Public Libraries Exemplifying Various Trends

In my last post I introduced the engaged public library as a defining transition underway across our country. Rather than a specific end-product, the engaged library is a user-driven, ongoing process of co-created and co-delivered services. Thus, while some aspects may remain core to many public libraries, ultimately every public library will look as unique as it’s community for which it is a keystone institution.

What follows in this post is a listing of some libraries exemplifying various trends in public librarianship. As chair of the newly created Visioning 2020 committee for the Champaign Public Library Board of Trustees, I hope this serves as a starting point for our upcoming dialogs with different stakeholder groups regarding aspirations for the Champaign community, hurdles to achieving those aspirations, and ways in which the Champaign Public Library might work in partnership to support achievement of the aspirations.

I’ve divided the examples into three overarching themes: Co-Learning and Co-Creating; Civic Engagement; and Resilient Communities. I chose these as the starting point because they seemed especially relevant to the current Champaign Public Library context. A number of the examples overlap different themes, and there are other themes that might be considered. Many of these examples will likely seem familiar as they aren’t revolutionary but rather evolutionary. Common across all examples, though, are libraries that have progressed from primarily doing outreach to their community to instead primarily doing engagement with their community, a transition that is the mark of a keystone institution.

Co-Learning, Co-Creating

There is a growing trend of a sharing economy, bringing together social technologies and a new valuation of access over ownership, a trend especially led by the Millennials generation. There is also a growing interest in development beyond just that of productivity and the economy, as people seek to fully realize their broader capabilities to achieve human flourishing. A do-it-yourself mindset is being combined with a renewed interest in community. The library, as the people’s university and a third space beyond home and work, is uniquely situated to build from its historic role in providing free/shared resources and spaces.

My first visit to a new model of a shared library learning space was at the Abilene Christian University library (the notes from my visit are linked here). They had collaboratively redesigned their first floor to serve as a learning commons, a vibrant space for co-learning that gave new vitality to the library. Instead of being a quick in, quick out location to grab a needed item from the collection, it has become a hotspot for co-learning. The Writing Center and campus IT support have co-located facilities on the first floor as well, to create more of a one-stop shop for students. Faculty voluntarily hold some of their office hours there, and administrators walk through to get a pulse on the campus. Upstairs, they have a learning studio that includes various digital media production tools and expert support staff, technology-equipped meeting rooms with flat screen TV’s for shared displays, as well as the traditional stacks with books and magazines.

The Brooklyn Public Library has created an information commons that more intentionally brings together its computer labs, technology-equipped meeting rooms, recording studio, and digital conversion equipment. Jesse Montero, Coordinator of Information Services, writes:

The Info Commons is a new space that promotes learning through instruction, collaboration, and access to new resources and services. Combining open workspace, advanced computer workstations, public meeting rooms, and a training lab, the Info Commons recognizes that people can learn from instructors, with peers, and on their own.

YouMedia at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago remains a strong model of learning labs for teens. But other examples serve patrons of all ages. For instance, the Waukegan Public Library transformed its main floor “to reflect the changing role of the library from information warehouse to educational institution” and “further define the library as a Learning Center for the community.”

The use of the term learning or information commons emphasizes co-learning and co-creation for community as well as individual use, bringing to mind common good or the community commons area. At The Urbana Free Library, the 2nd floor computer lab was considered a very noisy space, with surveys and focus groups indicating regular group work as well as individual work. A collaborative process was used to redesign the space to create a more open, attractive, and flexible space that more effectively supports the group work while continuing to also support individual work. It had an immediate impact reducing the volume in the space as groups were able to work more conveniently together when they wanted, while also using the geography of the space to redirect voices away from the back wall that served as an echo chamber.

