November 21, 2017

United We Stand: Reflecting on the Aspen report | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerThere is much to think about in “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries,” the first and much anticipated report of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries (AIDPL), released last month at the New York Public Library. While just a start in practical terms, it begins to reframe the role and position of public libraries in light of the possibilities brought by the digital age. Importantly, it describes a more robust, interconnected network of vital institutions, geared to impact the lives of even more people in the communities they serve. As a framing device, a sort of charter on what libraries are today and could become, it is inspiring, challenging, and useful.

The report spins on a new kind of axis, one that emphasizes three “key assets” of today’s public library: people, place, and platform. Rightfully so, people come first, as serving them is the raison d’être of these institutions. The view of what those we serve should expect transcends the typical. “The library as people reflects the shift away from building collections to building human capital, relationships and knowledge networks in the community,” reads the report.

The “place” piece reinforces the importance of library buildings while calling for a variety of outpost locations and ramping up access in disconnected homes via Wi-Fi. It also proposes a more ambitious, holistic approach to virtual libraries. “The public library,” the report notes, “should define what makes a great online public space.”

Enter the library as “platform” to serve as an interactive “third place”—building on David Weinberger’s conceptualization (see “Library as Platform,” LJ online 9/4/12, and “Let the Future Go,” LJ 9/15/14). The report takes this as an idea whose time draws nigh. As one practical extension it urges the development of a national digital platform to share collections, beyond the current Digital Public Library of America model. The platform is the biggest stretch and a very important one. It’s the hardest to tackle, the furthest from the comfort zone, and presents many practical problems to resolve before it can become a reality. It also holds great promise.

Overall, the Aspen report posits public libraries as a slumbering matrix ready to be awakened and more deeply integrated at this unique technological moment. Even shy of the overarching platform proposed, better interconnectivity can enable unprecedented scaling of the positive impact libraries now have. This will, however, require us to challenge traditional silos and see partnership in a much more fundamental light. To its credit, the report acknowledges the barriers but doesn’t hold back on the dream.

The report’s ambitions resonate in part because the project approach integrates a wide variety of stakeholders from beyond libraries (business, tech, education, etc.). This helps to ensure strong broad insights just as it engages a group of future ambassadors who might help pull off some of the political work ahead. Perhaps more important, the language itself reflects this strategy, as policymakers, communities, and libraries are presented in the report as three equal pillars. This allows for a vital perspective to emerge calling on local leaders to understand that communities need libraries to be as strong as they can be. As Deborah Jacobs, director of Global Libraries for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partners on and funds the project, noted at the launch, these leaders “have a responsibility to make sure their libraries are meeting community needs.”

To deliver on the full library potential, we will have to forge deeper alliances, not only among libraries themselves but also among libraries, policymakers, and local communities. “To make this vision a reality,” Jacobs said, “it’s going to take all of us.”

Describing what’s next now that the report is out, Amy Garmer, AIDPL director, noted that there will be a focus on needed engagement and action in light of the report and on identifying ways to drive “more rapid transformation.”

“There are still a lot of libraries that need help defining their organizations,” Garmer said. “And when libraries need help, their communities need help.”

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Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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