Public Libraries

Meeting the Information Needs of Communities at the Public Library

September 22, 2014  • Amy Garmer

*This article originally appeared on The Knight Blog.

Knight News Challenge: Libraries offers applicants a chance to share in $2.5 million by focusing on the question, “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Below, Amy Garmer, director of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, writes about the need for libraries to become community learning platforms.

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy called on the nation to make every community in the United States an informed, engaged community:

America needs a vision for “informed communities,” places where the information ecology meets the personal and civic information needs of people. This means people have the information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. It also means they can participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Paramount in this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest.

This vision of a place where the information ecology meets the personal and civic information needs of people describes perfectly the public library! And it’s the starting point for the work we’re doing through the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries.

Libraries must adapt, experiment and reinvent their roles in the community to satisfy the personal and civic needs called out by the Knight Commission—many already are—and then bring those innovations from the edges of the library platform into the center where they may be shared. Libraries need a robust ecosystem to make this happen in digital, not analog, time. The Knight News Challenge is exciting because it can uncover innovative partners to help libraries meet this challenge.

As technology advances and new learning and civic ecologies emerge, the great challenge for libraries is how to reinvent themselves as community learning platforms:

  • How can libraries provide learning opportunities that are pervasive throughout the community and persistent throughout a lifetime?
  • How can libraries certify the learning that takes place there, often informally?
  • How can libraries extend these opportunities to everyone in the community, so that we do not create a two-tiered system of access, with high-quality learning opportunities for the wealthy and well-connected, and a second-tier, lower-quality system for the have-nots?

Additional topics that would be exciting to see addressed in the News Challenge on libraries include models for new partnerships with content creators that open up content access in new ways rather than restricting it; designing the virtual library to epitomize what makes a great online public knowledge space; and unlocking the library’s treasure trove of user data for improving library service and business models while maintaining a commitment to the core values of trust and privacy protection that distinguish the public library from many commercial information offerings.

Amy Garmer; Corinne Hill, director of the Chattanooga Public Library; Kenneth G. Furton, provost of Florida International University; and John Szabo, city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, will lead a Knight-sponsored discussion on the future of libraries on Monday, Sept. 29, from 12:15 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the InterContinental Miami. Watch the livestream at

To submit an entry for the Knight News Challenge or provide feedback on other submissions, visit You can join us for virtual office hours from 1 to 2 p.m. ET Sept. 23. Participants can access the meeting online ( using ID 731675489), or participate via phone at 1-888-240-2560. Knight News Challenge: Libraries closes at 5 p.m. ET on Sept. 30. Winners will be announced in January.