Public Libraries in the 21st Century: A New Home for Community Engagement

By Jeremy Monk
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that American local library usage continues to trend downwards. Only 44 percent of Americans reported visiting or utilizing a local library in 2015, which is nine percent less than in 2012.[i] Similar results are being reported in Canada and the U.K. According to a report by the U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport, only 33.9 percent of adults used a public library in 2015, a 30 percent decrease from the prior decade.[ii] As information moves from print to the web, public libraries have tried to keep up, notably by digitizing their reserves and offering e-book rentals. However, the demand for products like e-books and other digital rentals is not large enough to reinvigorate library use.

This significant shift in how we access information, online instead of in print, means that the role of public libraries must shift as well. Instead of predominantly being a space for information, libraries can become a hub for community engagement and citizen participation. Libraries currently have an opportunity to reinvent themselves as a space that actively engages with the community and with other local organizations through new programs, events and partnerships. In other words, libraries could become intellectual community centres, fostering a greater sense of connectedness within the community.

The idea that the library could be a center for community engagement emerged primarily in the 2000s. Books like A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building explored how 21st century libraries must be more extroverted and committed to the process of community engagement and participation.[iii] Building off of these ideas, cities and provinces have explored more specific ways to use the library as a space for community engagement.

For instance, a 2007 Ontario Library Association conference and subsequent paper, titled “It Takes a Library to Raise a Community,” looked at the library’s role in developing and promoting social and human capital within the confines of the library and through outside events. The paper concludes that libraries must raise their profile, by partnering with local businesses, governments, schools and groups, in order to disseminate important community values like lifelong learning, social inclusion and community self-help.[iv] Instead of acting within its physical constraints, libraries should reach out to communities and promote engagement and participation by being more active within community life.

The Urban Libraries Council’s report, The Engaged Library: Chicago Stories of Community Building, also enforces the notion of the library becoming a hub for community engagement. This book discusses a number of examples of Chicago public library programs and events which connect the community to the library and promote active citizenship. The book also identifies guidelines that all public libraries should be using during these times of change. Suggestions include being proactive with the community, being creative with the contributions of the library, making the library a central part of the community, and supporting local businesses and groups.[v] Programs that follow these guidelines can be as simple as youth reading or homework groups, or as large as partnering with businesses and governments to promote and support artists, stores and ideas rooted in the community.

As we start to see this shift in how library spaces are being integrated within the community, increasing initiatives at both local and national levels are helping to further connect libraries to their communities and citizens. In Lyon, France, the local library joined forces with newspapers, universities and bookstores to host conferences, debates and exhibitions all under the title “Democratie: rever, penser, agir ensemble”. The goal of this program was to commit people to contribute to the city, through politics and community groups, while providing the library as a forum for discussion and knowledge building.

In the United States, the federal Institute of Museum and Library services started the ConnectED library challenge during the Obama administration, which connects schools and local public libraries in order to increase student access to libraries and their programs. Simply by working with schools, library memberships and student knowledge of the library and services increased, leading to better reading scores and more book loans.

While the data on citizen use of libraries may be on a downward trend, libraries have an opportunity to reinvent themselves as intellectual community centers. Libraries are changing from a static physical space to an active and boundless space. As more libraries begin this transition, citizens will gain a safe, dynamic and local space for community engagement and development. Check out the programs, events and partnerships at your local library; you may be pleasantly surprised by all it has to offer!

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[i] Horrigan, John B. Libraries 2016. Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2016. . Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2016.http://www.pewinterest.org/2016/09/09/libraries-2016/.

[ii] Department for Culture, Media & Sport. Taking Part Focus on Libraries. London: Department for Culture, Media & Sport, 2016. . London: Department for Culture, Media & Sport, 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachement_data/file/519675/Libraries_short_story_-_FINAL.pdf.

[iii] De la Pedna McCook, Kathleen. A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.

[iv] Asu, Marjatta, and Leanne Clendening. “It Takes a Library to Raise a Community.”Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 2, no. 2 (2007): 1-16.

[v] Kretzmann, Jody and Susan Rans. The Engaged Library: Chicago Stories of Community Building. Chicago: Urban Libraries Council, 2005.