Libraries: Spanning the divides; creating opportunities for all ages and needs


Facilitator: Raymond Santiago, Director, Miami-Dade Public Library System

Scribe: Stuart Kennedy, Program Associate, Knight Foundation

This discussion began with a few basic facts about libraries:

1) Libraries serve citizens from birth to death and, 2) Information is core to the mission of libraries, especially civic information. 

Facilitator Raymond Santiago made it clear that if libraries continued to be perceived by the community as only a lending place, they will be out of business very soon. 

There are three objectives of libraries that he cited to help drive the discussion:

1) to maximize availability of relevant and credible information; 2) to strengthen the ability of citizens to engage with information and, 3) to promote individual engagement.

It was widely agreed that libraries are essential to healthy communities. 

A significant challenge that we are faced with today is the fact that there is a lack of information equality across communities in the digital age.  For example, even Section 8 housing applications are online now, regardless of the fact that many applicants do not have access to a computer and do not have digital literacy skills.

What are Community Foundations doing to increase availability of information?

Community foundations have the ability to identify what libraries need in order to become community centers.  The librarians present agreed that a valuable asset would be increased staff with technological knowledge.  A possible idea that was put forth for solving that issue was to create a ‘circuit rider’ system of staff with the knowledge to serve those needs on a scalable level.

Libraries have been placed with a huge burden as one of few Internet public access points despite the majority of social services being transferred to be exclusively online.  This burden is being placed on staff capacity at libraries and is perceived as being more than libraries can handle.  Similarly, schoolwork is being transferred online more and more, but only limited hours of computer access are provided to students.  Do you focus attention on adults/parents or students?  There isn’t capacity to do everything, yet it’s important to think about the library as a place for lifelong learning.  This might be an opportunity for a community foundation to add value in a specific way. 

Libraries may not be the only Internet delivery point, but it’s unclear where other delivery points are.  One participant in the conversation mentioned that an initiative was established in her community to provide computers and high speed Internet to every home in order to support the growth of the community.  This was completed through a public-private partnership between a community-based organization and a for-profit cable company.  However, the initiative was completed in a geographically small community.  Another participant proposed the idea that a university can help by creating a program to train their students and send them to libraries as volunteers.

YouMedia in Chicago – started with the assumption that libraries do not have the staff/financial capacity to engage youth.  YouMedia came in as a separate group, organized through a university, and partnered with the Chicago Library System.  In order to make it relevant, they built a center around things that young people care about, not necessarily around books.  Book checkouts have increased as a result of engaging students through other programs.   Traditionally libraries have focused on providing books for people to consume.  Now, people want to create and produce their own content.  Which brings up the questions: How do libraries help people develop their own content and how do you let people know that that is available at the library?

How do you measure success in the field of libraries?  Libraries have a great ability to measure utilization numbers: the number of people that walk in the door, the number of books checked out, the number of people using computers, etc.  Libraries need to tell the story that they are the primary source of public access.  These metrics are especially good for dealing with politicians.  User numbers seem to be translated directly to votes in the minds of politicians.  However, the qualitative metrics on what people gain from their interactions with the library are very unclear.  This presents a problem for libraries in determining and proving what programs are most helpful.  We need to answer the question, are we improving digital literacy skills among young people and are we measuring this improvement and its larger effects on education?

Libraries are inherently political.  Santiago gave the example that he spends 99 percent of his time at county hall pursuing his primary job – to secure a budget for his libraries.  Libraries should recognize that there is political capital in your communities with an enormous group of people motivated around the libraries.  It’s important for organizations with political clout to speak up for the libraries.  These organizations include community foundations, and large corporations.  Even more important than one-off grants, organizations need to speak up about the importance of libraries for the community.  How do we come together to make this happen?

One way in which a community foundation may be able to partner with libraries is to establish a library fund at their foundation.  This furthers community foundations’ goals to match donor dollars with community needs.  Creating this fund would establish the library as a community need.  However, this is a delicate situation because community foundations should not be put in the place of replacing government support.  In order to prevent that perception, the fund should be established for a targeted goal.

From a governmental standpoint, there’s pressure for libraries to find outside support. However, libraries are careful about letting funds replace governmental support. Some libraries have found that it is helpful for foundation representatives to participate at library budget meetings to reinforce the fact that foundation support is temporary and not meant to replace operating support.   Libraries must be careful about committing to new projects without ongoing funding sources to maintain the sustainability of services.   Often times, the perception is that libraries will partner with anyone in the community at the expense of, but with no benefit to the library.

Foundations can also be information resources around broad community issues.  Some questions for foundations to ask themselves are: are you a trusted knowledge resource for your community, how do you get to that point and what’s the excess noise that needs to be filtered out in order to get there? 

Enhancing quality of life and engaging community = 2-pronged approach of community foundations.

Libraries have the potential to be out of the box leaders in their communities.  They are often the most trusted institutions in their community.  However, 85-95 percent of the time people still think of them only as a place to borrow books.  Libraries must change this perception because that is no longer their primary activity.

There appears to be an inherent relationship between libraries and community foundations.  Libraries bring citizens to place.  Community foundations have deep relationships with a range of donors and organizations that care about place.  These two groups would benefit from communicating more.  Perhaps library should include foundation people on their boards and community foundations should include library people on theirs.  Either way, we must build bridges between libraries and community foundations.  Both sets of organizations are in the same boat about where they want to go.  They are both focused on increasing the quality of life and engaging their local populations.