Public Libraries

A New Vision for Public Libraries

January 12, 2016  • Amy Garmer

In mid-August 2014, Scott Bonner performed an ordinary yet remarkable act: Bonner opened the doors of the public library and invited members of the community to come inside. This was an ordinary act because librarians have been performing this simple gesture of welcome and inclusion for as long as there have been public libraries. It is what they do.

But it was also a remarkable act because Bonner is the director of the public library in Ferguson, Missouri, and August 2014 was no ordinary time in a town beset by civil unrest in the wake of a police shooting. With this simple gesture, Bonner and his colleagues let the community and the nation know that Ferguson’s public library exists to serve and support the community; that the library can be, and often is, the center of community, a place like no other for learning, engagement, and meeting the needs of the community. It is who they are.

Libraries of all kinds and their communities are facing a variety of challenges, from significant changes in populations and local economies to advances in digital technologies. This requires new thinking, relationships, and actions informed by ongoing dialogue about the role of the library in the community. While the library’s mission to welcome and serve all members of the public and to provide access to knowledge, learning, and civic engagement is not changing, the ways that libraries go about fulfilling this mission is changing and will continue to do so.

In the report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries,” the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries put forth a renewed vision of the public library built upon its three critical assets of people, place, and platform. It also calls upon community leaders from all sectors to work with their libraries to align library programs and services with community priorities, to provide access to content in all formats, to ensure the sustainability of libraries and to cultivate leadership in libraries and the community.

Dialogue on Public Libraries recently released the “Action Guide for Re-Envisioning your Public Library,” a set of resources to help library and community leaders use the “Rising to the Challenge” report to prepare for and convene an ongoing community dialogue and to take action to re-envision their own public library. The Action Guide has been field-tested by 23 public libraries during a pilot phase in the fall of 2015.

The Aspen Institute Dialogue is launching a new website,, as a companion resource to the action guide. We welcome you to visit the site and explore and join the Library Vision community (MLS not required!). Community members have access to the Action Guide, a variety of additional resources including insightful articles, PowerPoint slides, short videos, success stories from libraries across the country, and first notice of upcoming webinars and events, as well as access to additional resources developed going forward.

Most important, members can engage with a community of library innovators and practitioners across the country who are leading efforts to work with civic partners to transform the opportunities and experiences that make their communities places where people want to live, learn, work, play, and raise a family. As the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries continues its work in the months and years ahead, we will work with members of the Library Vision community of practice to support the information needs of communities and advance the transformative power of public libraries. The door to the Library Vision community is open. Won’t you come in and join us?

Amy Garmer is director of journalism projects for the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.

Photo Credit: iStock Photo