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CHAPTER I - Introduction

In August 2015, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, convened the Aspen Institute Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, part of the Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries project. The three-day roundtable brought together 30 dynamic leaders who are re-envisioning the ways in which public libraries work to enhance the lives and advance the development of individuals, communities and the nation. Participants came from the fields of libraries, technology, philanthropy, education and design (click here for complete list of roundtable participants).

The premise of the Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation is that the transformation of public libraries will be driven by three key factors: (1) new narratives about the library’s role in society, (2) a culture of innovation and adaptation that fosters new relationships and embraces new forms of knowledge, technology and participation and (3) committed, transformative leadership from the library profession and partners in government, civil society and the private sector. The transformation of public libraries reflects the transformation of communities themselves. The idea of library innovation in this report reflects the potential for libraries to drive innovation in communities while speaking to the need for transforming library practice and library institutions themselves.

The vision of the library as a platform for innovation crystallizes two objectives: (1) to expand opportunities for diverse groups of people to pursue curiosity, collaboration and experimentation and (2) to create an evolving architecture and tool set for the community itself to participate in knowledge flows and benefit from the learning and innovation that occurs. Specifically, roundtable participants explored how new approaches to designing and managing the knowledge and collaboration infrastructure of public libraries could significantly strengthen economic, educational and social outcomes. In considering this charge, roundtable participants focused on three key aspects of the public library mission—access, learning and community engagement—as they developed a set of practical strategies for strengthening community-based ecosystems for innovation.

This report examines the challenges and opportunities that are shaping the transformation of public libraries and their communities in an exponential age. It summarizes the roundtable discussions and presents three practical strategies for shifting the library to the center of community platforms for innovation.


The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Library Innovation would not have been possible without generous support and funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the leadership and vision of the foundation’s President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen and Vice President of Media Innovation John Bracken.

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank the 30 experts who gathered in Aspen to provide their insights and who are listed at the conclusion of this report. In particular, special thanks go to John Seely Brown, Michelle Ha Tucker, Mary Lee Kennedy and Brian Bannon for their thought-provoking and discussion-generating presentations during the Roundtable. She also thanks Charlie Firestone, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, for masterfully moderating the roundtable and Ian Smalley, Senior Project Manager for the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, who was responsible for managing the meeting and report, and the support of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program team.

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