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The time has come for a new vision of public libraries in the United States. Communities need public libraries—more people are visiting them and using their services, materials and programs than ever before—but communities’ needs continue to change.

While the public library was conceived in an age of information scarcity, today’s networked world is one of information abundance and mobility. The spread of powerful digital information and communication technologies has touched every aspect of daily life, creating new opportunities. The Internet has become the critical gateway for accessing information, job opportunities, education, financial and government services, healthcare resources and civic participation. Moreover, these technologies present new opportunities for local and regional entrepreneurs and communities to compete, including at national and international levels—economies of small thriving alongside economies of scale.

But this new world of “information plenty” creates new, essential skills, such as the ability to gain value from information and produce new knowledge. Access to digital networks and digital literacy skills are essential for full participation in modern society. Economic, educational, civic and social opportunities are tied to a whole new set of knowledge and skills that barely existed a generation ago, and people without these skills or access to this information abundance are quickly left behind.

Public libraries can be at the center of these changes: a trusted community resource and an essential platform for learning, creativity and innovation in the community. Public libraries have the DNA needed to thrive in this 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.

In fact, public libraries are already at the forefront of tackling social inequalities by providing access to online information and supporting digital literacy. They provide supportive, creative learning spaces for young people after school. As a key strand in the social safety net, public libraries provide an important lifeline to jobs, educational opportunities, literacy, health resources and government and community services, especially for immigrants and disadvantaged populations. Public libraries are highly trusted institutions rooted in the neighborhoods that they serve. Yet some critics question their continuing relevance in an age when information can flow via digital devices to virtually anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Enabling all public libraries to fulfill their new roles will require community leaders, civic partners and librarians to share a new vision for what libraries 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. Innovations built on the old distributed model of the lending library will not suffice. What is needed is a new level of interdependence that communities and libraries must embrace together.

The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries to help advance the work that public libraries are doing to address community challenges and to support the transformation of communities and their public libraries in the digital age. The Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multi-stakeholder forum that brings together library professionals, policymakers, technology experts, philanthropists, educators and civic leaders to explore, develop and champion new ways of thinking about public libraries.

The Dialogue’s work is informed by a select 35-member working group that met twice in the project’s first year to examine the evolving societal role of the public library, and to shape and advance a perspective that re-envisions U.S. public libraries for the future. The Working Group’s discussions and individual contributions helped shape the perspective on public libraries in the digital age that is presented in this report. We are indebted to them for sharing their vision, knowledge and experience with the Dialogue on Public Libraries.

The Dialogue’s vision is also informed by a series of engagements and focus groups with leaders from key public library associations, including the Public Library Association, the Association of Rural and Small Libraries, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and the American Library Association. We acknowledge and thank these library leaders for their insights and support of the Dialogue’s work.

We hope that this report will support the impactful work that libraries do for their communities and provide a resource for engaging government leaders, trustees and community partners in dialogue to advance concrete actions for transforming public libraries.

The Dialogue and, ultimately, this report explore the essential role of public libraries in a networked world and begin to re-envision the 21st century library in a hyper-connected environment and dramatically changing world. The report is intended 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. While the report’s focus is on public libraries, we acknowledge the importance of school and research libraries in the broader conversations around the future of libraries and communities.

We hope that readers will use this report as the basis for exploring how a bold new vision for public libraries, fully realized, can help to make communities stronger, more resilient and the kind of communities where people thrive.

Deborah L. Jacobs, Director
Global Libraries Program
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Charles M. Firestone, Executive Director
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute

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