The Urbana Free Library is one of a growing number of examples of creation spaces in libraries (for more regarding libraries and Makerspaces, see this librarians guide). The Teen Open Lab is a teen-directed space that promotes creativity, peer instruction, and community building. Teens solder their own sound-making squishy circuits, use vinyl cutters to turn out patterns that they then sew on the sewing machines, record their own music, and use graphics tablets to create their own digital characters. Support for programming has come from the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, Makerspace Urbana, and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. But this is very much a teen-led program, and teens often help with setup just to get early access to the space after school. The graphics tablets where acquired at the request of a teen who now as an 18-year old continues to volunteer in the space, teaching others how to develop their artistic talents going from drawings on paper to digital creations. Teens not only learn cutting edge digital literacy, but broader 21st century literacies that include communication, collaboration, and civic literacy.

Dodge City Public Library was the first place I encountered librarians helping to co-facilitate groups coming together to attend webinars, much the way they also continue to co-facilitate reading groups. Citizens who don’t find attending an online webinar by themselves find it both informative and an enjoyable activity when the online learning is combined with in-person discussion. Another example is discussed more below in which 21 public libraries across the state of Wisconsin are teaming up with the University of Wisconsin Madison to give local context to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) the University is offering on climate change.

Civic Engagement

Nancy Kranich is past president of the American Library Association, focusing on the role of libraries in democracies. In the 2012 paper “Libraries and Civic Engagement“, Kranich notes:

Nationwide, libraries are undertaking new approaches to engage communities and assist them in meeting today’s most pressing civic challenges. Their efforts are rekindling civic engagement, connecting citizens, boosting citizen participation, and encouraging increased involvement in community problem solving and decision making.

She describes 7 ways libraries are engaging citizens, including example libraries:

