See more of the story

After the Willmar Public Library closed on a recent Friday evening, Syrena Maranell handed out Nerf blasters and safety glasses and then gamely offered to be the first zombie. Defying the shushing librarian stereotype, Maranell, head of adult services, hoped the playful battle would offer people in her small city two hours west of the Twin Cities the chance to have some fun in an unexpected setting.

Public libraries are shedding their stuffy, book-bound image as fast as Maranell chased her patrons through the dimly lit stacks, dodging a spray of foam pellets.

In an era when people can research almost anything on their smartphones, libraries are moving beyond their role as information repositories to meet the changing needs of their communities. Around the country, a sharp uptick in programming (more than 100 million visitors attend American public library events each year) has encouraged residents to see the library as a place for recreation and connection.

The current crop of library programs go far beyond the typical kids’ story time and résumé workshops. Several Twin Cities libraries have launched “maker spaces” for visitors to use 3-D printers, animation software and other high-tech tools; they host K-pop dance classes and “Star Wars” festivals and teach kids how to make magnetic slime.

In rural Minnesota, librarians are getting especially creative.

In addition to zombie Nerf wars, the Willmar library hosts escape rooms and teen lock-ins. This winter, it’s offering a holiday-themed murder mystery party and Cure Your Cabin Fever activities, including an “Iron Chef” competition, karaoke singing and a dance party.

Rochester librarian Allison Girres launched a true-crime discussion group, and to appeal to the elusive young adult demographic, is offering events such as “speed friending,” a platonic version of speed dating.

Rural libraries fill a role played by commercial businesses in urban areas, which already have plenty of escape rooms and paint-your-plate shops, said Girres. In smaller communities, librarians often have a lot of autonomy to bring new ideas to fruition — and face less competition for people’s attention.

A place to connect

“Libraries are changing to do our best to fit our community instead of making the community fit us,” said Calla Jarvie, director of the Rock County Community Library in Luverne. She started a monthly trivia contest in the town’s lone taproom that draws around 100 competitors from as far as Iowa and South Dakota.

“We still check out books all the time,” she said. “But that’s not the only thing our community needs from us.”

While libraries have long assisted patrons with learning new skills, such as knitting or playing chess, Hennepin County Library’s youth programs and services manager Katherine Debertin said there’s increased emphasis on fostering interaction.

“Our programming goes beyond the content,” she said. “It’s not just about what’s in the room, it’s also about who’s in the room. Do you have a chance to connect with your peers, and, particularly for young people, with adults who are going to challenge your growth and help you think about something in a way that maybe you haven’t before?”

In contrast to joining a club or team or taking part at an event in a bar or restaurant — which often costs money or requires a certain skill level — library events are free and open to people of all abilities.

“I think having an event at the library or having it be sponsored by the library sends the message that it’s really for everyone,” Girres said.

And the library’s role as a neutral gathering space is especially important at a time when the country feels so divided, explained Ramiro Salazar, president of the Public Library Association.

“People are looking to libraries to feel connected and to feel like we have more in common than we have differences,” he said. “Providing opportunities for folks to come together and interact and collaborate and engage in a program, I think it goes a long way to creating a sense of community.”

Telescopes, cake pans, trivia

The Rock County library sponsors several off-site events, including its trivia series and Bad Art Night, where attendees compete to create the ugliest artwork with leftover craft supplies. But Jarvie tries to link back to the library, awarding bonus points to trivia team members who can show a library card or have taken a selfie with a librarian.

“People are surprised that librarians are fun,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I would never expect librarians in a bar.’ Everybody has this idea of the very old woman with glasses looking at them sternly, but we’re fun, too.”

Minnesota’s rural libraries have also embraced the “library of things” trend, maintaining lending collections of items ranging from telescopes to cake pans to nature backpacks containing binoculars, a bird guide and a free day pass to a nearby state park.

“Some people are still amazed that we check out DVDs, so their minds are blown when they find out you can check out a weight set or a board game or beanbag toss,” said Maranell, who is in her mid-30s. “A lot of people my age are not buying as many things as their parents would have.”

And while librarians have plenty of their own ideas in the pipeline — a how-to festival, a haunted library — they always encourage patrons to make suggestions.

“We just really, really want to hear from the people we’re serving,” Jarvie said. “That’s all we want is to make them happy.”