The Connections Café: Serving Recipes for Learning and Growth at the Tempe Public Library

Posted by Kathy Husser on June 01, 2017 at 8:34 AM

The Tempe Public Library is a dynamically growing enterprise - one of the few public libraries in Arizona with consistent year-to-year increase in utilization over the past decade. Serving a city of 160,000 residents, it now supports 692,000 visits annually by active learners seeking to build knowledge and discover innovative ways to connect with others and serve their community.

What is the secret to this success? At its heart was the creation of an innovative, multi-sector, multi-generational approach to changing the dynamics of the library experience. In 2003, A 15-citizen Advisory Council was assembled charged with the mission to create a new vision for fueling learning and growth at the library. The Council engaged library officials, city elected officials, city administrators, local health care providers, local educators, the Friends of the Tempe Library, and local philanthropists in establishing the vision. The centerpiece of the collective was to convert an underutilized space in the library into a vibrant community hub – anchored by a “Connections Café”, dishing up coffee, sandwiches and other goodies in a way to enhance learning and community building across the generations.

The original idea was to create a space to serve Tempe’s 40,000 boomers, who make up one-quarter of the city’s population and were under-utilizing the library. To build a “sense of place” for the boomers, the design concept included five elements: the Café, open space seating for conversations around small tables and chairs, a learning center with sliding glass walls that could be opened to the open space, two adjacent outdoor patios that can also serve as gathering spaces, and a technology center. With support from the Virginia G. Piper Trust foundation, the city’s leadership, and the Friends of the Tempe Library, the new community hub opened its doors in May of 2006. To create a platform for learning for older adults, a unique partnership with Arizona State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) was created to fuel programming in life planning, university-level lifelong learning, wellness, civic engagement, and social connections.

Today, OLLI programming supports class enrollments of 2000 annually in this community hub. But that is only the beginning of the story. The space now serves as the Library’s nerve center for weaving common threads among community members to achieve the Library’s mission “to inspire exploration, discovery, enrichment and engagement”. The food and conversation spaces weave people of all ages together while at the library, as they experience such diverse programs as citizenship classes, brain health workshops, family story-telling, reader’s theater, writing contests, author talks, book festivals, community volunteer training, and entrepreneurial incubation. The space is always filled with energetic conservation – as people with ignited curiosities gather to share learning experiences, build relationships, and explore possibilities for serving their communities. And, this hub also serves at the centerpiece of the Library’s ever-evolving transformation into a technology-driven enterprise: over 105 work stations now drive the pursuit of knowledge gathering and synthesis through interactive education software platforms.

The Connections Café concept not only serves as a learning hub, but - importantly – generates revenue to support growth in Library programming. Operated by the Friends of the Tempe Library, it prides a stream of reliable financial resources to carry out its goals to promote the Library as an active and visible community and visible community resource; to raise funds for Library projects, literacy programs and acquisitions, and to facilitate community involvement and provide meaningful opportunities for volunteers. We hope that this story of “connections” – between citizens, library staff and supporters, government, nonprofits, and local philanthropy – will serve as an inspiration for libraries nationwide seeking to grow in mission to serve their communities well.

The Connections Café


Kathy Husser
Deputy Community Services Director-Library
City of Tempe

Richard C. Knopf
Director, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
Arizona State University

Jolene Gosling
Executive Director
Friends of the Tempe Public Library

Larry Conway
Friends of the Tempe Public Library

comments powered by Disqus