  1. The Library as Civic Space. Libraries offer safe, neutral spaces where citizens can turn to solve personal and community problems. Over the past two decades, communities, schools, colleges, and universities have refurbished or built exciting new spaces for their libraries—spaces that also serve as public gathering spots that anchor neighborhoods, downtowns, schools, and campuses. A good example is the Salt Lake City Public Library, which built a dramatic new facility designed by Moshe Safdie—an award-winning facility considered the community gathering place where “citizens practice democracy” (Berry 2006, p. 32).
  2. The Library as Enabler of Civic Literacy. Children and adults alike must learn a broad range of 21st century literacy skills if they are to become smart seekers, recipients, and creators of content, as well as effective citizens. School libraries, academic libraries, and, increasingly, public libraries—long committed to enabling information literacy—can extend their offerings into the realm of civic literacy (Milner 2002; Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.) so that their constituents can gain critical thinking skills along with a sense of civic agency (Boyte 2007, 2009). Different approaches to civic literacy all encompass active engagement with the civic life of communities, helping civic actors to apply skills for participation in civil discourse. An example of a civic literacy initiative used by an academic library is the application of James Fishkin’s (2010) deliberative polling technique at Kansas State University Libraries. Donna Schenck-Hamlin (et al. 2010) used the technique to measure whether students think more complexly and revise their opinions after a deliberative dialogue about the death penalty.
  3. Library as Public Forum and Conversation Catalyst. Many school, public, and academic libraries host public programs that facilitate the type of discourse that offers citizens a chance to frame issues of common concern, Libraries and Civic Engagement deliberate about choices for solving problems, create deeper understanding about others’ opinions, connect citizens across the spectrum of thought, and recommend appropriate action that reflects legitimate guidance from the whole community. Libraries that sponsor deliberative forums see benefits in connecting them more closely and deeply to their communities. These forums and community conversations often follow the formats developed by such organizations as the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums Institute, Study Circles (now called Everyday Democracy), Choices, Conversation Cafes, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, and others. Libraries are among those offering deliberative public forums in State College, Pennsylvania; Johnson County, Kansas; and Des Moines, Iowa. Topics range from democracy and immigration to energy and health care and involve citizens holding different perspectives in learning and participatory democracy. Librarians in Virginia Beach, Virginia, helped citizens collect and assess community concerns about redevelopment, learn about civic action, participate in democratic discourse, and develop civic leadership skills (Caywood 2010). In Des Plaines, Illinois, librarians joined forces with community partners by framing and deliberating the question “What does it take to meet the needs of Des Plaines residents?” These community conversations resulted in greater awareness of local services and new collaborative approaches for taking action (Griffin 2006). In Youngstown, Ohio, community conversations helped the public library gain more knowledge of citizen’s aspirations and apply it as agents for change, thereby strengthening community ties as well as public perceptions about the library that resulted in a successful tax levy referendum that increased the library’s budget in November 2010.
  4. The Library as Civic Information Center. Using both electronic and print technologies, libraries now deliver numerous local databases and Web sites about vital services within their communities. Joan Durrance (2004) and her colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Information have identified and evaluated successful civic library projects in communities throughout the country that help immigrants and minorities, teach youth to participate in community problem solving, and pull together essential information and communication resources that might otherwise be difficult to identify or locate. Beyond access, libraries are also facilitating e-government services (Bertot et al. 2006; Jaeger 2005; Horrigan 2004). A good example is Florida’s Pasco County library system, which helps people transact government business, search for jobs, and file online forms for food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and more through its extensive e-government program.
  5. The Library as Community-Wide Reading Club. For many years, school, public, and academic libraries have hosted community-wide “one-book” reading initiatives. The idea was launched by the Seattle Public Library, but Chicago advanced it considerably, promoting reading by “giving a ‘public voice’ to what is usually considered a private activity … to discover or build unity in a diverse city” (Putnam and Feldstein 2003, p. 53). The Kentucky State Library linked with Kentucky Educational Television to launch a highly successful statewide reading effort with outreach and engagement activities involving a mix of 130 partners (Pennsylvania State University Public Broadcasting 2002). Other libraries offer shared reading experiences through the Civically Engaged Reader program (Project on Civic Reflection, n.d.), a diverse collection of provocative short articles designed to inspire contemplation about the central questions of civic life. With a grant from the Fetzer Institute, the ALA Public Programs Office is training librarians to use this reflection technique as part of its “Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion” project (ALA Public Programs Office n.d.).
  6. The Library as Partner in Public Service. Pennsylvania State University (2002) launched Partners in Public Service (PIPS) in 1999 to demonstrate how collaborative projects between public broadcasting stations, libraries, museums, and educational institutions could enhance services to participating communities. With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), PIPS produced a useful guide with case studies on how to undertake these institutional partnerships to help communities revitalize by utilizing digital technologies and fulfilling unmet needs. Considered a vision for a “community as a learning campus,” IMLS built upon the PIPS idea by funding numerous collaborative civic projects around the country that bring libraries, museums, and public media together. An example is a collaboration between the Princeton (New Jersey) Public Library,, and Princeton Community Television that “applies the power of digital media to the civic, cultural, and commercial life of Princeton” (, n.d.).
  7. The Library as Service Learning Center. Service learning combines meaningful public service with curriculum or program-based learning. Schools, colleges, and universities use service learning to strengthen academic skills, foster civic responsibility, and develop leadership abilities. Today, many require students to participate in service learning in order to graduate. An example of a school library involved with service learning is at the Urban School in San Francisco, which works with faculty and students to facilitate their co-curricular community-based research and engagement projects (Urban School n.d.). Even though one-third of college students now participate in service learning activities (Campus Compact, 2010), Lynn Westney (2006) found academic library contributions to service learning sparse. A number of MLIS programs do incorporate service learning into their curriculum. These include the University of Texas School of Information project to create a National Virtual Museum of the American Indian and a University of Wisconsin–Madison Jail Library Group student project to provide reading materials for incarcerated adults (Roy 2009; Riddle 2003). Another, based at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science program in Community Informatics, involves students interested in the experiences of underserved groups in Professor Ann Bishop’s class onsite at Paseo Boricua Community Library Project in Chicago (Bishop, Bruce, and Jeong 2009).

