Communications and Society Program

Dialogue on Public Libraries

"Every book, every idea, every image, every archive, every piece of information should not only be available online anytime, anywhere, but also needs to be curated and linked so that anyone in the world can engage in the creative activity that we all rely on to build a better world."

-Anthony Marx, President & CEO of the New York Public Library

Watch and share the Dialogue’s inspiring video that highlights the ways in which public libraries are transforming communities through the strategic use of their people, place and platform assets.

Please visit the digital site for Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries to download the full report.

Aspen Institute Roundtable on Library Innovation
August 9-12
Aspen, CO

The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, in conjunction with Knight Foundation gathered in Aspen, CO to convene thought leaders and decision makers from government, technology, business, civil society and academia who are rethinking the roles of libraries. The premise of the Aspen Institute Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation was that the transformation of public libraries is driven by three key factors: new narratives about the library’s role in society; a culture of innovation and adaptation that promotes new relationships and embraces new forms of knowledge, technology and participation, and; committed, transformative leadership both within the library profession but also from other community partners including government, media and civic groups.

A summary from the Roundtable will be available in early 2016. For more information on Dialogue on Public Libraries and the Roundtable please see the resources below and visit our digital portal at:

Re-imagining Libraries for the 21st Century: John Seely Brown
Innovation provides a competitive edge in a knowledge-based economy. Libraries have the potential to be platforms for innovation and entrepreneurial activity in the community. However, like the community itself, libraries must foster a culture of innovation and look to ways to bring new thinking, new practice and new leadership that often are developed at the edges of institutions into the center. In this clip, John Seely Brown discusses library transformation in the exponential age at the Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, which took place on August 10, 2015 in Aspen, Colorado. The event was sponsored by the Knight Foundation.

VIDEO - Library Innovation By Design: Michelle Ha Tucker
Like other professions, libraries have developed a culture with a distinct set of values, approaches and behaviors. Library practices have traditionally been centered on the work of building and maintaining collections, and interactions with users and other institutions have been largely transactional. As the role of the library shifts beyond simply being an access and lending institution to providing a venue and platform for learning, innovation and creativity, libraries need to think in dramatically different ways and develop new approaches to their work in line with their changing role in the community. In this clip, Michelle Ha Tucker discusses library innovation by design at the Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, in Aspen, Colorado on August 10, 2015.

VIDEO - NYPL HotSpot Lending Program: Mary Lee Kennedy
Mary Lee Kennedy, Chief Library Officer at the New York Public Library, provides an update on NYPL’s Library HotSpot program, a program which loans WiFi hot spot devices to low-income families at 11 branches for up to six months at a time so they can access the Internet from home. The Library HotSpot program is a pilot that includes the Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries as well as libraries in the states of Kansas and Maine where the pilot can gather information about WiFi usage in areas with a small population base. Kennedy’s remarks include reflections on the challenges and opportunities of providing broadband access to communities through the public library and how this library role may evolve in the future.

VIDEO - Chicago Public Library HotSpot Lending Program: Brian Bannon
Brian Bannon, Commissioner, Chicago Public Libraries, provides an update on the Chicago Public Library’s Internet To Go program, a pilot program at three CPL locations which enables patrons to checkout a WiFi hot spot and laptop computer on the same basis as books and other materials, for three weeks at a time. The hotspots are portable devices that enable patrons to connect a mobile-enabled device, such as a laptop, smartphone or tablet, to the Internet. Bannon’s remarks include reflections on the challenges and opportunities of providing broadband access to communities through the public library and how this library role may evolve in the future.

Aspen Ideas Festival - "The Public Library Reimagined"

As we move deeper into the digital age, the public library is transforming itself for a knowledge-based society, and a new and more comprehensive vision for the public library is taking root. Networks of people and knowledge, not shelves full of books, will be at the center of the library and its mission. In the creative design of both its physical and virtual spaces, the public library will come to define what makes a great public space.

The Public Library Reimagined" took place on June 29, 2014 in Aspen, Colorado, as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival's Metropolis track. Sommer Mathis (Editor, Atlantic CityLab) moderated a panel with Brian Bannon (Commissioner, Chicago Public Library), Tessie Guillermo (President & CEO, ZeroDivide), and John Palfrey (President, Board of Directors of the Digital Public Library of America and Head of School, Phillips Academy). 

