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Connecting people to the world in a different way is the challenge of the 21st century for public libraries in communities of all sizes. Libraries long ago established their place in the hearts of their communities. Sustaining and broadening that position requires new thinking about what a library is and how it drives opportunity and success in today’s world.

The Dialogue has identified four strategic opportunities for action to guide this continuing transformation:

Dealing with these challenges requires collaboration among library leaders, policy makers at all levels of government—particularly those closest to the library and people it serves—and public and private community partners and stakeholders. The range of partners and stakeholders can and should be broad, to include private sector businesses, local entrepreneurs, authors and publishers, technology experts, nonprofit organizations with shared priorities, journalists, educators, community foundations, library trustees, the public and more. The wider the reach in building partnerships, the greater the impact for libraries and the communities they serve.


Public libraries that align their people, place and platform assets and create services that prioritize and support local community goals will find the greatest opportunities for success in the years ahead. Managers of local governments report that it is often difficult to prioritize libraries over other community services because libraries are not perceived to be unique in their public purpose when compared to other departments, such as museums or parks and recreation, that also serve a distinctly public mission. What libraries need is to be more intentional in the ways that they deploy resources in the community, and more deeply embedded in addressing the critical challenges facing the community. This will require a level of flexibility and adaptability to change as community needs change.

How should libraries go about this work of aligning with community needs? First, by developing relationships with local government and community leaders. Libraries need to be less autonomous and adopt more collaborative approaches to engaging with and building partnerships across the community.

“Think about how libraries fit into the overall strategy of communities, and how libraries can position themselves within the community to thrive,” says Chris Coudriet, county manager in the County of New Hanover, North Carolina. This could include establishing libraries as creative hubs, or seeing the library as a one stop shop for community development.

David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University, observes: “Libraries are going to become more of a one-stop shop for many purposes: a living room, an incubator, the public attic. There are many diverse uses that can benefit the community, but siloes must be bridged. We should think of the future. How do we create a physical and virtual space so that it is adaptable to changes in the future?”

While looking to the future and innovation, libraries must be cautious not to simply chase the next big thing. “It is important to keep the core values of contributing knowledge to the community,” says Robert Kiely, city manager of Lake Forest, Illinois. “The library is a place you don’t know you need but couldn’t live without.”


As the public library expands from a house of books to a platform for learning and participation, its ability to provide access to vast amounts of content in all formats, from traditional print to the latest digital content, is vital. “The participatory organization,” writes Nina Simon in her book, The Participatory Museum, “is a place where visitors can create, share and connect with each other around content.”[39] Libraries face two immediate major challenges in providing access to content in all forms:

  • Being able to procure and share e-books and other digital content on the same basis as physical versions
  • Having affordable, universal broadband technologies that deliver and help create content

Dealing with both challenges have been high priorities for public libraries throughout the country as they strengthen their leadership role in the digital era. The challenges have been particularly acute for small libraries, those in rural communities and those in some urban areas where limited budgets make access to e-books and high-speed broadband difficult despite high community demand for and interest in both.

Ensuring access to e-books, other e-content and broadband is a big concern going forward because it impacts the public library’s ability to fulfill one of its core missions—to procure and share the leading ideas of the day. Access to e-content is complicated by the lack of clarity in copyright law in the digital arena and the inapplicability of the first sale doctrine that governs the purchase and subsequent use of physical books.[40] A national digital platform could help. “The emergence of DPLA and more focus on a national digital library platform can have significant and positive results to increase free public access to information in the Internet age. The way we address barriers to free use, copyright, e-book issues, etc., will have great impact on our capacity to support an ‘educated informed citizenry’ and shape library services of the future,” writes Mamie Bittner of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Stakeholders must work together to find solutions that work for content creators, publishers and the public.

There are many ways in which libraries individually or collectively can partner with publishers large and small. One option is to consider a “buy-it-now” option, which exists on some integrated library systems (ILS) for managing content, where patrons could buy a book not currently available at the library and have the option to donate it back to the library when done so that others can get it.

This brings revenue, helps the mission and celebrates the book. Libraries split the revenue and it brings value to the publishers too. Such a proposal returns the public library back to the origins of the sharing library. Take that imperative and the library’s digital public space, and this sets a common set of values on which a platform can be built.

