The Role of Libraries in Advancing Community Goals

Posted by Amy Garmer on January 17, 2017 at 2:14 PM

Today, The Aspen Institute, in partnership with International City/County Management Association (ICMA), and the Public Library Association (PLA), released Local Libraries Advancing Community Goals, 2016, a report detailing results of a nationwide survey of nearly 2,000 chief administrative offices of local governments focused on the evolving role of public libraries in advancing community goals.

The survey reveals that local government leaders envision public libraries as a key resource to support their communities’ education and digital inclusion goals while indicating interest in exploring new roles for libraries to address other community priorities.  These findings resonate with the vision contained in Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries and point the way to new opportunities for local government leaders and library leaders to engage in collaborative work to strengthen and support the transformation of public libraries.

The survey was conducted as part of the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries and updates the last ICMA survey on libraries from 2010.  

Local Libraries Advancing Community Goals, 2016, highlights three specific areas of opportunity for library and local government leaders to work together more closely: collaborating on community priorities, engaging in active information sharing and communication about community issues, and seeking additional funding sources to enable libraries to expand programming and services.

Survey results also reveal the following as the top five community priorities, ranked high or very high, as areas where local government leaders see libraries playing an important role:

  • access to high-speed Internet service (73%)
  • digital literacy (65%)
  • early childhood education (65%)
  • primary and secondary school attainment (59%)
  • online learning/virtual learning (52%)

These priorities align well with areas of focus and development for public libraries under a series of initiatives led by PLA and its partners, including DigitalLearn.org, Every Child Ready to Read, and new research related to family engagement through libraries by the Harvard Family Research Project. PLA’s Project Outcome initiative helps libraries measure the impact of programs like these in communities nationwide to better inform service improvements and collaborations with local partners.

The release is accompanied by additional analysis on key factors influencing local government responses in a supplemental report, The Role of Libraries in Advancing Community Goals, by independent researcher John B. Horrigan, PhD, who led the research shop during development of the National Broadband Plan and is noted for his expertise on broadband growth, digital literacy and libraries.

While libraries are viewed by local government leaders as having an important role in the community, according to Horrigan’s analysis, their engagement with library leadership and resources is influenced by three major factors: an existing governing relationship, general fund support for the library, and a population greater than 100,000.

Among Horrigan’s other findings, communication between local government leaders and library leaders is higher when there is a governing or funding relationship. “Some 56% of libraries with a governing relationship are invited often or very often to discussions about local issues compared with 38% of all respondents,” notes Horrigan, who says this holds true for libraries that receive funding allocations from the general fund (51%) and in communities with populations of 100,000 people or more (52%). Library funding also was an important topic addressed in the survey.

We asked John to compare the responses to four questions included on the ICMA survey that the Pew Research Center also has asked in its surveys of Americans 16 years and older regarding services the library should be providing. We were curious if local government leaders would see the role of public libraries differently from the general public. Horrigan’s analysis shows that strong majorities of local government leaders and the public think that libraries should coordinate more closely with schools and that libraries should provide technology and resources in makerspaces. However, the analysis indicates that “a disconnect emerges for training for the digital world,” with just under half of local government respondents saying that libraries should offer programs to help people protect their privacy and security online while three-quarters of the public thinks that libraries should definitely do this.

To read the complete results of the ICMA survey, go to: www.icma.org/2016librariessurveyreport. To read the summary report of John Horrigan’s analysis, go to: http://as.pn/icmasurvey. I also will be discussing the survey with a panel of library leaders at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, Sunday, January 22, at 3 PM.

And here are some additional great resources for learning more, courtesy of PLA:

Videos showcasing how libraries support education, employment, entrepreneurship and more: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD9DUiXzel3qpNrj2Rqi1bg/videos

Public and school libraries help students get Ready to Code: http://www.districtdispatch.org/2016/12/new-libraries-ready-to-code-video/  and

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/pp/Ready_To_Code_Report_FINAL.pdf

Entrepreneurship: http://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/ALA-SmallBizEntrep-2016Nov10.pdf and http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/ALA_Entrepreneurship_White_Paper_Final.pdf