.

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