Providence Public Library: "A Most Democratic Institution"

Providence Public Library: A Community-Powered Institution

August 24, 2022

Ah, public libraries! Are there any more wonderful places? We enjoy every opportunity to speak with library customers, learning how they serve their communities and how DipJar supports those efforts. A recent conversation with Erica Busillo Adams of Providence Public Library is a perfect case in point!

Erica is the director of external relations, a position she has held since joining the library in 2017. In that role, she is responsible for marketing, communications, and fundraising. She came to the library right before a significant capital campaign to transform the library into “an open source, people’s university” and hasn’t looked back since. It was the programming, culture, and vision of the library that attracted her, and the challenge that has kept her engaged and excited ever since.

Providence Public Library first opened to the public in 1878. Unlike many public libraries, Providence Public Library is a private 501(c)(3) that is chartered as a free public library. It is privately funded and overseen by a board of trustees. Over eighty percent of the library’s funding comes from private gifts and donations. That funding model is a powerful one. According to Erica, it makes the library truly of the people and for the people. A “most democratic institution,” in her words.

The library is a state-wide resource, but the immediate community it serves is downtown Providence. (There are nine community libraries - essentially branches - that are funded by the city.) The library underwent a significant transformation, which was completed and ready for a grand reopening in 2020. As with many other things in life, this plan was derailed by the pandemic. Open now, the reimagined spaces are a physical manifestation of the library’s mission and serve as vessels - according to Erica, for “wonderful things to happen.”

The library’s funding model makes it uniquely responsive to the community. This is manifested in the ways library leaders and workers seek input and active participation from the community. The result is a rich array of fresh and innovative resources, programs, and services.

These include the library’s Teen Squad, currently focused on coding and understanding and working with data; an active small business network; learning circles, essentially programs that are co-created and co-led by the community; adult education focused on workforce development; citizenship services and support; and English language learning. All of these are supported by wrap-around services based on the question, “what can we do to help?”

One area where this approach is particularly unique is Providence Public Library’s special collections. The collections are notable for whaling logs (the second largest collection in the world) and their print and typography resources. These materials are available to everyone. People can walk in and ask to see (and touch!) anything they are interested in because everything in the library is for the people.

Not only does the library make sure its collection is available to the community, but the staff is also very intentional about building a collection that reflects the community. This is demonstrated by the library’s efforts to collect important local archives. There’s an extensive LGBTQ+ community archive, one associated with a local arts organization, and the library is in the process of developing a local Covid archive as well.

Another unique aspect of Providence Public Library's special collections is how the library supports and encourages its use in creative ways. Providence Public Library’s annual Creative Fellowship Program invites a local artist to create a work of art based on an item or items in the collection and is focused on a different medium and theme each year. The most recent exhibition, Tomboy, focused on an exploration of the term and was combined with programming around the idea of identity. As with so much at Providence Public Library, the themes, elements, and expressions of the exhibit reflect the input and participation of the community.

This high level of community involvement is critical for an institution, which, in Erica’s words, is “powered by the people.” Understanding and harnessing that power is Erica’s responsibility, and the community is only too eager to help.

Providence Public Library’s Alum Campaign collects and shares stories from a wide range of people on the impact of the library on their lives. Those warm feelings toward the library are reflected in meaningful ways: a robust volunteer program and a strong response to appeals for financial support.

Recently, the library held its first in-person Give Day since 2019. It was held in June to avoid the rush around Giving Tuesday and the end of year holidays. Erica explained that it also creates an opportunity to celebrate the library and its community before the close of the fiscal year (June 30). This year, the event generated more than $21,000 - the biggest single-day fundraising event the library has held to date!

DipJar is also a part of the fundraising picture. Erica had seen DipJars in use by another local organization and thought they would work exceptionally well for the library, so the library purchased three in February of 2020. The plan had been to have them on hand for the library’s grand reopening in the Spring of that year. That plan changed due to the pandemic.

Things returned to more regular operations in June of 2021, allowing the library to use the DipJars at a number of events. At most events (now that they are back!), the DipJars are set to $25. For the library’s annual Gala, the amount was set to $50 as part of a giveaway, and the DipJars were used as props to encourage friendly competition between donors. On a day-to-day basis, the DipJars are located around the library and set to collect $5 donations.

Their interactivity and ease of use have made the DipJars popular with staff and patrons alike. Erica and her team are analyzing traffic flow through the library (which grew by 267% over the past fiscal year!) to determine ideal placements. “They’re just so easy,” she explained, “staff can simply point them out to people, and they understand what to do. I love them.”

As in-person visits and activities continue to ramp up, the library is redoubling its efforts to reach and provide valuable resources, services, and programs to the community. We are so happy to be a small part of the fantastic work of Providence Public Library.


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