To view the rest of the videos of this panel, click here.

As trusted institutions, public libraries serve their communities by improving digital skills, helping people access information in new ways, providing a space for learning at every age, and connecting people to jobs, educational opportunities and critical community services. Yet, despite these benefits, libraries face ongoing challenges with budget cuts and the need to adapt in an increasingly diverse, mobile and digital society.

The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multi-stakeholder forum to explore and champion new thinking on U.S. public libraries, with the goal of fostering concrete actions to support and transform public libraries for a more diverse, mobile and connected society. It focuses on the impact of the digital revolution on access to information, knowledge and the conduct of daily life.

The Dialogue’s work to date has been guided and informed by a select, 34-member Dialogue Working Group convened twice in the project’s first year to consider the mission and changing roles of public libraries in light of significant economic and societal trends. The Dialogue has also engaged a range of thought leaders from the public library field who have been instrumental in shaping the project and its work to date. These include dialogue sessions to convene leaders from the Public Library Association (PLA), the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) and others to explore concrete steps to refine, advance and implement the vision. 

The Dialogue kicked off with its inaugural meeting in Aspen, Colorado in August 2013, where Working Group members considered challenges and opportunities to ensure that public libraries are at the forefront of serving communities for years to come.

The working group, which includes leaders from the library field, executives from businesses, officials from various levels of government, community development visionaries and education experts, was based on the Aspen Institute model of bringing together diverse perspectives to generate breakthrough ideas, with thought leading to action.

Since then, the Dialogue continues to reach out to engage a broad set of civic and professional stakeholders.  A second meeting of the working group convened in November in Washington, DC. The fall meeting built upon the framework of the summer convening and sought to use working group feedback to deepen the vision for the future of public libraries.

The Working Group discussions, focused discussions with the professional associations and individual contributions have helped to illuminate the ways that communities can leverage investments in these essential public institutions, to build stronger civic ecologies and forge new partnerships for achieving local and national goals. At the core of the Dialogue is this question: “What do we want for our communities and how can public libraries help us get there?”

 The emerging vision statement focuses on four broad themes that the discussions have touched on:

  • Adapting communities and public libraries for the digital age
  • Enabling libraries to better educate and empower current and future generations
  • Ensuring public libraries serve as central community assets to advance the common good
  • Advocating for the long-term health of libraries including sustainable funding models and leadership development

  Check back soon for the release of the Dialogue on Public Libraries vision report, as well as commissioned papers on related topics and other activities. Other opportunities to get involved will be added here as they take shape.

 In the meantime, read the materials from the Dialogue's lead-off presentations on 8/4/13 by John Seeley Brown (Reimagining Learning for a World of Constant Change), Reed Hundt (Reimagining Libraries: Four Choices, Four Trends, Four Questions) and Lee Rainie (Pew Survey Data: Library Use) and join the conversation on Twitter. Use the Dialogue's hashtag – #libraryvision – to share your vision for the next generation of public libraries.

 What We’re Reading:

"Investigation of Optimal Reimbursement Policy for Wifi Service by Public Libraries," Vinod Bakthavachalam, August 28, 2014.

"'Smart Cities' Meet 'Anchor Institutions': The Case of Broadband and the Public Library," Ellen P. Goodman, August 1, 2014.

Valerie J Gross. Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2013. 

Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles. The Library Beyond the Book. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014.

Digital Readiness: The Next Wave of the Digital Divide,” D. Frank Smith, State Tech Magazine, May 7, 2014.

 “Digital Readiness: Nearly one-third of Americans lack the skills to use next-generation ‘Internet of things’ applications,” John Horrigan, Cable Academic Workshop, April 29-30, 2014.

 “The Future of Libraries,” Thomas Frey, DaVinci Institute.

 Breaking Out of the Library Mold, in Boston and Beyond,” Katharine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, March 7, 2014.

 “Mastering the Intermediaries,” Benjamin Edelman, Harvard Business Review, June 2014.

 “Libraries from Now On: Imagining the Future of Libraries,” ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries – Report to ALA Membership, May 2014.

Libraries, Atlantic Media Citylab.

Click here for the press release about the launch of the Dialogue. For additional information, please contact Dialogue project director Amy Garmer at garmer [at] aspeninstitute [dot] org.