Resilient Communities

Resiliency is a concept growing out of an increasing awareness of the need for strategies to address climate change, natural disasters, terrorism, and injustice that leads to civil unrest (for as John F. Kennedy famously said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) As noted on the Center for the Future of Libraries website:

Resilience requires community involvement – encouraging individuals to make decisions that help prepare for and prevent the impact of disasters, providing resources and information to help them make informed decisions, and offerings programs and services that allow individuals to respond to issues as they arise. Libraries and information professionals may be ideal partners or providers in helping individuals adopt resilient practices in their communities.

The Ferguson Public Library has received nationwide attention and a public outpouring of support for their response in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. The sole full-time librarian, Scott Bonner, has created a model for library response in the wake of an emergency. Businesses have used the library as a meeting space, the Small Business Administration did staging of emergency loans from the library, and the local school met with students in the library when the school was closed during demonstrations. Check out this NPR news story and Library Journal article for more on the ways Ferguson Public Library partnered with other community agencies during this community emergency.

Houston Public Library provided important services in response to Hurricane Ike. The library provided essential child care services for city employees and other first responders so that they could return to work quickly. Library programming specifically related to natural disasters like hurricanes went beyond that which would have been available at most daycares. Conversations with children about their hurricane experiences and impact at home raised the need for some sort of return to pre-Ike normalcy, and Children’s librarians improvised where the could to accommodate. Tween and teen programming also went beyond a “holding zone” approach to provide engaging programming that might also be therapeutic.

The role of libraries goes beyond responding to emergencies. As noted in the section on Civic Engagement, libraries can be a neutral, safe place for deliberative dialog and community conversations that raise people’s awareness of the different sides of core community issues in ways that proactively address issues before they become an emergency. This plays strongly into a core educational mandate for public libraries.

An important area where libraries are serving that educational role as it relates to sustainability comes by modeling green practices, serving as a test center for energy conservation innovation, engaging the community in supporting local environmental goals, and educating the public about environmental sustainability in general and local priorities in particular. For instance, the Champaign Public Library makes strong use of natural lighting to conserve on energy for lighting. The Milwaukee Public Library has a green roof and solar panels. The Fayetteville Public Library is collaborating with the city of Fayetteville to bring solar energy to market in the region, with the library serving as a solar testbed for new innovations. The Arlington Public Library in Virginia hosts a speaker’s series with prominent authors while the San Francisco Public Library’s “Green Stacks” connects residents to local environmental sustainability issues. Twenty-one public libraries across the state of Wisconsin are teaming up with the University of Wisconsin Madison to give local context to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) the University is offering on climate change.  For instance, the small, rural Dodgeville Public Library will facilitate both in-person discussion related to the MOOC and  partnerships with local groups Trout Unlimited, Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin—Sustain Iowa County, the Uplands Garden Club, the University of Wisconsin Extension, and the Iowa County Master Gardeners, through online participation and public discussions. The Mid Columbia Library in Kennewick, Washington, has partnered with the local university’s master gardener program to create a demonstration garden. The Horticultural Society of New York is collaborating with branch libraries in the New York Public Library system to create the “GreenBranches” program, creating both demonstration gardens and library programming. For instance, the Aguilar Branch in East Harlem includes English as a Second Language speaking classes in the library and uses the garden as a teaching space and focus. Many libraries are now serving as seed banks and tool banks, responding to the growing interest in the sharing economy, something Millennials in particular are championing.

New Librarian Positions

This is just a start of a list of the trends and example libraries within these trends. But it gives some sense of the possibilities that build from the library’s historic role in the community, maintains many of the core services, but also identifies new opportunities to support human and community development in ways unique to each local context. As emphasized in the first post, many of these services themselves are co-designed and co-delivered with a broad range of individuals and organizations in the community. And so I’ll finish this post with some new librarian positions that are emerging.

