Libraries and Community Engagement

Two women at computer

America’s libraries continue to transform themselves, keeping pace with the changing economic, social, and technological aspects of American society. Libraries’ deepening engagement with their communities takes many forms, from technology to education to social services, and serves many segments of the population.

In Public Libraries and Resilient Cities (ALA Editions, 2013), Michael Dudley has assembled examples of public libraries engaging in innovative services geared toward addressing current social, economic, and environmental issues, often through partnerships with governments and other organizations. Public libraries are responding to a wide range of ongoing and emerging needs, Dudley says, not just as providers of information but as providers of experiences as well, hosting programming and events (often with community partners) and facilitating content creation through the provision of high-tech “maker spaces.” “Public libraries are an essential partner for individuals, groups, businesses and governments”—indeed, for society itself.

“Public libraries have always contributed to local economic development through traditional services, such as providing access to educational and training opportunities, patent searches, résumé-writing workshops, and job hunting on public computers,” Dudley says. “However, with a renewed emphasis on partnerships and experiences come opportunities for expanding services aimed at economic development. A cutting-edge example is the Eureka Loft in the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Civic Center Library, spearheaded by Arizona State University as a part of their Alexandria Network. The Eureka Loft is a small-business incubator service, a collaborative workspace which offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to connect with mentors and attend workshops provided by professional and volunteer trainers.”

Public libraries also help communities cope with the unexpected. The rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has many public libraries struggling to keep up with the demand for public computer terminals and with requests for help in using the act’s website. Libraries also play a key role in the wake of natural disasters; after Hurricane Sandy, for example, people left homeless by the storm were filling libraries in New York and New Jersey, using library computers to complete federal forms and communicating with loved ones using the library’s internet connections.

And through it all, libraries continue to deal with societal issues and sometimes with problems— such as homelessness—that seem intractable.

The American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) is a groundbreaking libraries-as-change-agents initiative.

Through LTC, ALA will help the public library profession become more focused on and skilled at convening aspirational community conversations and more innovative in transforming internal practice to support fulfillment of community aspirations, and ALA will mirror that change internally, in its own processes. This work will help librarians become more reflective of and connected to their communities. It will help libraries to build stronger relationships with local civic agencies, nonprofits, funders, and corporations. It will yield greater community investment in civility, collaboration, education, health, and well-being.

ALA is working with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to develop and provide training opportunities and learning resources to support community engagement and innovation. The Harwood Institute has a vision of “turning outward” that emphasizes shifting the institutional and professional orientation of libraries and librarians from internal to external.

Libraries Transforming Communities is made possible through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

In Boston, a transformation takes hold, outside and in

The oldest public urban library in the country (1848) is transforming itself into a bustling community center.

The Boston Public Library is in the midst of a major renovation, “breaking out of its granite shell to show an airier, more welcoming side to the passing multitudes,” Katharine Q. Seelye writes in the New York Times. But what’s happening inside is every bit as important as what’s happening outside: Interior plans include new retail space, a souped-up section for teenagers, and a high-stool bar where patrons can bring their laptops and look out over Boylston Street,” a main drag in downtown Boston.

Libraries have been transforming themselves nationwide, which Seelye correctly asserts is “a necessity for staying relevant as municipal budgets are slashed and ebooks are on the rise.”

At Boston Public, a new section called Teen Central is to become “homago” space, where teenagers can “Hang Out, Mess Around, and Geek Out.” It will include lounges, restaurant booths, game rooms and digital labs, plus software and equipment to record music and create comic books. The vibe will be that of an industrial loft, with exposed pipes and polished concrete floors, what Amy Ryan, president of the library, calls “eco-urban chic.”

The library’s reimagined lobby will have an open lounge area that will feature new books, casual seating, and retail space, which could be anything, Ryan said, “from a coffee shop to a high-tech experimental outlet to an exercise space with stationary bikes.”

What does the public think of all this? Apparently, they like it: “At Boston’s central library alone, the number of physical visits jumped to 1.72 million in 2013, up by almost half a million from 2012.”

“The sand is shifting under our business,” Ryan said.

In Chattanooga, “a public laboratory and educational facility”

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the future has already arrived. It is called the Chattanooga Public Library.

The downtown branch of the library cleared out its entire fourth floor—14,000 square feet of former storage space—in 2013 to make way for a community collaboration space. The result, by the library’s own description, is “a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts.” National Journal writer Brian Resnick calls it “part public workshop, part technology petting zoo. But members of the community can also use the space to work on projects or try to launch a business.

“The library as a warehouse of information is an outdated concept,” Brian Resnick writes in the National Journal. “The library of the 21st century is a community workshop, a hub filled with the tools of the knowledge economy.” It still has books, “but it also has 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, and spaces for conducting business meetings. It offers computer coding classes. It has advanced video- and audio-production software”—all things that an individual might find too expensive.

System Director Corinne Hill made some changes in the library’s $5.7 million budget in order to be able to buy new equipment. She bought makerbots (the 3D printers), a laser cutter, and a vinyl cutter for $3,000; and she began stocking the shelves with more popular titles. The library has rebranded itself as a coffee shop alternative/technology salon for the upwardly mobile,” Resnick says. “It even brews its own roast coffee, aptly named ‘shush.’”

