Pages tagged "Community Engagement"

Where the Edge and the Center Meet — Driving Innovation in New York City’s Public Libraries

Over a century ago, Andrew Carnegie endowed the City of New York with an extraordinary and everlasting gift—the construction of 100 neighborhood public libraries across all five of the City’s boroughs. There are now 207 branches, serving over 40.5 million visitors annually—more people than all the City’s cultural institutions and sports arenas combined!

Much like the growth experienced during Carnegie’s time, New York has again become a magnet and adopted home for millions of ‘strivers’—immigrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, young families attracted to the city’s opportunities and vibrancy, and older residents who want to remain active members of community life. In a city undergoing unprecedented population growth with rapidly transitioning neighborhoods, newcomers and old timers alike look to their neighborhood libraries as centers of community life and front-line library staff as among the most trusted community resources.

For a 21st century New York City, with 41% of its population foreign born, 2.9 million residents without high speed internet access at home and an increasingly competitive knowledge economy, neighborhood libraries are the ideal ‘labs’ for innovation and experimentation to meet 21st Century needs. Neighborhood libraries are well-positioned to serve residents who are longing to connect to community life through cradle-to-grave lifelong learning and through social, cultural, intellectual and multi-generational activities.

Who better to serve as change agents than the front line library staff? These dedicated individuals interact with New Yorkers every day and, through these interactions, are acutely sensitive to local needs. Design expert Michelle Ha Tucker, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s August 2015 Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, advised: “Think big-act small. Change happens by empowering people at the front-line level, and then creating lots of small experiments that eventually bubble up to a large scale movement”.

Among the key challenges in library innovation is this: How to empower, both financially and administratively, these local change agents and move the breakthroughs that occur at the edges into the whole organization. Over the past year, the Charles H. Revson Foundation has funded the New York Public Library’s Ideas Fund and the Brooklyn Public Library’s BKLN Incubator to drive innovation at the branch level while connecting these efforts to making change across the entire system.

New York Public Library Ideas Fund

In 2015, NYPL established the Ideas Fund to encourage staff driven innovation. The Ideas Fund is managed by a team of fourteen staff drawn from all levels of the organization. This management team, known as the Innovation Project Committee, received 127 exciting ideas in just one week.

Twenty-seven ideas were chosen for funding support in the initial round, including such pioneering programs as STEM workshops for special needs students, an LGBT+ film and discussion series for teens, guided walking tours of the Bronx, staging outdoor classrooms and circulating hardware. Three projects were selected for expansion to additional branches. These include local newspaper digitization, investigation of a tri-library museum pass program, and program enhancements to NYPL’s Family Literacy Centers.

This year the Ideas Fund has funded 32 new projects including a job search support program for the long-term unemployed, improvements in library accessibility and patron inclusion, and the creation of a mobile library.

Through the Ideas Fund website, Project Committee members are exposed to creative ideas from colleagues across the institution, and the site’s interactive forum remains active to promote communication and collaboration among staff across the whole system. In subsequent grant-making rounds, Committee members are regularly rotated and include former awardees to ensure that institutional change is ongoing. Successful ideas are scaled and replicated at additional NYPL branches.

Brooklyn Public Library BKLN Incubator

Building on our 2013 grant establishing Brooklyn Public Library’s Department of Outreach Services, which has successfully forged meaningful partnerships with community based organizations and city agencies to expand and enhance program services, Revson has most recently awarded a grant to BPL to expand its BKLN Incubator.

Piloted through an IMLS Sparks! Innovation Grant, the BKLN Incubator seeks to create a grant fund and support system that would encourage innovative practices at the branch level; to establish a mechanism for generating, testing and sharing program ideas; and to provide staff with professional development opportunities. The first call for submissions last November resulted in the submission of 30 ideas, representing the collaborative efforts of 51 staff members from 19 branches and 31 outside partners.