On the broadband front, efforts to reform the federal E-rate program, which provides funds to libraries and schools to support Internet connections, presents an opportunity for addressing this critical need. “E-rate’s structure should reflect the fact that libraries have become the number one source for public Internet access in the country, particularly for adults who do not have home computers or lack high-speed Internet connectivity,” says Reed Hundt, who oversaw the creation of the E-rate program as chairman of the FCC from 1993 to 1997.

Internally, many libraries need massive upgrades of Wi-Fi connectivity to meet the burgeoning demand of “bring-your-own-device” connectivity. City library systems have many more users per year than rural, town or suburban libraries, and thus have different costs to cover, but all libraries need the same outcomes: high speed broadband that meets the needs of every library user and is not dependent on one’s zip code.[41]

The clear need is for high capacity, easily scalable broadband in every public library. Specific target speeds are subject to ongoing debate, as the actual needs of individual communities may vary considerably. However, the nation’s major public library associations have called for one gigabit connectivity to schools and libraries, writing in support of “advancing President Obama’s goal of connecting our students and their communities to the one gigabit speeds we know are necessary for many libraries today and for the remaining libraries tomorrow.”[42] High capacity connectivity will be necessary, especially in high-use public libraries, to support peak platform uses including new learning, creative and collaborative uses and higher bandwidth applications like video.

Collaboration among libraries, content creators, publishers, government officials/policy makers and community leaders is vital to overcoming these challenges. Together, they must address questions surrounding the library’s role in (a) nurturing and sustaining vibrant cultural ecosystems, (b) learning and reading in a radically changing environment and (c) an evolving content ecosystem.


Perhaps the greatest challenge facing public libraries today is to transform their service model to meet the demands of the knowledge society while securing a sustainable funding base for the future.[43] With limited and sometimes volatile funding, however, such transformations will be uneven and incomplete. In addition, the highly local nature of public library funding and governance structures may interfere with both rapid and broad scale progress—the kind of scale needed to compete and thrive in a world of global networks. Challenges that shape the discussion about long-term public library sustainability, given their vital role in the digital era, include:

  • Identifying reliable sources of revenue for daily operations as well as long-term planning and investment
  • Exploring alternative governance structures and business models that maximize efficient and sustainable library operations and customer service
  • Becoming more skilled at measuring outcomes rather than counting activities
  • Balancing the local and national library value proposition to consider economies of scale in a networked world without compromising local control

FUNDING. Public libraries have long relied on local funding sources. According to a recent IMLS public library survey, nearly 85 percent of all public library operating revenue comes from local sources, including general revenue funds, dedicated property taxes, voter-approved taxes and a portion of sales taxes. Nationally, libraries receive about 7.5 percent of their annual revenue from states and only one-half of one percent from the federal government. Other sources accounted for just over 7 percent.[44] In some cases, notably in small cities and rural areas, libraries struggle to keep up because of extremely limited and unpredictable funding.

“A lot of elected officials who make decisions on funding haven’t been in a library in years. There is a need to get these officials in the [library] building to understand how libraries function now. Getting people invested will educate them and open their eyes to the importance of libraries,” says Amy Paul, corporate vice president of Management Partners, a consulting firm that works with local governments to improve their operations.

Sustainable funding means more than an annual operating budget to carry out the library’s mission and deliver services annually. It also means providing a foundation for the long-term planning needed to continue to offer leading-edge learning opportunities, develop and maintain expertise, keep pace with changes in the knowledge and creative economies and invest in the future. Library funding should be commensurate with the essential nature of the services provided by the public library as a vitally important civic and educational institution.

Further complicating the library funding situation is the increase in government mandates that have affected expectations of public libraries in supporting e-government services. There has been a noticeable shift in what this requires of libraries—moving from simply providing government forms to providing computers and training to access and navigate. Very often, libraries must deliver services to meet these growing demands without any additional funding to cover the costs.[45] Without additional funding to support the new requests for services, the library’s staff and resources will be stretched too thin.

Moving toward financial sustainability requires a willingness to explore new avenues for funding, including opening up discussions about endowing public libraries in ways similar to other educational and cultural institutions. Libraries themselves must look at alternatives to traditional funding models, such as revenue or resource sharing, which require new or different skills that some libraries currently do not have.

GOVERNANCE STRUCTURES. Closely related to funding are library organization and governance structures. Library governance structures vary widely. For example, some libraries are part of a county or municipal government, others function as a special district or operate under joint powers authority agreements among participating jurisdictions. A few libraries are 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations.[46] A comprehensive, up-to-date mapping of library governance and funding models is needed as a starting point for a national discussion about long-term public library sustainability. That conversation could examine what the most effective models are for long-term sustainability and advocate for those models. For example, Pam Sandlian-Smith, CEO of Anythink Libraries in Colorado, commented on the transition of her library system from county funding to a special taxing district model: “Special taxing districts are effective for longer-term planning and transformation. They provide certainty and are less open to political changes.”