Meg Backus, who runs the library’s fourth floor, says “libraries should find instruction in the evolution of the internet—which started as a place to post static pages and now is a thoroughly collaborative environment.”

“There needs to be production capabilities for true access to happen,” she says. “That means the ability to create a video, the ability to learn how to make a website, to have access to the software that can create these 3D files.”

Engage 3D, a local not-for-profit that promotes education in computer technologies with the hope of attracting more tech jobs to the area, often collaborates with the library. In summer 2013, it helped host a computer coding camp for teens. “It was really kind of sweet to watch [the library] come back and recreate itself,” says Bill Brock, the managing director of Engage 3D. He delights in seeing people congregate there and share ideas. “Whether or not they’re [3D] printing the next widgets to change the world or not—it doesn’t matter—the knowledge transfer is happening around it,” he says.

And Tiffany Robinson, a library board member, works with an “angel fund” intended to get more female entrepreneurs set up in Chattanooga. She imagines the library as a “place where female business starters can come and work, while keeping their kids” entertained. “The change in the library is almost like a resurgence in the community,” she says. “It’s like this thing that’s been dead for so long.”

“We’ve been in the information business for 3,000 years,” Hill says, waxing philosophical on the role of the librarian in society. “If there’s anything we do well, it’s deliver information, and information is knowledge. I think if anybody is positioned to help build workers for this new information age, it is the library.”

Some libraries target readers . . . before they are readers

In Chattanooga, it’s the fourth floor, but hundreds of public libraries are working with a national organization to get in on the ground floor: early childhood education.

That organization, Family Place Libraries, promotes a model for transforming U.S. public libraries into “welcoming, developmentally appropriate early learning environments for very young children, their parents and caregivers.” A Family Place Library supports the essential role of parents as first teachers and addresses the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of child development “to help build a foundation for learning during the critical first years of life.” The program positions libraries as early childhood and family support organizations in a local community; its goal is “to ensure that all children enter school ready and able to learn.”

The core components of a Family Place Library include:

  • A specially designed welcoming space for families with very young children to relax, play, and share books together.
  • A five-week parent-child program series for toddlers, parents, and caregivers that provides toys, books, art activities, and an opportunity for families to spend time together, make friends, and talk one-on-one with early childhood and family support specialists.
  • Services developed in partnership with community organizations including outreach to new and/or underserved audiences such as new mothers and low-income families.
  • Librarians specially trained in child development and family support.

Family Place is designed so that librarians collaborate with local service providers and early childhood educators to enhance the community environment for families with very young children and to reach new and/or underserved audiences. Thus, aside from the obvious beneficiaries of the program—children, parents, and other adults caring for very young children—Family Place organizers say that community agencies, educators, and family services providers benefit from having a strong community partner able to reinforce or enhance their missions, share resources, and develop cooperative services.

Candidate libraries attend a three-day Family Place Training Institute and complete seven hours of pre-training online sessions. After the program is implemented, national Family Place staff conduct an onsite visit; libraries must also complete an annual online survey to remain part of the network, and they receive various technical support services from the national network team. Libraries pay a one-time fee and must provide funding for implementation including the creation of a Family Place space on the public floor, materials for the parent-child workshop, and travel costs to attend the training institute.

Begun in 1996 at the Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, New York, the program now includes some 435 libraries in 25 states.

Libraries redefine themselves to address a wide range of issues

The list of ways in which public libraries engage with their communities is long, and the problems they address are often daunting.

San Francisco Public Library’s pioneering outreach program to homeless users, for example, is staffed by a full-time psychiatric social worker and includes the services of five peer counselors, all of whom were once homeless themselves, Michael Dudley reports. “Since its launch four years ago, it has become a model for other public libraries across the country, including Sacramento’s, which in 2011 contracted with the non-profit organization Downtown Sacramento Partnership to provide a homeless outreach worker—called a ‘Navigator’—to assist patrons in need.”

New York Public Library is reaching out to another at-risk group. BridgeUp, an educational and antipoverty program, provides academic and social support to at-risk New York City youth in an effort to prepare them for success. Supported by $15 million from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust, the five-year program offers services to more than 250 New York City 8th–12th graders each year at NYPL branches in underserved neighborhoods.

And the New York Times’s Seelye cites several examples of libraries that stretch the traditional definition of “library”:

  • The Chicago Public Library, which offers a free Maker Lab, with access to 3D printers, laser cutters, and milling machines.
  • The Lopez Island (Wash.) Library, which offers musical instruments for checkout.
  • The Library Farm, an organic community garden on one-half acre of land owned by the Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, New York. The Library Farm lends out plots of land on which patrons can learn organic growing practices. “Anyone can ‘check out’ a plot!” says the library’s website, which adds: “The purpose of the Library Farm is to provide a place for the community to grow, share and learn about food literacy, and organic, sustainable gardening.”

In short, the library community has come far in terms of engaging with its communities—farther than anyone might have imagined a few short years ago. Nevertheless, more work awaits: A report issued in December 2013  by the Pew Internet and American Life Project echoed the findings of a 2012 Pew survey: 20% of respondents in 2013 said they don’t know very much about what is offered at their local public library, and 10% said they know “nothing at all.”


The State of America's Libraries 2014