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Dialogue on Public Libraries - Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Dialogue on Public Libraries?
The Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multi-stakeholder forum to explore and champion new thinking on public libraries with the goal of fostering new practices and partnerships that transform libraries and their communities. The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program created the Dialogue on Public Libraries in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013. The Dialogue creates unique opportunities for community leaders, innovators and institutional partners to collaborate on developing next generation initiatives for communities and libraries across the country.

Are libraries still relevant?
Public libraries, like other societal institutions, are at a crossroads. The digital age is making libraries more important to education, the economy and civic life in American communities. Public libraries become more relevant as people seek continuous learning opportunities, new technological and digital skills, and places to connect with other members of the community. All types of people use libraries for a wide range of services and they are one of the most trusted institutions in society. In short, people love their libraries. Yet despite these benefits, libraries face ongoing challenges including an array of agendas and the need to adapt in an increasingly diverse, mobile and digital society.

The ways in which information is obtained, consumed, shared and secured have evolved over time, but libraries have continued to adapt to these new modes of information access and deploy resources in strategic ways to capture new opportunities to serve their communities. Libraries can be platforms for learning, creation and innovation, but they must have engagement with and support of others who are invested in the changing civic and educational ecosystems that drive the mission of public libraries.

What is the Dialogue’s vision for public libraries?
The project has led a national dialogue on the vision of public libraries of the future and has activated a broader network of library champions among public and private sector stakeholders. This vision focuses on three critical assets that libraries bring to the community: people, place and platform—the library as a place that empowers people to learn and builds the human capital of the community, and as a local, neutral democratic institution that helps to build the social capital and infrastructure of the community. The library as platform moves us into the future in ways that the local library can use information and network technologies to connect to resources throughout the world and allow patrons to become creators and innovators, too. This vision is explained in Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries, and furthered by an Action Guide being used in many communities around the country. 

Where does the Dialogue meet?
The activities and locations of the Dialogue’s work vary from year to year and include national, state and local conferences and convenings. In recent years, the Dialogue has convened a series of state and local forums around the country, with work in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas and Texas that has focused on the alignment of public libraries with the shared goals and priorities of other sectors and stakeholders in the community.

What are the Model Dialogues?
The Aspen Institute convened a series of community and regional dialogues to address the strategic opportunities presented by public libraries and their changing roles in communities and the nation. Each public dialogue tested and developed models for engaging state and local leaders and community partners to advance new thinking about the role of public libraries. The models have served as a catalyst for other communities and libraries interested in adopting the Aspen Institute Dialogue’s approach to engagement. Model Dialogue communities include:

  • Winter Park, Florida, suburban village, population 29,000
  • Sutter County, California, rural county, population 90,000
  • Houston, Texas, large urban city, population 2.3 million
  • Connecticut, New England state, population 3.5 million
  • Colorado, western state, population 5.6 million

Who funds the Dialogue on Public Libraries?
The Dialogue on Public Libraries is funded by grants from national foundations and state libraries, with partner libraries sharing in the cost of producing individual dialogue events through in-kind and other contributions. The Aspen Institute has previously received funding for the project from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and the California State Library through funds provided by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Who participates?
The Dialogue’s conferences include institutional, organizational and civic leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors representing diverse expertise, perspectives and communities. For local and state dialogues, the majority of participants live and work in the community or state with additional experts and resource participants drawn from other regions to bring different perspectives and experiences to the conversation. Participants have included:

  • State and local elected officials, including mayors, county elected officials, governors and state representatives
  • City and county managers
  • Government agency leaders, especially those with missions aligned with libraries such as literacy and education, children and families, health and wellness, economic development, jobs and workforce development, arts and culture, and technology
  • Education at all levels, pre-K through higher education
  • Business, chamber of commerce and entrepreneurs
  • Technology experts
  • Philanthropies and foundations
  • Community-based service organizations
  • Religious and ethnic community representatives
  • Creative professionals, local arts and culture organizations
  • Local and regional media
  • Youth serving organizations
  • Environmental organizations
  • Librarians

What is the impact of the Dialogue’s work?
The Dialogue’s work has impacted important decisions at the federal as well as state and local levels. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, a member of the original Dialogue working group, cited the Dialogue’s role in advancing reform efforts that resulted in a tripling of federal dollars (to over $1 billion over five years) available to libraries under the federal e-rate program that supports free, robust, high-speed broadband connectivity in public libraries.

The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries has become a recognized leader in the library field through the reach and success of the Rising to the Challenge vision report and the companion Action Guide. The Action Guide has been downloaded more than 3,400 times and is in use in over 40 countries since the release of the first edition in January 2016 (version 2.0 was released in July 2017). The Dialogue has hosted webinars for a range of government and academic organizations including ICMA (the International City/County Management Association) and the California State Library, and its resources are used by a growing community of practice across the country.

In addition to a nationwide community of practice, the Dialogue has convened a series of state and local forums that have led to the creation of new strategies and plans, new partnerships and networks, and new initiatives focused on equity and opportunity. Initiatives include early childhood and family learning (including library-based pre-K classes), workforce and economic development, community wellness and nutrition, civic participation and citizenship, arts and culture, and the creation of a new innovation center.