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Libraries Dialogue - Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries?
The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multi-stakeholder forum to explore and champion new thinking on U.S. public libraries, with the goal of fostering concrete actions to support and transform public libraries for a more diverse, mobile and connected society. It focuses on the impact of the digital revolution on access to information, knowledge and the conduct of daily life. Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, the Dialogue seeks to shape and advance a renewed national vision for public libraries in the 21st century.

With the assistance of thought leaders from business, technology, education, government, the nonprofit sector and libraries, the Dialogue on Public Libraries considers the changing role of public libraries and seeks to articulate a renewed vision for the vital role they serve as community platforms to advance educational and other opportunities in a knowledge-based society. The Dialogue is a catalyst for identifying ways in which communities can leverage investments in these essential public institutions to develop richer information ecologies, build stronger communities and forge new partnerships for achieving local and national goals. Through its working group convenings, outreach and engagement with diverse stakeholders, commissioned papers, published report and other activities, the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries seeks to ensure that public libraries remain as accessible and relevant to the needs of current and future generations as they have for previous generations of Americans.

Why was the Dialogue created?
As trusted institutions, libraries serve their communities in many ways—by improving digital literacy; providing after school opportunities; and connecting people to jobs, educational opportunities and critical community services. Yet, despite these benefits, libraries face ongoing challenges with budget cuts and the need to adapt in an increasingly digital society.

The Dialogue on Public Libraries was created to help advance the work that public libraries are doing to address community challenges and to support the transformation of public libraries for the digital age. By amassing the knowledge and leadership across the library field, and developing networks of committed individuals from inside and outside the library field to champion new thinking and change efforts going forward, the Dialogue aims to ignite new thinking and develop innovative solutions that can launch public libraries into the future.

What was the process for developing the report?
The report was formed through a year of deliberations.  The Dialogue on Public Libraries brought together a select 34-member working group that included leaders from the library field, executives from businesses, officials from various levels of government, community development visionaries and education experts. These Working Group members convened twice: once in Aspen, CO in August of 2013 and once in Washington, DC, in November of the same year to focus on the impact of the digital revolution on accessing information, and also look at other emerging community needs, such as the increasing diversity within American communities.

To assist in its study and deliberations, the Aspen Institute Dialogue also conducted outreach and engagement discussions with key library leadership groups and with local government administrative leaders. These include sessions with organizational and thought leaders in the following associations: the Public Library Association (PLA) in March 2014, the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) in April 2014, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) in May 2014, the American Library Association (ALA-PLA session) in June 2014, and with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in September 2014. Through its ongoing meetings and activities with library stakeholders and others, the Dialogue is developing solid relationships that promise to yield new champions for communities strengthened by their public libraries. Dialogue staff also made informal inquiries of many library professionals and practitioner experts during the year-long course of deliberations.

What is the vision behind the report?
The public library as most Americans know it was conceived in an age of information scarcity, while today’s networked world is one of information abundance and mobility. That abundance creates a new kind of scarcity: the ability to gain value from information, to produce new knowledge, to develop skills and then develop new ones when the old information and knowledge become obsolete. The Dialogue believes that public libraries have the DNA needed to thrive in the new information-rich, knowledge-based society. Providing access and connecting knowledge to the needs of individuals and the community have always been at the center of the mission and purpose of libraries.

Today many libraries are already at the center—that place where the information ecology meets the personal and civic information needs—linking individuals to information and learning opportunities; driving development and innovation; and providing connective tissue to communities.

Enabling all libraries to fulfill their new roles will require community leaders, civic partners and librarians to share a common vision for what public libraries can be. To meet the needs of individuals, the community and the nation in the knowledge society, public libraries must be re-envisioned in a networked world, in which the value of networks grows as more connections are made. This suggests a new level of interdependence that communities and libraries must embrace together.

The emerging value proposition of the public library is built around three key assets—people, place and platform—and the ability to scale in a world of knowledge and social networks.

What are the next steps for the report?
The Dialogue concluded that the long-term health of libraries is essential to the long-term health of the communities they serve and identified four strategic opportunities for action to guide their continuing transformation.

1. Changing perceptions of public libraries

2. Providing access to content in all its new formats

3. Ensuring the long-term sustainability of public libraries

4. Cultivating leadership in the Knowledge Society

The Dialogue’s vision report and accompanying resources will be shared with key targeted stakeholders in government, business, the nonprofit sector, media and technology, education and libraries at scheduled events and meetings convened by the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries. The Dialogue will work with key public library organizations to extend this work throughout the library field. The Dialogue will also focus on using the report as a platform to sustain a broader conversation and engaging audiences outside of the library field, particularly policymakers and community leaders.

What is the Communications and Society Program?
The Communications and Society Program is an active venue for framing policies and developing recommendations in the information and communications fields.  As one of over thirty policy programs at the Aspen Institute, the Program provides a multi-disciplinary space where veteran and emerging decision-makers can develop new approaches and suggestions for communications policy.  The Program enables global leaders and experts to explore new concepts, exchange insights, develop meaningful networks, and find personal growth, all for the betterment of society. 

The Program’s projects range across many areas of information, communications and media policy.  Activities focus on issues of open and innovative governance, public diplomacy, institutional innovation, broadband and spectrum management, as well as the future of content, issues of race and diversity, and the free flow of digital goods, services and ideas across borders.

Who leads the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program?
Charles M. Firestone is Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and a Vice President of the Aspen Institute. Since his appointment in December 1989, this program has focused on the impact of new technologies on democratic, economic and social institutions, the development of new communications policy models and options for the public interest, and the implications of communications and information technologies for leadership.  For three years he was also the Institute’s Executive Vice President for Policy Programs and International Activities. 

Prior to his positions with the Aspen Institute, Charles was Director of the Communications Law Program at the University of California at Los Angeles and Adjunct Professor of Law at the UCLA Law School, 1977-90.  He was also the first President of the Los Angeles Board of Telecommunications Commissioners, which advises the Mayor and City Council on all regulatory matters relating to the cable and telecommunications fields. 

Charles’s legal career includes positions as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission, as director of litigation for a Washington, D.C. public interest law firm, and as a communications and entertainment attorney in Los Angeles.  He has argued several landmark communications law cases before the United States Supreme Court and other federal appellate courts. 

Charles holds degrees from Amherst College and Duke University Law School. He resides with his wife, sculptor Pattie Porter Firestone, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.