HomeTop StoriesHow a South Carolina county is reimagining libraries

How a South Carolina county is reimagining libraries

The first public library in the US dates back to 1790 in Franklin, Massachusetts. Today, in the age of e-reading and other technological developments, the modern library faces a new set of challenges. Despite these hurdles, several libraries across the country are writing the book on innovation.

The Richland Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina, is a national leader in reshaping the library’s place in the community.

The Richard Library has its own teaching kitchen, where patrons can learn culinary techniques. It also comes with a fully equipped woodworking shop, a seed library, and a “library of things,” with shelves stocked with items such as instruments, games, and toys.

Melanie Huggins, director of the library, has played a pioneering role in this extraordinary evolution.

“We’ve always been about improving people’s lives. I think that’s the history of public libraries around the world,” Huggins said.

That history dates back to 1895, when the city of Columbia’s first library department was established. But an economic ebb and flow, combined with technological advancements, led Huggins and her team to write a new chapter for a community in need.

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“We think of our spaces as places to learn, to share, to create, and we create quiet spaces and just let the rest of the library be vibrant and active,” Huggins said.

At the library, job seekers can rely on career counselors, and social workers help the homeless and those suffering from food insecurity.

Education is also a top priority.

“I didn’t know our libraries contribute to our education. I thought you would come here and get a book,” said Letita Miller, a 40-year-old single mother of four.

Miller dropped out of high school after having her first child at age 14. The library allowed her to take free online classes to earn a high school diploma.

“It was very, very difficult because I had to grow up early. I had to learn more responsibility at that age,” Miller said of her teenage years.

After years of struggling and working multiple jobs, she returned to high school through the library program in 2022.

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Developing innovative ways to stay relevant is now a national trend among American libraries. The Main Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a sound booth where people can record their own albums. In Chicago, vending machine are stocked with free supplies, from hygiene kits to Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

“There’s no one else doing this work,” Huggins said.

This spring, Miller proudly received her high school diploma, and she thanked the library for helping her achieve it.

“You can accomplish so many things here,” Miller said.

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