March 17, 2018

The Aspen Institute Releases “Rising to the Challenge” Report

aspen_inst_report_On October 14, the Aspen Institute released its report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries.” The report, a product of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries (DPL), examines how U.S. public libraries are uniquely situated to advance the needs of the communities they serve—and how these communities can best respond to libraries’ needs in turn.

The DPL, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a forum that brings together library professionals, policymakers, technology experts, philanthropists, educators, and civic leaders to examine the evolving role of public libraries in the 21st century. The 35-member working group met twice during the DPL’s first year, and its discussions informed the report’s findings and recommendations.

These include three key assets that libraries can leverage: people—both users and librarians; places—libraries’ physical and virtual presences; and platform—the many ways in which communities use libraries to share knowledge and connect. Four strategic opportunities that libraries and communities can address together are detailed:

  1. Aligning library services in support of community goals
  2. Providing access to content in all formats
  3. Ensuring the long-term sustainability of public libraries
  4. Cultivating leadership

The report offers case studies, from the Houston Public Library’s Healthy L.I.F.E. health-based literacy initiative to the virtual library opened by the Free Library of Philadelphia at the Philadelphia International Airport. It also provides a series of actionable steps for library leaders, policy makers, and communities. These include advising libraries to partner with local business, chambers of commerce, and community colleges; bringing together community stakeholders to create a comprehensive strategic plan for the library and other community knowledge institutions; promoting the deployment of wireless hotspots in libraries and other public places, especially in underserved communities; developing public-private trusts for libraries in order to leverage foundation or corporate donations; and making advocacy a priority on all fronts.

The DPL prefaces the report with this explanation: “Enabling all public libraries to fulfil their new roles will require community leaders, civic partners and librarians to share a new vision for what librarians can be. To meet the needs of individuals, the community and the nation in the knowledge society, public libraries must be re-invented for a networked world in which the value of networks grows as more connections are made.”


The report’s release was held at the New York Public Library (NYPL)’s Schwarzman Building, with an enthusiastic crowd of library supporters in attendance. In his opening remarks, NYPL president Tony Marx spoke of libraries as “the repository of our culture, and the home of our civic space.” He recalled that in 1997, fewer than a quarter of the country’s public libraries were connected to the Internet—the next challenge for libraries, he believes, will be to make sure to users who have no access at home are connected as well.

A panel discussion followed introductory remarks from the Gates Foundation’s Deborah Jacobs and Amy Garmer, director of the DPL. Moderated by Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program executive director Charlie Firestone, the panel offered several members of the DPL working group an opportunity to share their experiences working within various communities to strengthen their libraries’ message.

Nashville, TN, mayor Karl Dean discussed the Limitless Libraries program, a partnership between the city’s schools and its public library system, and Brooklyn Library president and CEO Linda Johnson emphasized the importance of the library as a space for play as well as work, describing how the mission of libraries is moving from lending to sharing. Novelist Dinaw Mengestu, currently the Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University, described his vision of active engagement between libraries and writers; authors can go into underrepresented communities, he suggested, and choose to participate in a civic dialogue rather than simply give a book reading.

Finally, Ralph Smith discussed how important it is that the media view the future of libraries as an important issue, using his experience as managing director for the Campaign for Grade Level Reading as an example: “Journalists were supportive of the campaign, but said the story lacked dynamic tension! Because who doesn’t support reading?” Don’t wait for controversy to write about libraries, he advised: “Everybody would love to read a good story about their library.”

Garmer added her hope that, after its release, the report would mobilize engagement and action—not only in libraries, but within the communities themselves. The report aims, it states, “to raise the profile of public libraries to the center of the knowledge society, highlight the opportunities and possibilities, increase support for an expanded library role in a networked world and spark a national conversation and action to re-envision the 21st century library as a center of learning, innovation and creativity.” It emphasizes throughout, though, that it’s the people, places, and platforms that change policy.

There are thousands of stories in the public library, Garmer said, but the ones that matter most walk in the door with the people.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Libraries must evolve, and have done so as described. But two libraries in the USA—the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, are the two great research resources for the entire country, and for many foreign visitors. Their resources must be available on site for efficient use by researchers in business, the sciences (including social), the humanities, and public concerns. Some offsite storage is inevitable but not to the extent now seen at the New York Public Library where three million books were silently removed many months ago. Major research institutions in heavily-populated areas, such as the Brooklyn Public Library main branch, were not meant to be places of play (as in Ms. Johnson’s presentation) but for work and enlightenment. I make this point to distinguish the research that enhances and enriches our society from the profound delights of recreational reading, community activity, and even providing safe after-school havens for children of working parents. All are essential to a flourishing society.