Report: How to keep public libraries relevant in a digital age

A new report emphasizes that public libraries must transform themselves into learning destinations. 

October 16, 2014 |
Photo: Conrad Nutschan via Wikimedia Commons

Public libraries will avoid being relegated to the scrap heap of history in a digital age as long as they continue to serve as platforms for learning, creativity, and innovation that strengthen their communities.

That’s the conclusion of a new report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries,” which the Aspen Institute has produced in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

There are nearly 9,000 public library systems and 17,000 branches and outlets across the U.S. Nearly seven in 10 Americans say they have at least “medium” levels of engagement with their public libraries. And nearly a quarter of U.S. adults use their local libraries for Internet access.

“The public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change, [and] there is already a significant physical presence and infrastructure to leverage for long-term success,” the report states. 

As important, the library "is a core civil society institution, democracy’s 'maker space,'" the report asserts. 



But as public libraries shift from being repositories for materials to platforms for learning and participation, their ability to provide access to vast amounts of content in all formats will be vital. “Libraries face two immediate major challenges in providing access to content in all forms,” the report says. “Being able to procure and share e-books and other digital content on the same basis as physical versions, and having affordable, universal broadband technologies that deliver and help create content.”

A 21st-century library will remain relevant only if it is built on three key assets: people, place, and platform. The report observes that libraries are “shifting from building collections to building human capital, relationships, and knowledge networks in the community.”

While a library is both a physical and virtual place, the report believes its physical presence “anchors it most firmly in the community.” But the library as a learning center is also becoming more of a destination, “a way station on the learning journey.” In that capacity the library in a digital age should also be “a virtual space accessible from anywhere 24/7.”

A library’s goal, says the report, should be to enable individuals and communities “to create their own learning and knowledge.” So a library “platform” needs to be adaptable to the individual’s needs. “The library as platform radically reshapes [its] daily activities, shifting away from the old model of organizing and ‘lending’ the world’s knowledge toward a new vision of the library as a central hub for learning and community connections.”

To be successful in a digital age, libraries, says the report, will require a different kind of access and distribution infrastructure, more sophisticated analytics “that will enable the library itself to become a “learning organization,” and the ability to scale themselves to facilitate innovation and competition.



The report recommends four strategic opportunities for action to guide libraries’ transformation: aligning their service to support community goals, providing access to content in all formats, ensuring the long-term sustainability of public libraries through greater attention to potential financial resources, and cultivating “leadership.” 

But library professionals face several leadership challenges, such as taking advantage of digital tools; building the library’s capacity, which might benefit from exploring best practices outside the U.S.; thinking harder about succession planning; including trustee and “friend” groups in leadership development activities; and developing strategies that can keep pace with larger disruptive changes.

Libraries and their communities must also be watchful, and be prepared to respond to, several important developments and trends, including new technologies and their impact on a global information economy, online education, the boundaries of privacy and data protection, and “hyperconnected” societies.

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