October 14, 2017

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Riders’ Advisory: Bike-related programs expand in libraries

Oakland (CA) Public Library aide Reginald Burnette Jr. (third from right) and participants in a Bike Fix-it Clinic at the library’s 81st Avenue branch.
Photo courtesy of Oakland Public Library

When a bicycling advocacy group in Albany, NY, began pushing for bike repair stations at the city’s libraries, Scott Jarzombek, executive director of the Albany Public Library, was initially reluctant. He was primarily concerned about what it would take to maintain the stations.

But then the organization “won me over,” he says, adding that he now views the stations as an extension of the library’s existing services to the community.

“What I like about the bike fix-it stations is that they are a 24-7 service,” Jarzombek says. “I like anything that we can do that is accessible when our doors are closed.”

Libraries across the country not only are making it easier for patrons to fix their bikes but are also running bike-lending programs for children and adults—further evidence that libraries are providing families and communities with much more than just books and information. Bringing bike owners together to discuss cycling routes, build bikes, and even make jewelry out of used parts are a few of the creative ways that libraries are connecting with the bike-riding community.

A bike program can be as simple as storing a tire pump on-site and loaning bicycle locks—or as complex as loaning out bikes, says Emily Weak, a librarian at the Oakland (CA) Public Library (OPL), which has a variety of bike-related activities. These services include a shipping container–turned–bike repair shop behind OPL’s Martin Luther King Jr. branch where the members of the Original Scraper Bike Team—an East Oakland youth mentoring organization—meet to fix and decorate their bikes. Reginald Burnette Jr., who runs the team, was named a 2017 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, along with Anthony Propernick, manager of OPL’s 81st Avenue branch, for their positive contributions to teens in the neighborhood.

Bike programs, Weak says, “help expand the idea that the library is a place where you hang out with your community.”

In Ohio, east of Columbus, the Athens County Public Libraries started a Book-a-Bike program four years ago with grant funds from the Charles O’Bleness Foundation in Columbus and the state and local health departments. The library purchased a variety of models, such as cargo trikes, a recumbent bicycle, and a hand-pedaled bike, that can be checked out for up to three hours.

“Most of our patrons are young people who just want a bike for a few hours without the expense, maintenance, or upkeep of having their own,” says Amy Drayer, manager at the Nelsonville branch, where more 12- to 17-year-olds check out more bikes than at the other branches that loan them. Other patrons use them to ride on the nearby bike path or run errands, Drayer says.

Checking out a bike through the Book-a-Bike
program at the Athens County (OH) Public Libraries.
Photo courtesy of Athens County Public Libraries

Joining community initiatives

As with other services libraries have added in recent years, some systems began offering bicycle programs because of larger initiatives in their communities. Albany, for example, was in the midst of implementing a “road diet”—reducing lanes on a major road to relieve congestion or encourage other forms of transportation—and conducting a “Complete Streets” study strategizing ways to accommodate cars, pedestrians, and bicycles, Jarzombek explains. Organizations working on the project were using the library meeting spaces, which led to a conversation about how libraries could support the overall goals of the initiative.

“We always want to respond to patron feedback,” he says, “but we also look outside of our walls and examine trends in the surrounding community.”

The San Diego Public Library’s Bike Kitchen program, in which residents can access “shop-grade” bicycle tools two Saturdays a month and courses taught by bike experts, developed after the library ran a pilot bike clinic program in partnership with a local bike advocacy group.

“Our original outcome goals were to get people access to bicycle tools and help them to become more mechanically literate,” says Robert Surratt, an assistant in the library’s art, music, and recreation section.

During the pilot, however, the library staff realized that it was difficult for the mechanics to drag their tools to the library each time. Surratt then submitted a proposal to the California State Library for a Staff Innovation Fund grant and the library received funds to purchase professional tools and to create instructor-led classes in which bicycle owners can learn everything from basic maintenance to “front-to-back overhauls,” Surratt says.

Book-a-Bike program participants with Amy Drayer
(second from left), manager of the Athens County Public Libraries Nelsonville branch.

Lessons about being bike-friendly

Even with the growing popularity of bike services, library leaders say there are a few lessons that might benefit other systems interested in offering similar programs. Jarzombek, for example, says that library staff members sometimes have to remind patrons that the library must remain in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and lock bikes up outside the library rather than bringing them inside. “Being bike-friendly doesn’t mean bikes everywhere,” he says.

Since the Athens County Public Libraries loan bikes, maintenance is an ongoing concern. It “takes a dedicated staff” to keep the bikes on the road, Drayer says. Space to store the bikes can also be a challenge.

Bike programs also tend to grow out of strong partnerships between libraries and bicycle shops or advocacy organizations. Surratt says because his partners at Hub + Spoke Cycleworks in National City, CA, have such a positive attitude, he’s learned “that with dedication and a little imagination, you can make a big difference in the community with a relatively small amount of money.”

Jarzombek recommends that library leaders reach out to their local planning commissions, which can lead to some successful partnerships.

Bike-lending programs, however, are not always easily integrated into a library’s services. In Ontario, Canada, the Hamilton Public Library (HPL) launched its Start the Cycle program to encourage “physical literacy” for students in the seven- to 15-year-old range as part of a Healthy Kids Community Challenge grant. The program coincided with the library’s summer reading program and was intended to give students who didn’t have bikes access to them. But after the pilot, the program was turned over to the city’s recreation department.

“The transition over to the city recreation department basically came down to day-to-day logistics that Rec was better suited to take on,” says HPL spokesperson Antonella Giancarlo. “For the library, loaning bikes was more of an anomaly that required unique procedures.”

Albany (NY) Public Library staff (from left): Assistant director Melanie Metzger; director Scott Jarzombek; former trustee Donna Dixon; and Rossana Coto-Batres, from Capital Region Complete Streets. Library branches offer bike repair stations.
Photo courtesy of APL staff

Boosting the library’s profile

While Jarzombek isn’t sure whether the fix-it stations are driving users to other library services, he says he’s sure that the “service has put the library on a few people’s radars.” The initiative has also created a “substantial amount of goodwill between the library and the cyclist community” and resulted in the library playing a larger role in community issues.

Steve Babb, an Albany resident and father of a 10-year-old girl, has found the branch repair stations to be especially helpful to his weekend hobby of picking up broken, discarded bicycles and repairing them for children in the neighborhood.

“Every time they see me, they keep asking me for bikes,” he says. Plus, he has definitely seen “more bikes parked out in front of the library.”

In San Diego, Surratt says those who frequent the Bike Kitchen often discover other services that they might not have known existed in their local libraries, such as guitar lessons and a teen gaming center. “Folks are still amazed to find that we aren’t just books and Internet computers,” he says.

The Bike Kitchen program has been so popular that the local Friends of the Central Library group will provide funding for the next fiscal year. Surratt says that while the library is not yet loaning bikes, he would certainly be open to the possibility, especially for parents who might not want to invest in an expensive bike if their child is only going to “grow out of it in a year or two.”

“I see a lot of possibilities for bicycle-related services through libraries,” he says. “Hopefully, we can continue to harness those possibilities and keep pushing the envelope.”

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Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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