New Report Responds to Urgent Need for U.S. Public Library Transformation

October 14, 2014

October 14, 2014 

Contact: Allyson Boucher, 609-364-0370

Aspen Institute’s “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” Explores How a Trusted American Institution Can Drive Innovation and Expand Educational Opportunities 

Washington, D.C. – A new report released today from the Aspen Institute looks at how – in an age of instant and abundant information – U.S. public libraries can drive community advancements unlike any other public institution.

“Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” explores how public libraries can respond as the digital age increases the demand for high-speed information access, changes in our education systems, innovative job training models and additional community services to help people and communities compete in the new economy. The report is part of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The multiyear dialogue brings library professionals, policymakers, technology experts, philanthropists, educators and civic leaders together to explore the future of public libraries.

“As society tries to keep pace with the innovation happening around us, libraries have become a place for more than just circulating books,” said Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. “Libraries need to be a place where people can come together, collaborate and be coached in digital learning. Public libraries becoming platforms for learning, creativity and innovation opens up a whole new avenue for libraries, and helps communities close economic gaps and bridge social divides.” 

The “Rising to the Challenge” report recommends communities leverage three important library assets: connecting people and fostering relationships to strengthen the human capital of a community; using the both the physical and virtual spaces of libraries in new and innovative ways; and tapping into high-speed interactive platforms to curate and share ideas and knowledge.

It discusses the need for libraries to align their services more directly with the priorities of community leaders at a time when emerging technologies create a demand for digital literacy, new learning opportunities, job skills and more opportunities for people to communicate face to face. The report suggests libraries and local governments work more closely to create long-term financial sustainability, while also exploring other innovative business and revenue models.

“Public libraries have the potential to establish personal connections that help define community needs and can serve as an anchor for economic development and neighborhood revitalization,” said Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a member of the Dialogue’s working group. “The digital age is an opportunity for public libraries to take advantage of their unique ability to draw people together around knowledge, creativity and culture for the benefit of individuals, families and the community.” 

The report recognizes that most of the nation’s nearly 9,000 public library systems and their 17,000 branches are successfully keeping up with the times. Many provide free computer and high-speed Internet use, access to publishing software or high-tech machines such as 3-D printers, résumé-writing help and support for job seekers, and tutoring services for students and immigrants. Others provide community rooms, host book clubs and offer reading programs for preschoolers.

“Public libraries have earned their communities’ trust and are in a unique position to be the catalyst–-connecting people and ideas to help communities reach their potential,” said Pam Sandlian-Smith, Director of Anythink Libraries in Colorado, board member of the Public Library Association, and a member of the Dialogue’s working group. “With the right vision, leadership and resources, libraries can reimagine and redesign library spaces, products and services that meet vital community needs.”

The report highlights a number of examples of groundbreaking work and new ways public libraries are meeting the needs of their communities. It also includes 15 action steps that the Dialogue recommends for each of its stakeholder groups: library leaders, policymakers and the community. Among these recommendations are the following five for each group: 

Library Leaders

  1. Define the scope of the library’s programs, services and offerings around community priorities, recognizing that this process may lead to choices and trade-offs.
  2. Collaborate with government agencies at the local, state and federal levels around shared objectives. This includes partnerships with schools to drive learning and educational opportunities throughout the community.
  3. Partner with local businesses, chambers of commerce and community colleges to provide access to curricula and resources, technology and certification programs, and to job search resources to maintain a highly skilled yet highly flexible workforce.
  4. Engage the community in planning and decision making, and seek a seat at tables where important policy issues are discussed and decisions are made.
  5. Connect resources from other agencies or libraries to the library platform rather than reinventing the wheel or always going solo.


  1. Use the authority of office to bring together community stakeholders to create a comprehensive strategic plan for the library and other knowledge institutions in the community.
  2. Define libraries as part of the community’s priority infrastructure along with other established infrastructure priorities such as schools, transportation and parks, and make sustainable long-term funding that reflects the library’s value to the community a budget priority.
  3. Develop strategic alliances and partnerships with local library leaders to advance educational, economic and social goals.
  4. Leverage the economic development potential of the public library as a community platform.
  5. Make access to government information a model for curating open data.


  1. Collaborate on the development of a comprehensive strategic plan for the community’s information and knowledge ecosystem, including the library and other knowledge institutions in the community.
  2. Develop strategic partnerships and alliances with public libraries around content or specific organizational or community needs.
  3. Bring diverse expertise to bear on helping libraries create and share technology tools.
  4. Connect knowledge resources in the community to the library’s knowledge networks.
  5. Participate in the library’s platform for curating local history and culture.

Read the report at


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. The Dialogue is managed by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, which focuses on projects and initiatives that address the societal impact of communications and information technologies and provides a multidisciplinary venue for considered judgment on communications policy issues.  

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, D.C.; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has an office in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit

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