Libraries Aren’t Dead: What the refurbishment of the Coral Reef Public Library tells about the future of libraries

Kristine Villarroel, Life Editor

On Tuesday, Dec. 17, the Coral Reef Branch Library reopened its facilities after three months of remodeling. The grand reopening consisted of a community open house and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The branch, which opened in 1980, unveiled new features for all patrons, such as a brand new podcasting room, a new children’s area with storytelling and interactive spaces, new study rooms and collaboration areas, new computers and flatscreen TVs and a total refurbishment of the interiors of the library. 

Technology integration formed a huge part of the refurbishment process, as the library welcomed new specialized equipment for patrons to enjoy.

“People often don’t think about technology when they think about libraries, but when you walk around this place, see the computers that we have, see the self-checkout, get on our mobile app, nothing of that works without technology,” Miami-Dade Public Library System Director Ray Baker said. “We are completely technology-driven at this point.”

Through the YouMedia Miami program, M-DPLS has integrated digital skills learning into  the traditional library experience. With specialized devices in different library branches, the YouMedia program allows teens and children to develop skills in areas like music and media production.

“We teach workshops where you can learn skills like video, music production, graphic design, photography, 3D modeling. We have cameras, IMAX laptops, a booth, 3D printers, microphones and other equipment that teens are able to use and take advantage of having that privilege to learn and use it to start a hobby or a craft, or even a career,” YouMedia Miami representative Vinny Araujo said. “We’re trying to offer something that the school system doesn’t have…We have unique technology or gear that we wouldn’t typically find… [or] that you might see at school, but even if you do, you are not allowed to use them.”

By offering the use of this equipment at no cost to patrons, the library system has created a bridge for people of all economic backgrounds to develop technology skills and possibly prepare them for careers in STEM. This guarantees equal access to opportunities to learn skills crucial for the 21st century. With over 50 branches serving a population of 2,496,435, according to the M-DPLS website, libraries serve as a fundamental social institution. 

“People here depend on libraries for homework, for internet access; this is also a place where many of us vote,” County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cara said. “It’s a great equalizer, so people from all ethnicities, races, classes, ages are here together in the library.”

The Miami-Dade Public Library System originated in the 1800s with the establishment of the Lemon City Reading Room in 1894, which was followed soon thereafter by  the Coconut Grove Reading Room in 1895. The efforts of local women’s clubs essentially founded the earliest public libraries in Miami. In 1942, these libraries were brought together to form the City of Miami Public Library System. In 1971, city and county libraries joined forces and formed the Miami‑Dade Public Library System. Since then, M-DPLS has become an integral part of different communities throughout the county.

“Libraries are the oldest institution of government that isn’t failing — but it also isn’t thriving,” Araujo said.

However, being publicly-funded, libraries sometimes encounter challenges while trying to  connect to the population that they serve. With the cultural and social importance of libraries as sources of information and resources often being undermined by some, the hard work put in by the local government and librarians is often  overlooked. 

“There was a period where we were laid off, back in 2011, and for that year there was a lot of pain. But there’s a resurgence,” Assistant Branch Manager Montgomery Lopez said. “We’re coming back. It’s just not books, it’s a space where you can make lots of stuff.”

Lopez pushed to get the brand new podcasting room in the Coral Reef Branch library. Producing “The Monster SciFi Show” podcast since 2006, Lopez wanted to have the library as a resource available for people interested in podcasting.

“We wanted to empower people to have a voice; that’s the goal of the podcast,” Lopez said. “I wanted to open the door for librarians to start learning, to teach other staff members, other members.”

Librarians often do not get the deserved recognition for their significant role in keeping libraries alive and thriving. Human sources of information and providers of help, librarians make the difference between online collections such as Wikipedia and traditional libraries. Thanks to librarians helping patrons access available information, around 7,108,830 questions get answered yearly, according to the M-DPLS website.

“Librarians are fiercely fighting for people’s access to information. They really believe in it so when there’ve been efforts to censor it, librarians come out in defense of people’s rights to know. This is where you know you can get the right information always. They’re teaching literacy from a very early age all the way to adulthood,” Cara said.

Among the many renovations to the library, a brand new art collection now decorates the walls of the facilities. With a wide variety of artists and encompassing multiple art movements and influences, patrons have the opportunity to view original pieces by artists such as Salvador Dali and Jose Bedia, among others. 

“It’s an incredible thing to have. While people are checking out a book, they’re not just checking out a book but also encountering artwork,” Library Exhibitions and Programming Specialist Oscar Fuentes said. “It’s a cultural accident.”

The 6,000 pieces of art on display at the M-DPLS collection allow people to learn about art in an integral way. 

“We have 27 professional shows a year, and with those shows, we have programs, lectures, workshops,” Fuentes said. “It’s part of literacy. There’s visual literacy and there’s text literacy. For people to understand what they see is just as important.” 

Libraries serve a crucial role in society as havens of equal opportunity and free access to information. All 50 branches of the M-DPLS help build a community where everyone can access the resources they need to grow. In order to truly understand the importance of the institution, one must recognize the value of libraries in modern society as well as its evolution and adaptation to the technological needs of an evolving society. The library offers recurrent storytime sessions for younger kids, multiple book clubs and free tutoring. 

“In a democracy where we value first amendment rights, free speech, free access to information, libraries are the institution that really makes that possible throughout the nation in every community,” Cava said. “This is the finest of civic institutions. I cannot speak more highly of libraries in general but our library system, in particular, is very spectacular.”