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'An air of possibility,' the Milwaukee Public Library has much to offer city, patrons

The Milwaukee Public Library system— the city's 13 library branches—- is open for use, whether it's for WiFi access, cooking classes, daily activities, research or reading for fun.
Joe Ferrer
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Central Milwaukee Public Library.

Last week, we shared the story of the Milwaukee Public Library’s viral social media accounts. But we also wanted to find out how the library system throughout the city of Milwaukee is doing — especially after the pandemic and a new city budget.

"I love just being in a place where there's all this possibility," says Joan Johnson, director of the city's library system. "Because you're in a building that has literally millions of books, on hundreds of thousands of topics. Any one of them could be in your hands by the time you leave the building."

Johnson calls it an "air of possibility." She has been working in libraries since high school and has dedicated her life's work to getting more people in the doors.

The pandemic has been devastating to libraries. In 2019, the Milwaukee Public Library system had 1.6 million visitors. That shrunk to half a million users by 2021, and the numbers are inching upwards. This year, the library is on track to see one million visitors.

"My goal for next year by the end of the year is to do better than 2019," says Johnson. "I've got a stretch goal to come as close to two million [visitors] as possible." She says that's going to be a heavy lift but a great goal to work toward.

The library's innovative social media presence has the potential to be helpful to achieve this goal, but since so many of the library's followers are not even local, Johnson says it's the library system's bread and butter— services and resources, that will get people coming in.

READ: How the Milwaukee Public Library became a social media star, inspiring global love of libraries

"On a daily basis, there's something [in-person] happening in every building," says Johnson. She notes there's a wide breadth of materials in their collection that were not diminished by the pandemic, resources for researchers and recreational readers alike.

There are programs at the city's libraries from chair yoga to maker spaces to a community kitchen at the Mitchell Street Branch. "The real attraction [for the community kitchen classes] is that in at the end of the program, there's always food on the table," says Johnson.

"We also have a lot of people using our computers," Johnson says. "And coming in for internet access. And it's interesting because depending on where you are in the city, the amount of uses that that you see for Wi-Fi is different. So all the different communities have a slightly different set of needs."

Joan Johnson, director of the Milwaukee Public Library
Milwaukee Public Library
Joan Johnson, director of the Milwaukee Public Library

The shared revenue bill advanced by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers act has enabled the city of Milwaukee to enact an extra 2% sales tax. That's taken pressure off the library's budget, says Johnson. "We really appreciate all of those people who made it possible for this to happen. And it will help us continue to provide the critical services that our community needs."


Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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