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A woman serving punch at an open house event at Missoula Public Library, 1959. Courtesy of the Missoula (MT) Public Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

A cornerstone of the American Library Association’s “Core Values of Librarianship” is its emphasis on social responsibility and libraries’ critical role of serving the public. Public libraries’ attention to programming, in the form of classes, discussion groups, and community events, helps put those goals into practice.

Though some libraries, like other public spaces in the United States, have historically supported racial segregation, services have generally been available for patrons across class and gender lines. Moreover, public libraries remain some of the only truly free public spaces where local residents can meet outside of home and work. Public libraries, in cities and small towns alike, offer collaborative space (and now, wireless Internet and computer access) that are close and accessible to the community.

With renewed focus in the 1950s, US public libraries began extending their core services to include community programming. Typically, these include educational programs, like summer reading groups for children and discussion groups for adults, as well as spaces to host external clubs and groups from the community. The twenty-first century saw programming include computer and other STEM skills-building activities, hosting of concerts, art exhibitions, and gaming, the development of maker spaces, and extensions of their lending services to tool, seed, and even prom dress libraries.

The emphasis on programmatic public service is also apparent in times of crisis, when libraries have worked to respond to the immediate needs of their communities. After the destruction of Hurricane Ike in 2008, Houston Public Library mobilized to offer emergency aid. The library helped patrons work on FEMA aid paperwork, served as a public access point for distribution of food and water, and offered childcare services and a safe space for families. During this time of need, the library worked to serve its community, and continued to do so weeks after other aid organizations left Houston.