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Expanding access to education, learning opportunities and social connection for all is one of the great challenges of our time. It is a challenge made more urgent by the rapid transition from old industrial and service-based economic models to a new economy in which knowledge and creativity are the drivers of productivity and economic growth, and information, technology and learning are central to economic performance and prosperity. It is not only the economy but all of society that is being reshaped by these trends. Amid these changes, there are troubling divides in wealth, digital inclusion and participation that threaten to widen if we as a nation do not commit to new thinking and aggressive action to provide these opportunities for all.

The digital era has produced remarkable changes in everyday life—for the individual as well as for the community.

  • Social media connect people across town and around the world, enabling new kinds of communities that transcend geographic barriers.
  • Mobile technologies provide always-on connectivity to people and information, and they enable us to enjoy more highly personalized and immediate experiences with information, media, education and commerce.
  • Advances in sensors and related technology are making individuals healthier and our communities even “smarter” while at the same time creating mountains of data to be filtered, analyzed and turned into new knowledge.
  • Informed, engaged citizens demand a stronger voice and greater participation in shaping their communities and increased government transparency and accountability.
  • Entire industries are upended by the sometimes disrupting impact of digital technologies; new markets, new businesses, and new relationships arise from the global to the hyperlocal levels, in some cases affording greater choice in where to live and work.

Among the transformative social changes brought on by digitization are new information and learning environments in which knowledge is no longer stable over many years and skills quickly become obsolete.

These environments are shaped by a vast explosion of easily accessible information and new definitions of community, as well as a need for new resources and skills. The changes and their impacts are dramatic:

  • TECHNOLOGY has made it possible for individuals to have instant access in their homes or on portable devices to the equivalent of the Library of Congress’s entire holdings.[1]
  • COMMUNITIES, once defined almost exclusively by geographic boundaries, are increasingly shaped by social media, often based on mutual interests rather than physical location. Networks, rather than neighborhoods, have become the dominant form of social organization.
  • EMPLOYMENT is increasingly transient, with the average worker staying in a job 4.4 years rather than an entire career. Among workers born between 1979 and 1999, average tenure is 2.2 years or less.[2] Keeping up with a more mobile job marketplace requires access to information and resources and skills to navigate vast amounts of information.

The knowledge economy requires individuals to acquire a range of skills and to continuously adapt those skills to changing circumstances. Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written about the impact that the evolution to a digitally driven economy, with its demand for continual renewal of skills, is having on individuals and communities. Friedman calls it “a 401(k) world—a world of defined contributions, not defined benefits.”[3]

“We have experienced a huge ‘Gutenberg-scale’ inflection point in the last 10 years. The world has gone from connected to hyperconnected and from interconnected to interdependent. This has been such a shift in degree that it has become a shift in kind,” Friedman says in a 2014 interview.[4] Driving this big shift is the emergence and rapid diffusion of four major technologies—personal computing, the Internet, collaborative workflow software and search capabilities (e.g., Google)—which Friedman observes has created “a platform on which more people from more places could compete, connect and collaborate—as individuals or companies—for less money with greater efficiency and greater ease than ever before.”[5]

To a significant degree, the knowledge economy gives birth to the creation economy, a free-agent economy in which opportunities for lifelong learning must be abundant and people need skills as knowledge creators, not simply information consumers.

Importantly, these learning opportunities must be present throughout the community and persistent throughout a lifetime.[6] “Now the half-life of a skill is down to about five years, and genres have a lifetime of four or five years, so most learning in the future won’t go on in schools,” said John Seely Brown, co-director of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, at the first meeting of the Dialogue working group. “We’ve shifted from stable stocks of knowledge and an archived world to a world of information flows, participation and states of confusion. Now we create as fast as we learn. The game is more complicated.”

At the same time that the half-life of a skill is shrinking, information is becoming more abundant and the means of production are becoming more accessible. This opens up new channels for sharing and the distribution of knowledge. A state of information abundance places a premium on the ability to navigate, create and innovate in this new environment. The ability to exploit these means of production and knowledge sharing has become the new “literacy.”[7] In this environment, success will belong to the “entrepreneurial learner,” the person capable of finding resources anywhere and using them to read the world and teach themselves.[8]

The sweeping changes underway pose new and sustained challenges for communities, which are changing as well. Over the next three decades, the U.S. population is expected to grow to more than 400 million, with most of that growth coming from immigration.

