Public Libraries: The engaged library

I have been a board of trustee for the Champaign Public Library since November, 2014 and am chair of the newly created Visioning 2020 committee. I accepted the appointment because I am excited by what I see as the opportunities for libraries moving forward, and want to make sure Champaign Public Library continues to evolve to assure it is a “keystone institution” for a resilient, sustainable Champaign (a concept borrowed from Michael Dudley and a host of contributors in the book Public Libraries and Resilient Cities). As suggested in the report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries”:

No longer a nice-to-have amenity, the public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change. Public libraries inspire learning and empower people of all ages. They promote a better trained and educated workforce. They ensure equitable access and provide important civic spaces for advancing democracy and the common good. Public libraries are engines of development within their communities.

Still, it was a surprise to hear Mayor Don Gerard mention me by name in a recent mayoral candidate forum in response to a question about future city funding of the public library to restore open hours that will be cut beginning this summer because of funding shortfalls (the question is introduced at minute 53:20 of the forum recording, and Mayor Gerard’s is the second response). I will own a leadership role, bringing in the knowledge I’ve gained from my roles for the past 20 years at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, including many enriching conversations with librarians around the country and globe.

For the past decade public libraries have once again been reinventing themselves. There has been a growing movement to challenge the centrality of collections and collection management as the means and ends of the library. This is not to minimize the value of the collections by any means! But I believe it is an example of implementing the change called for by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his statement “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” In the earliest stages, libraries work to be more user-focused or user-centered. With this comes increased outreach to help community become aware of library services. But more advanced stages see libraries entering into a deeper engagement with the community. The library becomes increasingly user-driven, partnering with a wide array of institutions, individuals, and organizations to co-create and co-deliver user-centered services.

Given this change in library services, there can’t be a single leader or expert. This is not something the library director, a librarian, I or any paid library consultant that we might bring in from the outside can design. It is not an end product, but instead is a dynamic, never-ending process of co-service development and delivery. Thus, a wide range of community members need to each play a leadership role at different times and in different ways to building this public library as keystone institution.

PublicLibraryEngagementBoundarySpanningRoles-DiagramI wrote a piece for the March, 2015 issue of Strategic Library in which I reflect on being a new library board of trustee. This diagram regarding engagement boundary-spanning roles at public libraries is included in that article. The whole social ecology of the library needs to be intentionally developed and continually drive towards a process of engagement to support such a user-driven keystone institution. Librarians and other library staff, the library director and other administrators, the library board, the Friends, Foundation, and our many donors, and the community at large all have important leadership roles to play.

The expertise isn’t in any one of us, it is distributed amongst all of us!

I firmly believe that Champaign will not be all that it’s citizens dream of it to be unless the Champaign Public Library evolves in line with the broader public library trends. This is not because the library is a weak library — quite the contrary, it is an award winning library. Rather, it is because the dreams of each of us individually, and as a community, continue to evolve as society more broadly continues to evolve. And so to, then, does the library need to evolve if it is to remain an award-winning library.

In my next post, I’ll do a first draft listing some libraries exemplifying various trends in public librarianship. I suggest this is a first draft because I hope others will followup with me through comments or by email providing still other examples.

In the meantime, here are a few resources of possible interest related to this post.

Reports and Websites


  • Public Libraries and Resilient Cities. 2013. Michael Dudley, Editor. American Library Association. ISBN: 978-0-8389-1136-5
  • Reflecting on the Future of Academic and Public Libraries. 2013. Peter Hernon and Joseph R. Matthews, Editors. American Library Association. ISBN: 978-0-8389-1187-7
  • Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library. Edwards, Julie Biando, Robinson, Melissa S. , and Unger, Kelley Rae.  2013. Scarecrow
    Press. ISBN-10: 0810891816; ISBN-13: 978-0810891814.

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