Libraries Becoming Community Centers 

Striving to stay relevant, Boise libraries shift focus

Libraries are turning up the volume on everything from art to language labs.

illustration by Adam Rosenlund

Libraries are turning up the volume on everything from art to language labs.

On a recent Saturday, Duale Mohamoud and Mehereteab Giday sat across the table from each other in a bright conference room at the Library at Hillcrest, nestled in a strip mall beside Albertson's, Honk's $1.00 and Rent-A-Center on the corner of Overland and Orchard.

Duale Mohamoud (left) helps lead the conversation at the Hillcrest library's English corner every week. This is the first time Mehereteab Giday (right) has sat in. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Duale Mohamoud (left) helps lead the conversation at the Hillcrest library's English corner every week. This is the first time Mehereteab Giday (right) has sat in.

The room had two uplifting azure-painted walls and two walls of clear, clean glass. Mohamoud, 24, wore a white and red button-down and spoke cheerfully about coming to Boise from Kenya in 2006. Giday, on the other hand, is 50. He looked down at a yellow folder and scribbled faint lines, staying quiet. He wore a black hoodie and coughed every few minutes.

Mohamoud wasn't deterred by his quiet company. He's come to the Hillcrest library every Saturday from 3-4 p.m. for two years, helping refugees and New Americans practice English.

"Tell us what you like most in Eritrea that you don't have in the United States," Mohamoud said to Giday, who looked back at him with a detached expression.

"I do not understand," Giday said.

"'Tell us,' that means all of us in the room. If I say, 'Tell me,' I mean only me," Mohamoud explained.

"I know only Boise and my country," Giday said. "Boise is very different. Boise is cold."

"What do you like of Boise?" Mohamoud asked.

"I don't like," Giday said. "The weather is very bad for me."

Giday said he came to Boise a year ago from Eritrea, a country in East Africa on the Red Sea. Mohamoud told BW that refugees get no choice in where they relocate.

"I don't know perfect English," Giday said. "If you don't know language, can't get a job."

That's what the English Conversation Corner at the Hillcrest library is trying to fix. The every-Saturday program is designed to bring new Americans together to listen to English--our English, with our accent and our colloquialisms.

Mohamoud and Giday never talked about family or anything below the surface. Every week, Mohamoud simply tries to lead refugees out of their shyness and into talking about their day, or what they did in the past week.

Mohamoud noticed Giday wandering around the library earlier that week and told him to come to these sessions. This was Giday's first time, and on this particular day, it was only the two of them. On other Saturdays, there is standing room only.

These aren't services you'd find so regularly at libraries around Boise, but the Library at Hillcrest is surrounded by refugee and non-English-speaking households. Staff started the English Conversation Corner three years ago in an effort to cater to their community. What's more, Hillcrest offers one-on-one staff time to help with application forms, computer use and citizen requirements; adult skills classes like math, reading, spelling and workplace skills; and a collection of fiction and nonfiction books for adults new to English to check out.

The programs offered at Hillcrest are indicative of the changes taking place at libraries across the Treasure Valley--once considered places of quiet study, libraries are increasingly serving as community centers, geared toward those living around them.

"People tend to think of libraries as places where you check out books," said Joanne Hinkel, community relations coordinator for the Boise Public Library. "Staying relevant is a challenge because you have to be constantly reinventing yourself."

Hinkel started at the Boise Public Library in 2001. She said she's seen the library shift into something more like a community center over time.

The Boise Public Library downtown has made it a point to offer space, not just for library programs, but for the community to use. There's a partnership with organizations like the Nonprofit Center, which hosts a grant workshop once a month. There are also occasional free legal clinics from Concordia University School of Law and tax help from Boise State accounting students. The inaugural Library Comic Con, held in August, brought 7,000 people through the door in one day.

Hinkel said it's difficult to get the word out about these programs, though. She's constantly looking for inexpensive ways to raise the library's profile. Her goal for the new year: new users.

From Oct. 1, 2012, to Sept. 30, 2013, the four branches of the Boise Public Library system (Hillcrest, Cole and Ustick, downtown and Collister) saw more than 1.4 million visitors. That equals almost 4,400 average daily visits to a library somewhere in Boise. Nearly 16,000 new library cards were issued this year alone.

In 2009, those four libraries offered almost 2,000 programs; by 2013, the libraries added more than 1,000 programs. Program attendance went from just shy of 53,000 people to more than 78,000 attendees.

The library will also bring back a First Thursday event that it hasn't had the staff time or resources to host for a few years. Set for Jan. 2, 6:30-8 p.m., the event includes a performance from students at the Boise School of Rock, followed by an interactive workshop with the audience members.

Hinkel is also excited about another program this year: one for "adult makers." The Jan. 15 event will be an introduction to home brewing, hosted by Marcus Bezuhly of Home Brew Stuff.

"There are things that libraries have always done," she said, "but we're doing way more of them than we used to."

Across town, at the Ada Community Library on Victory and Five Mile, librarian and program coordinator Diane Rice puts almost all her energy into creating a diverse set of program offerings for her neighborhood. Her budget for programs: zero.

But that hasn't stopped her from developing reading groups with themes like modern marvels, train tracks, Jewish adventures in graphic novels, food, art, science and more. She's brought in speakers on topics, including Birds of Prey, small-business operations, filmmaking and mushrooms. She's featured authors and actors and musicians.