With Revson’s support, BPL is developing a much deeper and more rigorous set of training modules and research-and-development support for winning ideas, using outside consultants with expertise in community engagement, program development, service design and related fields. In the lead-up to the competition for funding, all interested staff will be introduced to basic skills in program design, budgeting and tools to help them create strong proposals and partnerships. A review committee composed of BPL staff will select between 5-8 winning projects, each receiving between $2,500 and $10,000. Specialized consultants will work with the winning teams to refine their projects, develop prototypes and measure results. BPL will also recruit and match staff mentors from across the system to support the teams.

The NYPL and BPL innovation funds are working creatively to address the innovation challenge. As stipulated at the Aspen Institute Roundtable last summer, “Libraries must foster a culture of innovation and look to ways to foster new thinking and experimentation at the edges of institutions and connect them with the center…. Innovation must become part of the library DNA.” The Revson Foundation is proud to partner with public libraries in the City to help re-imagine New York’s branch libraries and meet the innovation challenge of the 21st century.

Julie Sandorf


The Charles H. Revson Foundation




Libraries are Bridging the Digital Divide in Cities

Digital literacy is no longer a choice; access to high-speed Internet is essential for Americans to do everything from finding a job to applying for college to gaining health care coverage. Yet according to a recent analysis by Pew Research, 5 million households with school-aged children still do not have access to high-speed broadband at home.

Cities understand the vital importance of providing broadband access to our residents in our libraries. For many low-income households—a disproportionate number of which are black and Hispanic—libraries provide the only source of access to computers and the Internet. To bridge the digital divide, libraries are often the only provider offering free and equitable access to all the tools and resources that the Internet provides.

Broadband access has never been more important for our residents. Cities are embracing civic innovation more than ever before. Open data platforms are making information from city governments more accessible and useful. The private sector is embracing civic technology and we are seeing new apps that can do everything from connecting users to public health services to improving 911 response.

Our future depends on making sure that the children in those 5 million households won’t be left behind as urban spaces evolve into cities of the future. Libraries have always been keepers and curators of the world’s knowledge, and today are utilizing technology to democratize access to information in ways that were unthinkable even two decades ago. As libraries align their offerings in service to these goals, cities must continue to support and nurture their libraries to ensure that all of their residents have the same opportunities to succeed in a digital world.

Clarence E. Anthony

Executive Director

The National League of Cities


The Library as the Central Institution of the Knowledge Economy

Americans live in an economy in which an increasing number of us make a living based on the knowledge we have and we offer to others. One estimate, almost ten years ago, noted that only 40 percent of jobs had no significant knowledge tasks. With increased automation of those jobs, the percentage of people in the knowledge economy is only increasing. Newspapers have reported the many almost desperate ways that people are trying to learn. But most adults are overwhelmed and frustrated in this effort.

The library is the most cost-effective widely available institution that can help individuals keep up their skills and knowledge. During the age of mass publishing of printed books in the 19th century, librarians took on the responsibility of curating and organizing the collections of books people needed. In this century, librarians can do the same for the digital materials that people need to prosper in the knowledge economy.

Because there is so much knowledge now, this is a big task for any single reference librarian. However, almost all libraries and librarians are now connected through the Internet, which allow them to network with other libraries. This means that each librarian can develop a specialty in a subject and then be available nationwide as the go-to reference librarians on that topic. It may be something as local as the history of their library’s city or as general as Greek pottery or chemical engineering. In this collaboration, all libraries will end up being able to provide much greater and richer knowledge to their local patrons, without an increase in budget. Just imagine the impact of the 70,000+ American librarians and 150,000+ other library staff working together!

The Aspen Institute’s report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, envisions the aforementioned dynamic as a national digital platform. This can come to life in many ways, one of which has great economic significance.


Dr. Norman Jacknis

President, Metropolitan New York Library Council

Senior Fellow, the Intelligent Community Forum

Aligning Library Services in Support of Community Goals

I believe that the future relevance and success of the public library is dependent upon the library’s deep knowledge and commitment to community growth and success.  Although many libraries have had stated commitments to community priorities, I do not think that we have been disciplined or strategic in effectively deploying the library’s assets to support those priorities. The Aspen Institute’s report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, provides a framework for integrating this deep community insight into the ongoing program of the library. 

