February 17, 2018

Aspen Institute Releases New Action Guide for Public Libraries | ALA Midwinter 2016

Aspen_action guideThe Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries (DPL) unveiled its newest publication at a session at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting. The Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library, a set of resources to be used in connection with DPL’s report Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, was released simultaneously with the session on January 10. On hand to launch the Action Guide were DPL director Amy Garmer; DPL advisor (and ALA past president) Maureen Sullivan; and John Palfrey, author of the recent BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books) and a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker (among many other roles).

Palfrey introduced the work being done by DPL by way of his own experience as chair of the Boston Public Library (BPL) Presidential Search Committee. The process, which he described as “incredibly fun and incredibly interesting,” involves a series of listening sessions at branches around the city, including a session that morning at BPL’s McKim Building with citywide Friends. There, they discussed what stakeholders want the library to be and how it should fit in with other Boston institutions. What was clear in the conversation, he reported, was the differing needs within the community. BPL can no longer position itself as a one-size-fits-all system, but needs to fulfill historical functions and at the same time be flexible enough to respond to the city’s many diverse and changing situations.

The Aspen Report, Palfrey noted, asks similar questions of all libraries—what is their place within their communities, and how do they align with those communities’ institutions? Should libraries push forward in a digital direction, or continue to provide the services they always have?

Libraries “have one foot in the past and one in the future,” concluded Palfrey. They have to do both things, he said, and at the same time continue to grow and innovate—with the caveat that moving too far in either direction can compromise their effectiveness, but denying these needs runs the risk of libraries’ being what he termed “OBE: overtaken by events.” As well, library leadership needs to imagine, and be able to articulate, what the future of libraries might be, and, Palfrey noted, “We know we have to do that with fewer resources as time goes on.”

“How do we find a way forward when it’s not possible to choose one or the other, but we must do both?” Palfrey asked. The solution, he answered, is to be found in collaboration and professional development, creating partnerships among libraries and other institutions, and investing in the people who work in libraries to make sure this transition can happen. DPL, said Palfrey, “is kicking off that conversation.”


Rising to the Challenge, issued in October 2014, used case studies and an outline to examine the evolving roles of public libraries within their communities and how libraries can leverage three key assets—people, places, and platform—in order to move forward. DPL’s 35-member working group initiated the dialog in 2012, Garmer noted, during Sullivan’s ALA presidency to align with its theme of the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.

After the initial report was released, DPL members went on the road to talk with various groups in and outside of libraries. Garmer reported enthusiasm and interest, but also many questions about how to use the report on the ground. The next step, then, was to develop a resource specifically for library audiences—directors, trustees, staff, and the library community at large—that would take the report and make it actionable.

The 12-section Action Guide is made up of activities and worksheets to help the library evaluate how it currently meets community needs—responsibilities, strengths, and challenges—and to identify its goals, said Garmer, so the library can eventually go out into the community and hold a public dialog of its own. This conversation, Garmer told the room, should help the library “look at how you’re using your assets with regard to the goals and needs of the community, identify new activities and structures you may need to put in place, and ways you can engage partners in the community initially and then on an ongoing basis.” There are also resources such as sample invitations and news releases that libraries can customize.

The first six sections of the Action Guide focus on what is happening within the library—examining how it relates to its audience and community (and how they relate to the library), how it serves their needs, and potential areas of focus. Section seven is a SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results) assessment that can be used as a tool for strategic planning among different groups of stakeholders. Sections eight through 12 are aimed at preparing the library to convene a community dialog, with modules built around four strategies for success: aligning the library to the community, ensuring access to content, ensuring long term sustainability, and cultivating leadership within the community.

“The Action Guide walks library leaders through an assessment that culminates in the convening of dialogues with the community and its leaders,” Garmer explained to LJ. “The end result will be forward-thinking action steps for the library and community to take to transform the experiences, opportunities and outcomes available in the community.”


The first iteration of the Action Guide was completed in September 2015. A pilot program was conducted from September through November among 23 libraries of varying sizes from across the country. Participating libraries were given ten weeks to field test the guide’s activities, through either a structured or self-paced process. At the end of that time they filled out a series of surveys and provided feedback and suggestions that were incorporated into the version launched at ALA Midwinter.

Several representatives from pilot libraries spoke up at the Midwinter session, describing the different ways the Action Guide has worked for them. Alice Knapp, president of the Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT, reported using it in combination with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s “turning outward” approach, and found it useful for identifying emerging leaders—not only the expected supervisors, Knapp said, but key people within the library who have stepped up to the plate thanks to the Action Guide’s prompts.

Maria Carpenter, director of libraries at the Santa Monica Public Library, used the Action Guide as part of the library’s reflection and refining process. “We have garnered a lot of support by going through this process,” she noted, adding that it was still a work in progress. “It’s a long tail.”

The Action Guide “was ideal because we were able to customize it to our community,” Jo-Ann LoRusso, director of the Middlebury Public Library, CT, told LJ. The small library, with a full-time staff of four, was able to push through a teen room construction project by using the Action Guide’s dialog guidelines and suggestions to gain the support of the board of trustees and town officials. “It allowed us to take a step back,” said LoRusso, and evaluate the library’s strengths and needs so it could discover how the library could best serve its constituents and then effectively present its plan. “We basically learned that if you want to know what you can do for the community, ask.” The new teen room, she said, “is just the beginning.”

“The release of the Action Guide gives libraries a game plan,” said ALA president and Cuyahoga County Public Library executive director Sari Feldman at the session. DPL’s community-facing mission aligns strongly with her Libraries Transform campaign, and Feldman noting that although the Action Guide was built for public libraries, the strategy it describes transcends library types, and she looks forward to seeing it implemented around the country and across the globe.

DPL has not issued the Action Guide as a printed booklet, as it did with Rising to the Challenge—in part to keep costs down, and also because the document is still a work in progress and will be annotated as more comments are received. Both reports are available for download at LibraryVision.org.

“This is a unique moment of opportunity for libraries to position themselves as a critical partner for navigating life in the digital plus era,” Garmer told LJ. “We expect that the Aspen Institute’s Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library will help libraries to chart their own path to greater engagement with their communities, and to re-envision what is possible by working in collaboration with others.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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