Rice moved to Boise 30 years ago after pursuing a career as an anthropologist-archeologist. When she moved here, she thought she'd landed in a "monoculture."

"Since then, many things have gotten better, but we have all these communities you don't see a lot of times unless you go looking for them," Rice said. "I found them, bit by bit."

When she started at the Ada Community Library 13 years ago, she wanted to bring whatever cultural exposure she could through art and literature.

In May 2013, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association that only 124 other libraries in the country received. The grant let her start a "Let's Talk About It" reading group on the theme "Muslim Journeys."

The grant included 25 books, four DVDs and the resources to hire two scholars to run the book discussions. The project kicked off with an "Islam 101" lecture and a Bosnian culture celebration that included food, music and a performance by Bosnian youth dance group Mladi Behar. Then the reading group met once a month through the fall to discuss five different books.

The last meeting was a smaller group of six women, generally older than 50, who sat in a circle on the first Tuesday evening of December. They mostly wore short hair, scarves and sweaters. Someone brought juice and dixie cups and baklava. Icicle Christmas lights ran around the edges of the room.

The conversation wove through the differences and similarities of the women--specifically, growing up in Idaho, which is a decidedly non-oppressive society compared to the one with which Muslim women must contend in the book Dreams of Trespass, by Fatima Mernissi. There were comments like:

"The women [in the book] lived in these walls, while we got to live in the outdoors."

"I remember I couldn't do things that boys could do because I was a girl. We wore dresses and boys wore pants. I remember being part of the female society that was pushed down."

"In the '40s [when the book is set], we weren't all that advanced either."

Sandi Augsburger and Nona Driscoll have attended every gathering in the Muslim series.

"You develop friendships in these groups," Augsburger said.

She spends more time at the Lake Hazel library than the Ada Community Library, and she notices the same things happening there, too.

"There is no community center down by Lake Hazel and the library fulfills that need," she said.

Driscoll comes to more than the book groups. She also uses the Fit and Fall Proof exercise program every Tuesday and Thursday.

"[Libraries] are active and they're busy and it's not like, 'shhh,' anymore," Driscoll said. "There's so much going on. ... How could it not increase your quality of life?"

Driscoll said the library doesn't charge for anything, which enables older people who live on a budget to participate in activities. She enjoys the companionship.

"My husband passed away 10 years ago, then my aunt came and lived with me and she passed away three years ago, and then my mom passed away last year. So I am just kind of coming out and discovering myself, and this is a great place to figure out fun things to do," Driscoll said.

Rice said she felt nervous at first, offering the Muslim Journeys reading group. After a library in Chicago received the same grant and faced protests, she had to undergo a training about how to handle the negativity that could come up. But she only heard a few comments from Ada Community patrons. Mostly, some were concerned their tax dollars were paying for the program, but it's all grant-funded.

"We're trying to introduce our neighbors," Rice said. "These people aren't coming in and taking our resources and threatening our homes. No. These people, who are living side-by-side with us and raising their children, they just have a different perspective of the world. It's OK. They're good people. Our neighbors."

Rice is working on extending the grant for the next installment of the Muslim Journeys. In the meantime, she's already secured a grant for a new "Let's Talk About It" series starting in March 2014: Humanity of Science and Technology. The books include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Animals in Translation.

The Ada Community Library is embarking on another program Rice is excited about--one that widens volunteer opportunities from simply shelving books to inviting local people to teach classes on topics in which they are particularly skilled.

"It's bringing in really experienced, cool people who know a lot and want to volunteer at a library, but do more than straighten shelves," Rice said.

The program is called "Makeiteer," and so far, only Idaho and California have made use of it. At the Ada Community Library, one local woman has been teaching dress-making in recent weeks. Another woman spent an afternoon teaching about sheep. They set up a sheep pen in the backyard of the library and demonstrated the various uses of wool.

"[The program] connects resources because we all don't have much money and we all don't have much staff," Rice said.

Lack of resources and lack of staff are common challenges, but as more people look to local libraries as more than book repositories, demands on infrastructure are increasing.

Back in 2002, the city of Boise purchased a plot of land at Bown Crossing for a new library. Today, that land behind the Tavern restaurant and Flatbread Pizzeria is a dirt lot people use for parking.

It's not a library yet because the city hasn't had the funding to build or operate it.

Adam Park, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, said the library's completion is a high budget priority, but it competes with other city plans, like upgrading fire stations.

He said if the Yes! Yes! Boise bond package would have passed earlier this fall, the mayor wanted to see the library built within 18 months. That wasn't a specific provision in the bond, but it would have freed up enough money elsewhere.

Park said that now, the City Council and the mayor have to go back and create a new plan for all these projects to be completed. And even if the new library can be built, the city still needs to find a place in the the budget for the actual operation.

Park said the library would have been built sooner if it weren't for the economic downturn in 2008. But in 2012, the Boise Public Library Community Survey showed the majority of surveys completed wanted to see a library expansion in Southeast Boise.

"It's still a very high priority. It's been promised to that neighborhood and Southeast Boise," Park said. "We think it's very important that it's built, we just don't know when that will be."

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