Your Local Library: The Ultimate Community Engagement Center
*Editor’s note: This blog is written in response to the recent Aspen Institute, International City/County Management Association (ICMA), and the Public Library Association (PLA) survey analysis, “Role of Libraries in Advancing Community Goals.” The analysis is based on data from the “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.
“Most notably, the findings show that the public wants government to be as sophisticated as the private sector; there is no “free pass” for being a public agency when it comes to what people want from government digital services.”
Hurst’s findings concluded that 85 percent of citizens expect digital public services to be as good as or better than commercial digital customer services.
ELGL members are anecdotally seeing that Hurst’s research is true in their communities. Citizens are paying their bills online, engaging in city discussions via social media, and receiving customized news and information in their inboxes.
An analogy is that local government digital services are like a salad bar: a virtual buffet of choices from which citizens can pick and choose how they engage based on their personal tastes and aptitudes. For some citizens, especially those who have grown up with technology, this salad bar is easy to navigate. But for others, low level digital literacy is akin to approaching that salad bar without a plate. Local libraries play a critical role in ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table in our digital world.
To me, the most important takeaway from the Aspen Institute, International City/County Management Association (ICMA), and the Public Library Association (PLA) survey analysis, “Role of Libraries in Advancing Community Goals,” underlines the incredible potential for local governments to engage library staff in cross-departmental programming to increase digital literacy and public participation.
The analysis shows that a strong majority of respondents believe libraries should definitely offer free access to high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi and offer programs that teach people how to use digital tools. Two thirds of all respondents say that addressing digital literacy is an important priority.
The research by Hurst and the Aspen Institute go hand in hand: as citizens expect government to engage with them digitally, it becomes even more important for local government to play a role in helping citizens develop the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes to effectively use digital devices and engagement tools.
Public libraries are perfectly positioned to play this community role, working with other city departments (including elected officials, communications, and administration staff) to help train and guide citizens who are unfamiliar with digital engagement.
Another finding from the Aspen Institute analysis is an interest in libraries prioritizing neighborhood and community development. The possibilities for librarians and planners to work together to increase public participation in land use planning are exciting.
Increased digital literacy means that there are virtually no barriers to engagement on long range planning and land use matters, allowing anyone to participate in these important discussions, receive and review complex maps and code information, and submit comments to the record.
Previously, participation meant sitting through evening hearings and testifying in person - barriers for many people. Now, online tools allow citizens to have a front row seat and an equal voice, because information is shared digitally and equally, regardless of ability to show up at a meeting.
The findings from the Aspen Institute analysis serve as an important reminder to everyone working in local government of the important role that librarians play in city organizations as ambassadors of communications and participation. Breaking down departmental silos to include library staff in citywide communications, outreach, land use, and engagement plans is important and meaningful in our digital era.