Summer Blog Series – Libraries & PLAY #3
“You’re Never Too Old to Play at the Library”
Since 2008, Lifetime Arts, a nonprofit focused on creative aging, has worked with dozens of public libraries across the country to bring playful arts to older adults.
The Public Libraries Initiative works as follows:
“Led by professional teaching artists, libraries implement skill-building workshop series which foster mastery and promote meaningful social engagement through free programs in all arts disciplines. At each library, culminating events celebrate the achievements of every [older adult] participant.”
The reason Lifetime Arts gravitated to public libraries is because of libraries’ incredible reach. On May 5, 2021, the Wyoming State Library announced that it would be working with Lifetime Arts and the Wyoming Arts Council to develop “participatory, sequential, socially-engaging and professionally run arts programs” in 15 libraries across the state.
You can see more examples of creative aging in America’s public libraries in the reporting of PBS, which covers “How Library Classes in the Arts Are Changing Aging.”
Libraries are Social Infrastructure
In small towns and urban neighborhoods, the public library is uniquely placed to support playful aging.
Some small-town public librarians call themselves “de facto senior centers” given the absence of any comparable infrastructure in these places.
Even in urban communities, public libraries are uniquely placed to support play among older adults. Brooklyn, New York’s Alice Baker, 74 years old, told NPR’s All Things Considered that what appeals to her about public libraries is that she can attend activities for people her own age in a place that welcomes people of every age:
“They have exercise, they have classes for kids. It brings everybody in,” says Baker. “You can bring your family with you.”
Dancing the tango at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Sunset Park Branch as part of a Lifetime Arts’ Creative Aging Program ca. 2015. Image courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.
Baker was being interviewed as part of an NPR story entitled “Xbox Bowling For Seniors? Visit Your Local Library.”
The idea of bowling at the library also captivated the attention of Columbia University Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who in Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life focuses on the critical importance of older adults playing together at the library.
On June 7, 2019, he tweeted a video showing the members of Brooklyn Public Library’s Library Lanes in action. Check it out to see the power of public libraries as a playful social infrastructure for older adults!
In his review of Palaces for the People, former presidential candidate and current secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg focuses on the importance of playful aging in public libraries:
“The new book’s exploration of this reality begins in the basement of a library in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, where an Xbox-based bowling competition pits local seniors against rival teams from a dozen library branches across the borough. The example of a virtual bowling league has particular poetic resonance two decades after Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, raised fears of societal collapse in his study “Bowling Alone.” Where Putnam charted the decline of American communal participation through shrinking bowling league membership, Klinenberg’s basement of virtual bowlers illustrates how technology might actually enhance our social fabric — provided there are supportive spaces. Given what we have learned about the health impacts of social isolation among the elderly, lives may depend on creating more such opportunities.”
This vision of the technology-rich public library supporting place-based play among America’s aging population is remarkably optimistic.
Library Lanes Xbox Bowling at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library in 2014. Image courtesy Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library.
How can you get involved?
Not every community has a Library Lanes program, but almost every community has a public library. If you want to bring playful aging to your public library, start with a conversation. I’ve written five steps anyone can take to do more by “Partnering with public libraries.” Use that to get started.
You may also want to check out the American Library Association’s compilation of best practices for public librarians serving older adults. You’ll see Lifetime Art’s Creative Aging Toolkit for Public Libraries prominently featured, which suggests how widespread the ideas in this blog post have become.
Nevertheless, public librarians need your help. Librarians need people in arts councils, parks & recreation, and elsewhere, to work with them to complement what they may be able to offer by themselves. So reach out, start a conversation, and form a partnership, because you’re never too old to play at the library, and you’re never too old to start a conversation with your local librarians.
About the Author: Noah Lenstra, PhD, is Director of Let’s Move in Libraries and assistant professor of Library & Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Learn more about Noah at noahlenstra.com and follow him on Twitter at @NoahLenstra
About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2021 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts. PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here! In July, Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, will highlight public library play initiatives for several key demographics. In August, Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will blog on “PLAY for Healthier Communities.”