BUSINESS MODELS. Even if public libraries had all the money in the world, they would still need to change the way they do business in the digital era. This includes developing new organizational and business models and considering new frameworks for funding. New business models should be based on the library’s intellectual, space and data assets—its people, place and platform assets. There are two sides to a business model: cost savings and new revenue sources, or profit centers. While government should continue to be the primary funder of public libraries, there is room for libraries to explore new revenue streams, new partnerships that can yield new revenues and a modern business plan. Suggestions for new thinking include outcome-based funding models and libraries formed around enterprises.

MEASURING OUTCOMES. For a long time, the impact of the public library has been measured by what the library could count—patrons who walked through the doors, books and other materials checked out, the number of people in seats at training classes or other programs. But the measurements that matter most—to government officials, foundations, donors, and community stakeholders—are outcomes that report how the library is helping to achieve community goals and objectives. This will require libraries to think differently about data and to assess, on a broad scale, the outcomes they achieve and the impact they make on the lives of individuals and the community.[47]

BALANCING LOCAL, STATE AND NATIONAL INTERESTS. In a networked world, libraries must become more skilled at balancing local interests with a national value proposition based around the library as platform that, in some cases, could lead to consolidated operations. Finding the places where there is statewide, regional or national interest, scope and scale can increase library efficiency and impact.

For example, IMLS has developed a national value proposition around the areas that it has funded—including early learning, lifelong learning, citizenship, public health and jobs—that taps federal resources for use at the local level. At the state level, state funding can alleviate financial and other pressures that can allow the local library extra breathing room to focus on redesign and transformation. For local libraries the question is how do they differentiate locally, prioritize and align the library’s services with the needs of
the community.

PARTNERSHIPS AND COLLABORATION. Libraries and their communities increasingly need to work together to pioneer new models of collaboration and decision making. They must embrace a new level of interdependence and align goals. This includes collaboration among libraries and partnerships with other stakeholders in government, community service, foundations, the private sector and members of the public. As library collections shift to include more e-content drawn from different sources in the community or nationally, collaborations will make even more sense. This could have a considerable impact on funding and sustainability, especially if partnerships leverage content that is then not subject to duplicative purchases. Libraries can build on experience with prior collaborations and consortia.


Leadership is needed at the local, state and national levels—from elected officials, government administrative and political staff, business and civic leaders, and libraries themselves—to build communities and public libraries that thrive and succeed together. Vision is a critical component of leadership, and every community needs a vision and a strategic plan that includes a blueprint for how to work with the public library to directly align the library and its work with the community’s educational, economic and other key goals. It must have input from all stakeholder groups in the community.

Key steps in building community leadership to support the public library include improving communications with community leaders, developing community champions, strengthening intersections with diverse communities and communities of color, reaching out and engaging with young-professional organizations and demonstrating the collective impact of partners working together.

Librarians in many places are recognized as community leaders, but their experience has been in fielding problems as they walk in the door, not in going out into their communities trying to identify or solve community needs. That will not work anymore. “We can’t just be providing space,” says John Szabo, director of the Los Angeles Public Library. “We are a learning institution, not just an access institution.”

Librarians must go beyond the walls of the library and into the community, to engage different stakeholders groups and explore how to provide library services that are untethered from the library building itself. It is important to identify and cultivate champions in the private sector, especially those that can leverage philanthropic action to support the library and help to showcase the library as a community asset.

Communication is another key component of leadership. Despite the enormous public confidence libraries enjoy, they are often not included in strategic conversations with civic leaders. The problem, says Susan Benton, president of the Urban Libraries Council, “is that civic engagement is so organic to what librarians do that they don’t think to explain it.” The profound effect that libraries are having on individuals and communities throughout society is not a story that is being told. Communication as a means to drive patronage is not enough.

Library boards, trustees, foundations and friends groups can be called on to support the re-envisioned library and activate their constituents when library budgets are on the chopping block. Library champions are especially needed at the state and national levels. Having champions in the business, government and nonprofit communities can open new opportunities for libraries as they increase their community impact. Those who donate money, equipment, technical expertise and other resources to public libraries ought to take a more visible role in communicating the value of engagement with the library and the benefits that accrue to the entire community. And these stakeholders are vital for forming a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that can thrive with the help of the public library.

