The internet has helped democratize learning so that anyone with a computer has access to an unprecedented amount of information. But this has left many libraries, which are central places of public learning, struggling to get people through their doors. Changing technology requires public libraries to innovate along with it, reinforcing their importance as free or low-cost educational resources. Faced with the weight of financial obstacles, public libraries must seek new and creative ways to serve their communities and invigorate interest in the arts and public education.

One New York library is trying out many forms of technology and resources to strengthen their community outreach. Shelter Island Public Library recently began offering group viewings and discussions of our free online course The Modern Genius: Art and Culture in the 19th Century, produced by Otis College of Art and Design. We talked to them about their experience with the course, as well as their continuing efforts to offer engaging and creative programs.

Head of Reference at Shelter Island Library is Jocelyn Ozolins. She says that despite being a small town, the popularity of the library’s numerous and diverse community programs is fueled by Shelter Island’s reputation as a summer vacation destination. Being a reputable hub for recreational activities has helped garner support for the library.

Because of sparse government funding however, public libraries like Shelter Island rely on cost-efficient methods to be able to regularly offer their resources. The library often collaborates with other local institutions to expand offerings. To boost their programs, the library allows guests to use the site as an event space and in exchange for attendance, they provide a space for authors to sell their books. Non-profit organizations like the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society give talks and use the library as a recruiting location for volunteers.

“Another way to save money is for departments to share expenses. The Bob Ross paint-along was a whole family program, so we were able to split the costs between youth and adult program budgets,” says Ozolins.

Shelter Island’s commitment to serve many audiences is reflected in their many types of programs, from educational lectures to workshops for hobbies like bullet journaling. News literacy, Shakespeare, and Global Affairs are just a few of the topics library members can expect to learn about. In addition to media presentations like documentary viewings and book clubs, the library invites speakers to answer questions from attendees and further public discussion.

Anthony Zutter, Youth Librarian at Shelter Island, shares their approach for organizing and executing programs targeted to youth learners. He states the educational programs at the library are designed to supplement the children’s own school education, providing an informal, non-structured environment that encourages curiosity and creativity.

“The library should be a place where kids can escape the institutional structures of school life, while still being immersed in a cultivated educational environment,” says Zutter. “The programs attract any child or teen with an open imagination and an opportunity for fun.”

While the programs have been successful with children in K–12, the library is looking to create more programs which cater to adults’ needs. Online courses such as The Modern Genius are part of Shelter Island’s initiative to teach members how to use tech resources like MOOCs and develop technological literacy. Senior citizens are learning how to use phones and eReaders. Such courses are great for the library because it helps adults learn tech skills at a low cost.

“STEAM-inspired programs at the library can be some of the most cost-effective activities,” explains Zutter. “Educational and fun does not have to be expensive.”

Program success is partly measured by attendance, so they are designed around community response. Local authors, educators, and citizens donate their time, and the generosity from their interaction is what stengthens the community’s connections. This relationship with their members keeps both the quality of their programs and membership high. With the help of their many partners, the library hopes to start overnight events and even trips to New York City for cultural events.

The environment at Shelter Island Library confirms that when it comes to uplifting a community, it does take a village. At its heart, sustaining arts and public education programs requires a collaborative effort. In an age of seemingly shifting priorities, there is room for the arts as long as people make it. With these educational programs available to everyone, the community as a whole is better off on personal, cultural, and socioeconomic levels. Members experience first-hand how art can lead a profound, long-lasting impact.

If you’re part of a public or non-profit institution looking for effective ways to offer accessible and creative learning programs, we’d love to support you—just reach out.

To learn more about Shelter Island or how to support their projects, head to their page. And if you want to learn more about The Modern Genius, watch the first session here.