Informed and Engaged Communities: The Critical Impact of Libraries on Civic Life
At the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we work to promote informed and engaged communities in a variety of sectors, including journalism, technology, and the arts. I work directly in 18 of the 26 Knight communities, places where I see the critical impact libraries can have on civic life. This means I get to work with libraries of all shapes and sizes across the country. I learned a lot this past year, and here are some of the trends I am seeing:
1) Where Democracy Thrives – Libraries sit at the intersection of everything important to a functioning democracy. At Knight, we are seeing many libraries embrace and experiment with this. One of my favorite examples last year was in Milledgeville, Georgia, where the public library was a winner for the Knight Cities Challenge. They were funded to start a Democracy Lab, a space that would host events to bring residents and the government together to co-create solutions for their community. The goal was simple: to break down barriers between residents and the decision-makers in the community. This of course is critical for a healthy, functioning democracy. And what better place to do that than in a library?
2) A Safe Space for All – This is not a new notion for libraries; it’s an essential component of what they are. After multiple police shootings and civil unrest across the country last year, we funded the Columbia Public Library in South Carolina to lead conversations on race and equity across community branches. In Aberdeen, South Dakota, the public library is a finalist for the Knight Cities Challenge this year, with an idea to be a “one-stop” information and assistance center for immigrants and new Americans. Now more than ever, libraries have the opportunity to play a leadership role in being a neutral, safe place for all community members.
3) Emphasis on the Outside – Increasingly, we are seeing libraries experiment more with the built realm outside of the library. For example, we have awarded small amounts to enhance public seating to create more social mixing. One of my favorite examples from 2016 was in Lexington, Kentucky, a Knight Cities Challenge winner, where the downtown library is working to activate the park right outside its doors. Like many downtown libraries, it struggles with crime, drugs and loitering, which create an unwelcoming environment. The project, Phoenix Forward, will activate the park space to make it a welcoming space for all. The insights the Lexington Public Library develops during this process could be valuable for downtown libraries across the country.
4) Location, Location, Location! There’s no doubt, location matters. And as a wave of central libraries are being retired and new buildings are replacing them, the debate about where the new library should go can become intense. For example, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the community is designing a new library, but the location of the library – the only one in Grand Forks – is still up in the air. The stakes are high, and residents and civic leaders want to make sure the one and only library is in the right location. Questions that come up include accessibility: Should the library prioritize a location with ample parking or better walkability? When we were asked for support in making these decisions, we realized there was a dearth of research around libraries and location – an opportunity for the field as more libraries tackle these issues.
I look forward to continue to partner with libraries across the country. We will continue to experiment with them on the best ways to inform and engage communities, to listen to their needs and ideas—and to share what we learn with cities everywhere looking for the best ways to make the most of these civic assets.
Community Foundations Program Director
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation