Palo Alto Dialogue: Building Social Capital Through Libraries and Community Services

Posted by Amy Garmer on December 06, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Palo Alto is a city at the epicenter of technological innovation, located in the heart of Silicon Valley. With strong educational values, a rich cultural history and exceptional community assets, the city is often envied for its good fortune. Yet Palo Alto is not immune to the struggles experienced in countless other communities dealing with the pressures of accelerating change in social, economic and institutional structures and the complex needs of individuals and diverse populations.

On September 13, 2018, the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries in partnership with the Palo Alto City Library and the city’s Department of Community Services brought together 26 leaders from the civic, business, health, education, and government sectors to explore innovative approaches to meeting these challenges by leveraging the strengths of Palo Alto’s libraries, Community Services Department and other community partners.

We are pleased to announce the publication of Bridging Capital: New Directions for Learning, Innovation and Community, a report of the Palo Alto Dialogue on Libraries and Community Services. The report captures insights from conversations focused on developing strategic collaborations to address priorities in lifelong learning, citizenship and civic engagement, and community health and wellness.

This report will be presented to the Palo Alto City Council and the Library Advisory Commission as part of their respective meeting agendas on December 17, 2018. The report is available at the website under Resources and on the City of Palo Alto's website at

While technological innovation is central to Palo Alto’s culture, Bridging Capital: New Directions for Learning, Innovation and Community highlights other forms of innovation that can be applied to generate a broader sense of collaboration and creative thinking around community services. Key insights and recommendations from the report include:

  • More creative and frequent collaborations can unlock greater alignment in pursuit of learning, engagement and community wellness goals. For example, a rotating desk inside libraries for nonprofits to engage visitors can increase awareness for available programs and services, including health and wellness information. 
  • To realize a vision where lifelong learning is supported, encouraged and available to all, create a “Lifelong Learning Card” through partnerships among libraries, the city, local businesses, schools and nonprofits. Lifelong learning credits could be redeemed for skill-building workshops or classes.
  • Defining success for young people in Palo Alto should begin with physical and mental health--not wealth--anchoring a new definition. Efforts to do so can build upon the work of Project Safety Net, an organization that fosters youth health and wellness in Palo Alto.
  • Ensuring a balanced and open civic leadership is an important element in reversing a decline in the sense of well-being and belonging that is reflected in a recent National Citizen Survey. The report recommends hosting a series of Civic Bootcamps to invite, train and empower new members of the community to step forward and become involved.
  • There is a need to develop literacies in both academic and social environments. Libraries and community services can provide opportunities to do this by leveraging the library’s unique role as a neutral and trusted source for navigating information and a platform for new experiences. This is particularly important when providing equitable access to accurate health information, especially for vulnerable populations.

The Palo Alto Dialogue on Libraries and Community Services was one in a series of Aspen Institute dialogues across California in 2018 that were designed to spark new thinking and action to transform libraries for the 21st century. These Dialogues were made possible by the California State Library through funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of The Library Services and Technology Act.

To learn more about the issues and opportunities discussed in Palo Alto, and to see a complete list of participants in the Palo Alto Dialogue, download and read the report.


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