Report: Rising to the Challenge
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- John Seely Brown
If the library as people, place and platform is the new knowledge institution that can serve the need for persistent opportunities for learning and social connection, what does it look like for the public library to fulfill this role? And in what ways does the community benefit?
The answers lay in understanding how the public library draws on its deep credentials as educators and civic connectors to reposition the library as a key hub for learning, innovation and creativity in this environment. Today, we see how the public library can be especially effective in the areas of informal and nontraditional learning, jobs and workforce development, addressing new literacies, fostering civic participation and closing broadband and participation divides. And innovators in communities of all sizes are inventing the new ways in which libraries will benefit the community for years to come.
COORDINATED, INFORMAL AND NONTRADITIONAL LEARNING
Public libraries provide a lifetime of learning opportunities for people in the communities they serve. They are especially effective at supporting informal learning, connecting diverse learning experiences, filling gaps between learning opportunities and offering new learning models that may not be feasible in schools, which face tighter boundaries and controls.
IMPACT OF LIBRARIES ON COMMUNITY
Drawing on the Dialogue’s people, place and platform model, the process of re-envisioning public libraries calls for a stronger role in learning by being more intentional and strategic to produce better results. Actions to support this goal include:
JOBS AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENTA library that is attuned to the challenges facing the community also has a deep understanding of its economic structures and challenges and the businesses that provide the jobs that sustain the economic health of the community. Libraries can help to accelerate workforce development and learning opportunities by providing a connection between industry and education. With its education and learning credentials and its connections, the public library is in a good position to connect community residents to the training and career development resources that local employers need. They can do this by partnering with local businesses, chambers of commerce and community colleges to provide access to curricula and resources, to technology and certification programs and to job search resources to maintain a highly skilled yet highly flexible workforce.
Of particular importance in the digital era is the library’s ability to connect job seekers to the technology resources needed to find and compete for job opportunities, especially when 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept online applications.
While libraries increasingly are seen as part of the education infrastructure that serves children and schools, their role in the workforce infrastructure is newer and less well understood.
This is a time of enormous opportunity for public libraries to reach out to local and state governments, labor departments, economic development agencies and others to ask how the library can use its platform to create a 21st-century workforce that will keep current businesses in place and attract new ones to the community.
THE LIBRARY AS LITERACY CHAMPIONThe 21st-century library is the champion of the literacies needed to navigate information abundance, create knowledge, bolster economic opportunity and make democracy dynamic. In the digital age, content is widely available in diverse formats outside traditional publications, requiring new skills to succeed in this information-rich environment. Building on its historic commitment to literacy, the library is uniquely positioned to provide access, skills, context and trusted platforms for sharing. Examples of new literacies include the ability to:
The public library can partner with the community to define the difference between highly literate and less literate—across a vast range of literacies, including civic, financial and health literacy—and then help close the gap.
Most importantly, the public library can work with community partners to provide personalized and flexible digital learning experiences that individuals need to become comfortable and adept at participating in digital society. 
THE LIBRARY AS CIVIC RESOURCEThe public library is a place for the community to experiment and collaborate, to gather and engage, and to explore and confront important community issues such as homelessness, immigration, economic development, public health and environmental sustainability. With its deep knowledge and relationships in the community, its physical presence and its platform, the public library is playing an important role in sustaining the civic health of the community. Libraries are carrying out this important civic role in the 21st century by:
ADDRESSING THE BROADBAND AND PARTICIPATION DIVIDES
At the first Dialogue working group meeting, Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC in Chicago, displayed a map of broadband use in Chicago in which those neighborhoods with the least connectivity matched almost exactly with a map of neighborhoods with the highest unemployment, crime and violence; the most school closings; and poorest health services. For many kids in these neighborhoods, Vasquez said, the library is the only public institution that works, that is accessible, safe and welcoming. Others, like schools or the police, kids engage “not by choice.” “Libraries are not like that,” she said. “It’s a voluntary engagement. It’s a trusted institution.”
Public libraries are a critical institutional bulwark against the well-documented problem of growing income and educational inequality in the United States. One reason library use has risen in the last decade is that many Americans do not have home Internet access and face numerous obstacles to getting it. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey reported that only 70 percent of Americans have broadband access at home—in short, that the so-called “digital divide” remains persistent.Among U.S. households with annual income below $30,000, 46 percent have no high-speed home Internet access. The poor, in other words, cannot participate fully in the new learning and civic ecologies created by networked communications.
A 2010 study by the University of Washington, the first to look at computer use in libraries, found that the public library provides to millions of Americans the only computer and Internet access they have.Among the things they do with that access is apply for jobs; apply for admission to schools, colleges and training programs; renew car registrations; research health issues; find tax and other government forms; take online courses; do homework; and communicate with family, friends and employers.
“Competition is not providing enough for all communities,” says Carolyn Anthony, director of the Skokie Public Library. “In Skokie, 50% of people using internet in libraries don’t have connection at home.”
As Internet-based education increases, the poor have no way to acquire the digital literacy skills that are the foundation of knowledge creation and social participation in an information-based economy—not without public libraries.
“Libraries need to stand in when other institutions have failed. So many communities are poorly wired. Private companies wire cities, but smaller communities are often overlooked,” says Rod Gould, city manager of Santa Monica, California. “Connectivity