The report provides a discussion framework to identify ways communities can leverage investments in their libraries – essential public institutions – to forge new partnerships and build stronger communities, including four strategies for success.  Aligning library services in support of community goals is possibly the most important strategy for success. Public libraries that align their services to support local community goals will find the greatest opportunities for success in the years ahead. This will require a level of flexibility and adaptability to change as community needs change. It will also require collaboration among libraries, policy makers, and community partners to redefine the role of libraries as institutions that inspire learning, drive development, grow social capital, and create opportunities.

Enabling all libraries to fulfill their new roles will require library leaders, policy makers, and community stakeholders to re-envision the public library and take advantage of the opportunities it offers. I would encourage library staff, trustees, community supporters and policymakers to work together. Leadership is needed across the community, from elected officials, government leadership 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 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. The library must have input from all stakeholder groups in the community. The report can provide the framework for critical conversations that will create the commitment to embed our libraries in our communities. That action will ensure both the well-being of the community and the library.

Susan Hildreth


Aspen Institute

On Open Doors, Community and Public Libraries

In mid-August 2014, Scott Bonner performed an ordinary yet remarkable act: Bonner opened the doors of the public library and invited members of the community to come inside.  This was an ordinary act because librarians have been performing this simple gesture of welcome and inclusion for as long as there have been public libraries. It is what they do.

But it was also a remarkable act because Bonner is the director of the public library in Ferguson, Missouri, and August 2014 was no ordinary time in a town beset by civil unrest in the wake of a police shooting. With this simple gesture, Bonner and his colleagues let the community and the nation know that Ferguson’s public library exists to serve and support the community; that the library can be, and often is, the center of community, a place like no other for learning, engagement and meeting the needs of the community. It is who they are.

Libraries of all kinds and their communities are facing a variety of challenges, from significant changes in populations and local economies to advances in digital technologies. This requires new thinking, relationships and actions informed by ongoing dialogue about the role of the library in the community. While the library’s mission to welcome and serve all members of the public and to provide access to knowledge, learning and civic engagement is not changing, the ways that libraries go about fulfilling this mission is changing and will continue to do so.

In the report Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries put forth a renewed vision of the public library built upon its three critical assets of people, place and platform. It also calls upon community leaders from all sectors to work with their libraries to align library programs and services with community priorities, to provide access to content in all formats, to ensure the sustainability of libraries and to cultivate leadership in libraries and the community.

Today, the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries is pleased to release the Action Guide for Re-Envisioning your Public Library, a set of resources to help library and community leaders use the Rising to the Challenge report to prepare for and convene an ongoing community dialogue and to take action to re-envision their own public library. The Action Guide has been field-tested by 23 public libraries during a pilot phase in Fall 2015.

The Aspen Institute Dialogue is launching a new website,, as a companion resource to the action guide. We welcome you to visit the site and invite you to explore and join the Library Vision community (MLS not required!). Community members have access to the Action Guide, a variety of additional resources including insightful articles, PowerPoint slides, short videos, success stories from libraries across the country and first notice of upcoming webinars and events, as well as access to additional resources developed going forward.

Most importantly, members can engage with a community of library innovators and practitioners across the country who are leading efforts to work with civic partners to transform the opportunities and experiences that make their communities places where people want to live, learn, work, play and raise a family. As the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries continues its work in the months and years ahead, we will work with members of the Library Vision community of practice to support the information needs of communities and advance the transformative power of public libraries. The door to the Library Vision community is open. Won’t you come in and join us?

Amy Garmer

Director, Dialogue on Public Libraries

Aspen Institute


Libraries in the Exponential Age

What happens if you shift the library to be the center of the community platform for innovation?
Thirty dynamic leaders and innovators from the public and private sectors – all involved in re-envisioning the ways in which public libraries can adapt to the new needs of communities in the 21st century – joined my Aspen Institute colleagues and me at the Institute’s Aspen Meadows campus in Colorado last summer to explore answers to this question. Our three-day conversation included six senior staff members of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, whose grant to the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries made the conference possible.

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