Posted by Lori Ayre on October 14, 2014

I just read (much too quickly) the Aspen Institute's report "Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries" and wow, is it fantastic!

The paper states that this is a time of "great opportunity" for communities and institutions who are willing to "champion new thinking and nurture new relationships" and that it is a "time of particular opportunity for public libraries with their unique stature as trusted community hubs and repositories of knowledge and information."

The paper provides a vision for libraries that is based on an "emerging model of networked libraries that promote economies of scale and broadens the library's resource reach while preserving its local presence."  

In this vision, the key assets of the library are people, place and platform; and, the platform "provides opportunities for individuals and the community to gain access to a variety of tools and resources with which to discover and create new knowledge."

There are very practical suggestions which support the work I do including the importance of resource-sharing and collaborations across libraries.  The report strongly states that we must move away from the "go it alone" approach, which, and this is partly my interpretation, we are too locked into because of the the ILS (integrated library system) model.

They point to DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) and OCLC (well....) and consolidations of regional library systems such as New York (and I'd add my clients Massachusetts and Illinois to that list) as positive trends.  It also focuses a lot of attention on the criticality of community engagement which is the work my partner(s) do.  

It was gratifying to see that the the re-envisioned public library matches the vision that I have and that my consulting partners have.  We actively promote this very vision in all the work we do.  If you read this report, you'll have a better sense of what is that I try to do with libraries (especially around resource-sharing) and what Cheryl Gould and Sam McBane Mulford are doing with every client.

I don't want to share too much about this report because I hope you will read it.  But I'll share one more little bit.  The report describe libraries as "engines of development within their communities" which is so positive.  I love it.  And in a footnote, there's a great quote that gives us a clue as to where we've gone wrong.  

One of the essential features of the public library’s character—its unique accessibility— is also one of its weaknesses: with limited resources, its communities pull it in multiple directions, but increasingly toward a “deficit model” in which its role is more social safety net than social change agent. The library of the future cannot think of itself primarily as a remedial institution that exists to fill social deficits—in education, in access to information in any form, in democracy, in literacy. Instead the public library must become a “sharing” institution that grows social capital by curating and sharing all the information to which it has access, including sources of information that lie in its own community.

The reference to "deficit model" is attribted to R. David Lankes.  No surprise since he's brilliant. It is spot on. I run into this thinking often, and I see poor examples of strategic planning that reinforce this thinking. Libraries cannot and should not try to "do it all."  But that doesn't mean you aren't doing enough. As you'll see in this report, there is a VERY positive way forward.  The report lays it out very well and even concludes with three sets of Action Steps for libray leaders, policymakers, and the community.

I hope you will all take the time to read "Rising to the Challenge".  It's important.