The Vancouver, Regina, Toronto, and Halifax Public Libraries (HPL) created new community development librarian positions to work in diverse urban neighborhoods and with diverse communities as part of the Working Together Project.

Over this period, the project’s community-based librarians talked and engaged with literally thousands of socially excluded community members from diverse communities in the four large urban centers across Canada. The librarians took a community practitioner–based approach. This approach moved community-based librarians’ work beyond discussions among library staff on how best to meet community needs to discussions based upon the lived experiences of socially excluded community members and the librarians who engage with them as equal members of the community. Some libraries have previously worked with targeted socially excluded groups. However, the purpose of this project was not to review other works—rather, it was crucial to have community members’ library experiences drive the project, not library-based beliefs held by librarians nor internally generated professional literature. It became clear that librarians’ traditional approach to library services did not adequately address the needs of socially excluded community members. It also became clear that it is essential to begin a discussion around the use of traditional library service planning versus a community-led service planning model as the most effective way to make library services relevant to socially excluded community members.

Sharon Comstock is the Oak Park Public Library’s Library Content Strategist. In answering what she does for the library, Comstock writes:

Perhaps I can best answer that by describing what I DON’T do: I don’t see the library as only a place of things, but of experiences. I don’t see the library as a noun, but a verb. My job is to see the rich complexity of what a 21st-century library is and define its data so together the library and the community can act on it. My role is to see the real, everyday life of the community and the library as intrinsic, transactional, and potentially transformative.

Community and embedded librarians often do part of their regularly scheduled reference librarianship work in the community. For instance, Douglas County Libraries embedded librarian program includes helping “Douglas County businesses with workshops and research; librarians volunteering with leadership groups and municipal government; and embedding children’s librarians in elementary, middle, and high schools…The Women’s Crisis and Family Outreach Center has a librarian visit families in the shelter weekly to provide library cards, books, movies, and donations of needed items such as cleaning supplies, gift cards, and grocery store cards, as well as computer and résumé-writing workshops for the adults.” Deschutes Public Library in Oregon trains paraprofessionals to answer reference questions, who are encouraged to spend 1/4 to 1/3rd of their time in their communities.

While the community librarian is not yet a formal position at any library that I know of in Champaign-Urbana, we are fortunate to have two strong public libraries, a world-class University library, many excellent school libraries, and a number of outstanding museums. This in addition to the #1 graduate school of library and information science in the nation. The quality of these institutions is due to the many remarkable library and information science professionals that work and study at these institutions and live in our communities. On their own time they contribute on a regular basis as embedded librarians.

A textbook example of the difference this can make comes from reflecting on the model citizen action that resulted in the changing of the policy related to backyard chickens. A community member, Karen Carney, with support by Mayor Gerard, organized and guided the process of bringing the issue before the city council at appropriate times through signatures and study sessions. But an essential contribution was made by local librarian Deborah Campbell who as a volunteer consistently served as a reference librarian in the process. Council members commented several times on the model way this process led to a change in the ordinance regarding chickens. I would further argue it is a model because an embedded, community librarian engaged with a community organizer, an informed community, champions on the city council, and a city planner to co-design and co-deliver the process for modifying the ordinance and implementing procedures to have backyard chickens. Ms. Campbell also later did critical research in advance of the tour of chicken coops, research that helped us avoid the spread of potential diseases between coops, pointing out the importance of ongoing support from community librarians.

Libraries have a central to play as a keystone institution within a community. But what the community needs of a keystone institution can only be determined through dialog with the community. The Champaign Public Library is a strong library because of the rich outreach to the community that is a formal part of our library services, and the various informal engagements with the community that are already happening. An important next step for us in the transition to be an engaged library is for the library board to increase its capacity as an internal engagement advocate so that we can assure the library’s vision, policies, and budget are aligned with such a transition. Dialogs with various stakeholder groups as part of the Visioning 2020 committee will be a valuable part of that step.

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