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America’s public libraries have changed with the times with remarkable skill and agility over their long history. The nation’s nearly 9,000 public library systems remain highly trusted community anchors where resources are universally available and everyone is welcome. Libraries are stable, reliable, nimble and always there.

While remaining committed to their essential mission of providing access to knowledge and promoting literacy, 21st-century library roles extend far beyond book lending. For example, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged Queens, New York, in October 2012, the Queens Public Library joined the response effort by providing emergency supplies, comfort and referrals, and served as a steady and visible resource to a community in need. Within three days of the storm, the library opened a mobile site near the hardest hit areas of the borough to provide information, referrals and a safe place for storm-weary residents.[12]

Public libraries have continued to evolve both to respond to immediate challenges and to build their capacity to address longterm individual and community needs, opportunities and challenges. The breadth of their work in the communities they serve today is staggering, including lifelong learning opportunities, workforce development, civic engagement, disaster recovery, public health, environmental sustainability and more. Yet in the face of the new realities of the 401(k) world, even public libraries must define their contributions, not just their benefits.

Public libraries are poised for this transformation. “We lament when institutions dig in their heels and embrace the status quo,” says Julia Stasch, then-vice president of U.S. programs for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in an interview for a 2012 special edition of National Civic Review on Public Libraries and Civic Engagement. “In contrast, libraries on the whole are eager to embrace changes in society.”[13]

Libraries’ eagerness to embrace changes in society, while retaining the foundations that have made them trusted, welcoming places for everyone, make them ideal partners in the digital age. In fact, libraries, more than any other institution, have the stature and capacity to make the promise of the knowledge society available to all Americans.

A report by International Data Corporation found that in 2010 the quantity of information transmitted globally exceeded one zettabyte for the first time and is doubling every two years.[14] The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) further identified five trends as particularly important developments that communities and their libraries will have to watch and to which they will have to respond:

NEW TECHNOLOGIES will both expand and limit who has access to information.

ONLINE EDUCATION will democratize and disrupt global learning, but going global and mobile does not mean you have to lose tactile and local.


HYPERCONNECTED SOCIETIES will listen to and empower new voices and groups.

THE GLOBAL INFORMATION ECONOMY will be transformed by new technologies.[15]

These are issues that library leaders, policymakers and the public will need to address as public library models and services evolve in the digital age. The Dialogue’s discussions and conclusions raised these same issues and concluded that a willingness to engage in new thinking around issues such as privacy and data protection, and to develop new approaches to preserving these in the digital age, are needed. Libraries will have to contend with these issues if they hope to be at the center of this transformation, helping individuals, communities and leaders navigate the big shift to a digital society.

While libraries have long played an important role in helping individuals navigate changes— such as offering services and resources to support new immigrants in the community— the digital transformation and its effect on all aspects of life is dramatic, comprehensive and permanent. The pace and complexity of change are likely to increase rather than ebb. As public libraries acquire new roles as platforms for lifelong learning and economic and social development, they likely will need to consider new organizational, governance and business models in response to these pressures and trends.

“The grand theme is that ubiquitous education and learning rises with ubiquitous computing,” notes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project. “Persistent education and learning are the reality as people march through their days with their smartphones and, soon, the Internet of Things embedded everywhere. The library as people, place and platform is the new knowledge institution that can serve all those needs.”

[12] Urban Libraries Council, “2013 Top Innovators,” news release, June 29, 2013,
[13] “Investing in Civic Engagement and Public Libraries: A Roundtable Discussion with Paula Ellis, Deborah Jacobs, and Julia Stasch,” Special issue, National Civic Review, 101, no. 4 (2012): 7.
[14] International Data Corporation, The 2011 Digital Universe Study: Extracting Value from Chaos, Executive summary, 2011,
[15] International Federation of Library Associations, Riding the Waves or Caught in the Tide? Navigating the Evolving Information Environment, Trend Report, 2013,
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