By 2050, one in five Americans will be an immigrant, and 30 percent of the population is projected to be Hispanic. The United States is aging, too: By 2050, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65.[9] Concurrent with these demographic changes are fundamental shifts in the economy that change how Americans will learn and earn a living.

In its 2009 report, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy described the digital era as a moment of technological opportunity “unleashing innovation in the creation and distribution of information” and requiring “new thinking and aggressive action.”

The Commission went on to say, “Every advance in communications technology expands the possibilities for American democracy, but every information system also creates potential winners and losers.”[10]

How we seize this moment of opportunity, and the visions and actions that carry us forward into the future, will affect not only the health and prosperity of individuals and families, but the quality of the democratic communities that we nourish and sustain in the 21st century. Will they be thriving, prosperous and sustainable communities that attract new residents? Will they be places where we will want to live?

Approaches to managing the opportunities and risks of this new era can differ widely from community to community, but there are approaches that are emerging as indicators of success. One of these is re-envisioning the role of the public library as a vital learning institution and engine for individual, community and civil society development.

The library, the most democratic of public institutions, is the essential civil society space where this new America will make its democratic character. The library is a core civil society institution, democracy’s “maker space.” In a healthy democracy, civil society is the piece that makes the rest of the democratic machinery possible and workable. Most simply, civil society consists of everything that falls under the rubric of voluntary association, from churches to neighborhood associations, softball leagues to garden clubs.

Civil society performs a number of critical functions: It provides a buffer between the individual and the power of the state and the market, it creates social capital, and it develops democratic values and habits.[11] Civil society is where citizens become citizens. By design and tradition, the public library is the essential civil society institution. Through the provision of space, information and inspiration, it enables all the others.

The institution of the public library is uniquely positioned to provide access, skills, context and trusted platforms for adapting
in this new society.

[1] In 1949, the computing pioneer Claude Shannon estimated that the largest store of information in the world, the collected holdings of the Library of Congress, contained 100 trillion bits of information. Today, as the physicist Freeman Dyson notes, individuals can fit that amount of information on a hard drive that weighs a few pounds and costs less than $1,000. And, he might have added, individuals can also gain access to this amount of information with a click of a mouse or the touch of a finger while surfing the Web. The digital revolution thus has made it possible to put the equivalent of all human knowledge into virtually every home.
[2] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Median Years of Tenure with Current Employer for Employed Wage and Salary Workers by Age and Sex, Selected Years, 2002–2012, September 18, 2012,
[3] Thomas L. Friedman, “It’s a 401(k) World,” New York Times, April 30, 2013,
[4] Nathan Gardels, “Tom Friedman: The 401k Society,” The WorldPost, Huffington Post, January 28, 2104,
[5] Ibid.
[6] S. Craig Watkins, a University of Texas researcher and expert on the use of digital media among young people, especially African American and Hispanic teens, has written about the participation gap in society and the limitations of the benefits of high-speed broadband in communities where populations of residents “located in the social, financial, geographical and educational margins” lack sufficient social capital and social connectivity. On his website, The Young and the Digital, Watkins writes: “Importantly, the vast majority of U.S. workers will never be employed in the high skill, high income jobs that are driving our creative and knowledge economy. According to Monretti, about 10 percent of all of the jobs in the U.S. belong to the innovation sector. He adds that even during its peak, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. never employed more than 30 percent of the U.S. labor force. And while innovation hubs are economic growth engines, it is what Monretti calls the ‘multiplier effect’ that makes them particularly interesting. For every high tech job that is created in an innovation hub another five service-oriented jobs are added. These jobs may range from skilled occupations (lawyers, teachers) to unskilled occupations (hairdressers, waiters).” S. Craig Watkins, “Poorly Educated and Poorly Connected: The Hidden Realities of Innovation Hubs,” The Young and the Digital, May 24, 2013,
[7] These competencies are commonly referred to as digital literacies.
[8] The concept of the “entrepreneurial learner” was introduced by John Seely Brown, cochair of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. See John Seely Brown, “Re-Imagining Learning for a World of Constant Change: The 21st Century Entrepreneurial Learner.” Presentation to first working group meeting of Dialogue on Public Libraries, Aspen Institute, August 4, 2013,
[9] U.S. Census Bureau, “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now,” news release, December 12, 2012,
[10] Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, (Washington, DC, The Aspen Institute, October 2000), 1.
[11] See for example, Don E. Eberly, “The Meaning, Origins and Applications of Civil Society,” in The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays, ed. Don E. Eberly, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); see also John Keane, Civil Society: Old Images, New Vision, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).
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