William Gray's ideal workspace is the flagship branch of Washington, D.C.'s public library. Sometimes the 36-year-old entrepreneur will check out a reference book on business strategy or graphic design, but mostly he's there for the atmosphere — the private meeting rooms where it's quiet enough to take a Zoom call, the cafe and the rooftop where there's an ambient social buzz of other professionals working on laptops or conducting meetings.
It feels like being "at a happy hour without the drinks," Gray says of the library rooftop, which opened to the public in 2020 after years of renovation.
In addition to the local experts who can help him with license applications for his wellness business or filing his taxes, Gray sees the library as a nexus of community. He loves when his workday overlaps with evening events such as the summer concert series featuring local musicians.
"A lot of people don't realize that the library isn't this super quiet, no-speaking zone anymore," Gray said. "Now it's like a hangout vibe. The only thing that's the same is that they still have books."
Long before WeWork, libraries were the original co-working spaces. But since the coronavirus pandemic started, libraries are evolving to better serve remote and hybrid workers, especially in large metropolitan areas, according to Brooks Rainwater, CEO and president of the Urban Libraries Council.
In addition to resources such as free internet and printer access, they're building up offerings aimed at small-business owners and professionals, renovating to include more private work spaces and meeting rooms. Branches in some locations — such as D.C. and New York City — have added cafes and turned rooftops into snazzy destinations where workers can take meetings or work in a more relaxed atmosphere.
The influx of new clientele has helped libraries rebound from the pandemic. In 2022, in-person visits to most urban public libraries rose to more than 50 percent of 2019 levels, a number that's expected to rise even higher in 2023, according to the Urban Libraries Council.
While many companies have used sprawling offices packed with amenities as recruiting tools, many public libraries offer the benefit of a sleek work environment for free. Of course, some public library systems are better-funded and more expansive than others. Some libraries, especially in rural areas, are struggling. But those that have evolved are seeing usage climb closer to pre-pandemic levels.
One of libraries' biggest challenges, Rainwater said, is thwarting the stereotype that they're musty, strict and focused solely on books.
"It's a constant conversation to let people know you don't need to be quiet in the library, no one's going to shush you," Rainwater said.
The changing face of libraries may not be for everyone, as some people may find the lively atmosphere distracting. But for many remote workers, libraries are an ideal "third place," a term sociologists use to describe locations that are neither work nor home and are accessible to diverse groups of people. At a time when companies are pulling out all the stops to get workers back to offices, libraries have become an attractive alternative — one that offers a boundary between work and home, while still enabling the serendipitous socializing bosses say has been lost as workers spend less time in traditional offices.
"We're seeing more young professionals, people working on their own businesses or working remotely," says Skye Patrick, library director for the LA County Library, one of the country's largest public library systems with more than 80 branches. "A lot of people forgot how important it is to have some sort of adjacency, a way to socialize."
Libraries are "one of the most beloved and least understood" social entities in the United States, according to Patrick. Rather than cultivating an austere environment, many are filled with kids playing games and getting help with schoolwork, plus adults taking meetings or working on computers.
While students tend to be more aware of what libraries have to offer, people tend to "peel off" from using them as they get older, Patrick said. But ever since libraries reopened after shuttering in the pandemic's early days, there's been an influx of new people discovering them.
The LA County Library's study and conference rooms, which once were used on a first-come, first-served basis, have become so popular that they're booked well in advance, Patrick said. They're also crucial in conquering the "digital divide" that was laid bare by the immediate shift to virtual school and work.
Quieter than coffee shops, libraries provide an optimal setting for the head-down work that Steve Sanders does as chief technology officer for DonorSpring, a small software start-up. The company has a handful of staff members and no offices, so Sanders rotates between working at different libraries near his home in Yorkville, Ill.
Sanders has a home office, but working from a library allows him to be surrounded by people while not requiring him to interact much.
"It's easy to feel isolated working remotely and not seeing people in person," Sanders said.
For Annmarie Ekey, D.C.'s central library has been the perfect place to build her leadership consulting business. She's there a few times a week, printing paperwork, picking up materials or taking meetings. She's developed relationships with employees at the resource desks and the cafe, which she frequents for the delicious blondies. Ekey said she finds the environment "supportive and inspiring."
Libraries are positioned to help people at every stop on their professional journeys, according to Kathy Bach, public services director at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library, which has 41 Cincinnati-area locations.
People will come in to use computers and ask for assistance filling out unemployment paperwork, then return to workshop their résumés and take classes on how to navigate job sites such as LinkedIn and Indeed, Bach said. Then they'll come back weeks later dressed in business attire and take job interviews in private meeting rooms. (So far in 2023, hourly bookings for private meeting rooms in the library system have exceeded 63,700 hours, about a 30 percent increase over the first six months of 2022.)
"People will come in and say, 'You helped me get that job,'" Bach said. "It's the kind of place where it feels good to work."
At the Boston Public Library, librarians are realizing they've "cultivated this habitat for hybrid and remote workers," said Gregor Smart, curator of BPL's Kirstein Business Library & Innovation Center. At any given time, Smart said, the 5,000-square-foot space is full with about 100 people, ranging from small-business owners to coders and nonprofit workers.
Smart said he thinks of himself as a "hotel concierge" whose job is to help patrons find whatever they need: a private meeting room with a whiteboard and display monitors; computers equipped with Adobe's creative suite. Or maybe he can connect them with someone who can help them start a patent or trademark application. Kirstein also offers mentoring sessions for small-business owners, and events such as career fairs and workshops for aspiring podcasters.
"What I love about our space is that you never know who's going to be there," Smart said. "We can all learn from each other."
The people who work in the library are its most underrated resource, according to Xavier Pierre, a 28-year-old who owns a catering and food-truck business. Despite having a home office, Pierre prefers to work from the Forest Park branch of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library about four days a week. It's a quiet place where he can revise his menus or ship out paperwork for new clients. He's also a card-carrying member of libraries in Columbus, Las Vegas and Miami, using them as a base while traveling.
"There's a certain environment and feeling of support that I just love being around," Pierre said.
— Taylor Telford, The Washington Post