The changing demographics in the United States show the rising clout of communities of color. In some locations, public libraries have not been as effective as they could be in engaging and reaching out to minority communities.48 To deal with this challenge, libraries increasingly are going out into the neighborhoods they serve to understand and address the unique needs and concerns of every constituency. Library staffs and boards need to reflect the communities that they serve. Empowering all members of the community is also a function of leadership.

Partnerships allow communities to leverage many of the resources in the community for greater impact and benefit. The library often plays a key role as a connector in forming relationships across the community. Systemic rather than ad-hoc partnerships are important for nurturing and growing relationships and for building network connections. Partnerships that start from the center of the library system and reach out to as many neighborhoods, communities, and branches as possible are also particularly desirable and productive.

For example, Nashville, Tennessee, is home to a diverse set of ethnic communities, including Kurdish, Somalian and Latino populations. When the city wanted to connect with these new populations to encourage local involvement and citizenship, public libraries became the connectors between the community-based organizations (CBOs) and these new residents. “If you want to reach out and help new Americans and citizenship in your city, there are lots of organizations who want to do the work, but libraries become the connectors between the CBO and citizens,” Nashville Mayor Karl Dean told the Dialogue.

As the breadth of the library’s role and impact in the community continues to evolve, leadership and professional development will be crucial to continued success in the digital era. Library leaders will need to design transformative change and become experts in their communities. They will also need to invest in developing their staff in ways that may be very different from what they learned in school or have done in the past. Libraries will need fewer staff to put books on shelves and a lot more staff to be educators. Library training and professional programs will have to change. People with new and diverse skills will be hired.

Key leadership challenges for the library profession in general and individual library directors include:

  • TAKING ADVANTAGE OF DIGITAL TOOLS to share resources, create new channels for information about what works and diffuse innovation more rapidly and effectively
  • BUILDING THE CAPACITY OF THE LIBRARY FIELD to develop new business models and experiment, which may include looking outside the United States to library innovators around the world
  • BUILDING CAPACITY to meet the evolving demands and needs of new educational models and opportunities
  • GIVING GREATER THOUGHT AND ATTENTION TO SUCCESSION PLANNING to develop bench strength and focus on the skills that will be needed for the library of the future
  • INCLUDING TRUSTEES AND FRIENDS GROUPS in leadership development activities as part of a broader effort to engage and create library champions and advocates at every level
  • DEVELOPING PLANS AND STRATEGIES for keeping pace with disruptive changes in the environment and establishing multiple channels for sharing information widely about changes, successes, opportunities and leadership needs

[39] Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, Santa Cruz, CA: Museum, 2010.
[40] For a comprehensive review of the latest developments in e-books, copyright and the evolution of e-content licensing regimes, see American Library Association, State of America’s Libraries Report 2014,
[41] For an analysis of how proposed reimbursement systems to support library WiFi access could differentially affect rural, town, suburban, and city libraries, see Vinod Bakthavachalam, “Investigation of Optimal Reimbursement Policy for Wifi Service by Public Libraries,” (August 28, 2014),
[42] Urban Libraries Council, et al. Letter to Federal Communications Commission. July 7, 2014,
[43] This challenge is not unique to U.S. public libraries. See Vivienne Waller and Ian McShane, “Analysing the challenges for large public libraries in the Twenty-first century: A case study of the State Library of Victoria in Australia,” First Monday, volume 13, number 12, Dec. 1, 2008. Available online at
[44] Institute of Museum and Library Services, “Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011: Supplementary Tables,”
[45] Lauren H. Mandel, et al. “Costs of and Benefits Resulting from Public Library E-Government Service Provision: Findings and Future Directions from an Exploratory Study. First Monday 18 no. 12, December 2, 2013,
[46] For an example of the diverse library ecology in one state, see California Public Library Organization, 2007, This report, prepared by the California State Library, demonstrates the disparities in library funding based on governance and funding structures.
[47] Impact assessment tools like the EDGE benchmarks ( help public libraries plan the growth and development of their technology and public access computing resources and demonstrate the impact these are having in the community. Other resources available nationally for public libraries to improve their data collection and analytics include the University of Washington School of Information’s U.S. Impact Study,; the Digital Inclusion Survey, a partnership among the American Library Association, the University of Maryland’s Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) with funding from IMLS,; and WebbMedia’s Key Performance Toolkit for Libraries,
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