Stacks of resources

Area libraries offer a whole lot more than books
Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Library.

“When in doubt go to the library,” said bestselling author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. A sentiment echoed by every single library staff person in every single branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library and Kent District Library, the two systems that serve almost all of Kent County.

Libraries are among our community’s greatest assets—places of information, entertainment, exploration, community and connection that are open to all people regardless of age, gender, race, religion or socio-economic status.

“Libraries build healthy communities by providing resources to all members of the community. We serve all of our neighbors and we’re an important and critical link to the rest of the city,” said John McNaughton, director of GRPL.

Adds Megan Biggins, Public Services Director of GRPL, “We hope we are the first thought people have when they need a third space: home, work and the library. We’re here to help you find your version of fun.”

That fun can be GRPL’s vast collection of books, magazines, movies, music, audiobooks, graphic novels, or board games. It can be one of its many events for children, teens, and adults. It can be take-home activity kits, the Books By Mail program, or a visit to the Grand Rapids History Center.

The Ryerson Building, with its Carrara marble steps and high ceilings, is the centerpiece of GRPL, which was founded in 1871 and led, first, by Miss Frances Holcomb as head librarian. Martin A. Ryerson gifted the Ryerson Building to the library, with its cornerstone laid on July 4, 1902. A large addition was finished and dedicated in 1969. Branches now include the Main Library, Madison Square, Ottawa Hills, Seymour, Van Belkum, West Leonard, West Side (the first branch library, opened in 1908), and Yankee Clipper.

According to the July 2022 – June 2023 Annual Report, GRPL has 44,577 library cardholders and branches were visited a total of 423,829 times. A total of 770,950 physical items were borrowed and 528,421 digital items borrowed. Add to that the number of databases searched, Wi-Fi connections made, digital archival items viewed, events attended, and questions asked and answered, and it becomes clear that GRPL is a hub of activity for all kinds of people looking for all kinds of things.

The same can be said for the Kent District Library with its 20 branches, an Express library and Bookmobile that serves nearly 440,000 residents in 27 different municipalities in Kent County. Think of the systems as a donut: GRPL serves the hole in the middle while KDL serves the cake that surrounds it.

Jennifer DeVault is Director of Library Operations for KDL. She, too, sees the KDL branches as the third place after work and home. “We are trending toward being a community place for people to come,” she said.

Residents come to the library for a variety of programs including hundreds of children’s storytimes a month, teen and adult programs, book discussions, craft programs, summer reading events and more. 2023 program attendance was just over 195,000, according to KDL.

Physical checkouts in 2023—books, movies, vinyl, music, audiobooks, video games, magazines and more—totaled 2,801,914. Digital checkouts—e-books, e-audiobooks, e-magazines, e-music, e-videos—totaled 2,420,616. That puts total checkout at just over 5,200,000.

According to DeVault, the average library patron checks out about $1,300 worth of products per year. Products they didn’t have to buy, such as Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake at 1,563 checkouts, Lesson in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus at 1,362 checkouts, and the audiobook Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros at 3,619 checkouts.

These aren’t just average library systems here in Grand Rapids. KDL was rated a Five-Star Library by the Library Journal Index of Public Library Service, which rates libraries around the country, and has the largest digital collection in Michigan, according to DeVault. Also, KDL won the coveted Jerry Kline Community Impact Prize for 2023, which comes with national recognition and $250,000 in grant monies. KDL executive director Lance Werner will accept the award at the PLA 2024 Conference (Public Library Association) in April.

Both library systems expand their outreach yearly. GRPL piloted its Mobile Library last year and will officially launch the program in 2024. The Mobile Library is available for community events, festivals and neighborhood programs, offering library card registration, giveaways, information and even lawn games. The system also hired a resource navigator who has office hours at each branch to help vulnerable patrons connect with the community resources they need. Board games are now available to check out, and video games and toys are coming soon.

“Libraries are neighborhood centers that reflect the community they serve,” said McNaughton. “Libraries are dynamic, socially responsive institutions that are constantly finding ways to adapt and serve their communities. All of our materials, programming, resources and opportunities are designed with the whole of our community in mind.”

Kent District Library has reinstituted its community reading initiative with On the Same Page, bringing in Tom Lake author Patchett for a free event on April 24. Its WonderKnooks at each branch invite children into their special area for storytimes, play and discovering new books. Each one is designed with that branch in mind: Ada’s WonderKnook looks like a covered bridge, Lowell’s, a trading post and Walker’s, a vet clinic.

KDL, which is funded through 2040 thanks to the millage passing in November 2023, “is one of the last places families can go and not have to pay a fee to participate,” said DeVault.

GRPL and KDL both are well past libraries simply being a place to borrow books. “It’s not about what books are on the shelves, but how we can serve the patrons of Kent County better,” said DeVault.

“Our ultimate goal is connection to the community,” added Biggins. “Whether it’s meeting new people, connecting to a piece of information, interacting with staff—it’s all about making those connections.”

Sidebar 1:

Know Your KDL

  • Beyond the Books allows patrons to check out Nintendo Switch game consoles, metal detectors, Majhong sets, trekking poles, stud finders, ukuleles and more.
  • Book Club in a Bag, with over 300 titles to choose from, includes 12 copies of the book, two large-print copies and a discussion guide.
  • GO! Packs feature disc golf sets, Floor is Lava, Primary Learning Science Lab, Cross Section Models and more
  • PerkPass offers complimentary guest passes to library card holders for Meijer Gardens, GRAM, GR Children’s Museum and more.
  • Personalized Picks service allows staff to choose an assortment of books or movies based on your preferences.
  • Online resources include Kanopy, Freegal Music, Hoopla, OverDrive
  • Patrons can print 50 pages per week for free on KDL printers
  • Talking Book & Braille Center offers free materials for visually impaired people

Know Your GRPL

  • Hundreds of databases are available for free including Mango Languages, Consumer Reports, CreativeBug and more.
  • The Small Business Resource Center at the Main Library offers help for starting, managing and growing your business.
  • Check It Out! offers passes to area museums, Blandford Nature Center, John Ball Zoo, Meijer Gardens and, occasionally, sports and music venues.
  • Sensory Tool Kits are available to use during visits to any GRPL location.
  • Self-service Hold Lockers allow patrons to pick up items placed on hold at Ottawa Hills, Seymour and West Side hold locker locations
  • Use Libby, Hoopla, Kanopy, TumbleBooks and LinkedIn Learning for e-books, audiobooks, film, online courses and talking picture books.

Know Your Libraries

  • KDL and GRPL offer free computer and Wi-Fi use, as well as Hotspot checkouts
  • KDL and GRPL offer free personal care items such as diapers, deodorant, menstrual products and more at area branches.
  • National Library Week is April 7-13, 2024
  • Visit and for complete details on library resources

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