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Coffee and conversations bring Ballard together

A weekly gathering at the Ballard Branch started as a way for staff and patrons facing homelessness and housing insecurity to get to know one another. It's a showcase for the power of libraries to connect people.

Ballard patrons at a recent Coffee & Conversations program. Photo by Anthony Martinez

There was cake at the Ballard Branch a few weeks ago. “We’re celebrating a year of talking to each other,” said librarian Lynn Miller.

Miller helps lead a weekly gathering called Coffee & Conversations. The branch serves many patrons experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, and the program started in early 2023 as a way to create an informal space for patrons and staff to get to know one another.

Over the past year, the donor-supported program has become a showcase for the power of libraries to connect people. Coffee & Conversations is just what it sounds like: a chance to sit, eat and drink, and chat. No agenda, no requirements.

“It’s changed everything for us,” Miller said of the program’s impact on library staff. “Who we talk to, what we talk about. We know everyone’s names.”

The program provides coffee and snacks in the branch meeting room or, in the summer, outside on the plaza. A cooler now provides ice cream and popsicles, the most requested items. Staff spread the word at the branch throughout the week and make an announcement each Thursday when the program begins.

Sometimes, attendees talk about the weather, or what they’re reading. Small talk can lead to serious talk. Sometimes patrons share their experiences with housing, or ask staff for assistance with a social services referral.

Service providers such as the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) have started regularly attending the program as well. Miller said it’s because they know it’s a trusted space where they can reach people.

The program has also created a place for patrons to suggest ideas for programs at the library. Some have suggested new ideas, such as CPR and first aid classes. One idea kept coming up over the past year: the chance to watch a movie together, which had been a feature at Ballard before the pandemic.

The branch now hosts a monthly movie screening. The community brainstorms titles they’d like to see. They ask librarians to check if film licenses are available, and recommend books related to the themes. They gather on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy a movie, along with free popcorn.

One month, the group watched “Seabiscuit” because of a patron’s love for horses. Another month they screened the documentary “Summer of Soul” and read about Black musical history. The meeting room transforms into a theater where people can take their mind off of the world outside.

“I can never go to the movies anymore, so this is really fun,” said a regular patron, Eric. “Community activities and interactions are always really valuable.”

The interactivity of the program is essential. Librarian Jonathan Koroshec said that all Ballard staff are encouraged take time out their busy days to attend, and to keep tweaking the format and offerings based on patron feedback.

Attendance continues to rise as more people get to know each other and share the program with others. Coffee & Conversations now takes place weekly at the Central Library as well.

“People are opening up to us, and we’re opening up to them,” Koroshec said. “We’re all sharing our stories.”