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CHAPTER 1 - Introduction

The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries and the Houston Public Library (HPL) convened the first city-wide, multi-stakeholder forum on public libraries in Houston, Texas, on November 15-16, 2017. The Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries created an opportunity for open dialogue in which government, nonprofit, and private sector leaders explored the changing role of libraries in response to educational, economic, social, and technological changes taking place in society. These leaders explored how to leverage the strengths of public libraries in collaborative work to build a stronger, healthier, more resilient Houston.

The Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries took on new urgency after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coastline and devastated communities across the city and surrounding counties. The themes of equity, opportunity, and strengthening the capacity of Houstonians to rebound and thrive in the face of changing conditions and challenges provided the focal point for dialogue and recommendations to advance library-community partnerships. The discussions addressed short-term needs for recovery and rebuilding across the city as well as sustainable solutions with a long-view to confronting barriers and constructing pathways to opportunity and success for all Houston residents. The essential question was this: How can stakeholders work together to create an infrastructure that not only changes the equation for the next disaster to strike Houston, but also addresses the elements of an inequitable society that create smaller crises for people every day?

The fifth in a series of Aspen Institute library dialogues across the country, the Houston Dialogue was designed to showcase models through which community leaders working together can leverage the strategic opportunities that public libraries offer as platforms for learning, innovation, and civic engagement. This conference was unique as the only dialogue of the five to take place in partnership with a large urban library system. It provides a model for convening similar conversations in other cities and can serve as a catalyst for a broader conversation on the role of libraries across the nation.

The Houston Dialogue featured an evening reception with opening remarks by City Council Member Amanda Edwards and opening presentations by members of HPL’s staff on the innovative work being done by the Houston Public Library. The event continued on the second day with a mix of moderated roundtable sessions and smaller break-out groups to develop recommendations for moving forward. A luncheon at City Hall featured a video welcome from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

This report summarizes the key insights, issues, and themes discussed at the conference. It concludes with a set of recommendations and steps to move the ideas into action. This report is not intended to be prescriptive; rather, it aims to encourage fresh thinking and further dialogue on the role of public libraries in ensuring that every Houston neighborhood is vibrant, rich in opportunity, and resilient. The goal of this report is to identify models of library innovation and partnerships in Houston that are working well, recommendations to strengthen existing initiatives, and proposals to advance development of new partnerships that tap the expertise of public libraries and their networks.

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