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Shifting Roles for Public Libraries: From Supporting Player to Community Engagement Leader

When you think of the most democratic place in your neighborhood where resources are universally available, does one government entity immediately come to mind?

According to the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), the public library is an institution that has long upheld a reputation as a highly-trusted and valued public resource. Therefore, it has the capacity to play an extremely important role in advancing dialogue and community engagement.

In their recently issued leadership brief entitled “Library Priority: Community-Civic Engagement,” the ULC recommends that libraries leverage their community connections, respected public stature, and capacity to bring people together.


The council, based in Chicago, has worked to strengthen public libraries as an essential part of urban life for 40 years. As a member organization of the leading public library systems in North America, ULC is a forum for research used by public and private sector leaders.

Today, the civic health of communities involves many aspects of engagement from political participation, to our interactions with associations and institutions, and how we connect with our family, friends, and neighbors. Since civic health requires more than just government decision-making, City Hall should not be the only entity involved.  The ULC notes that people come together in a variety of ways, not always driven by the government, to address personal needs, solve problems and plan for their collective future.

In fact, the public library already brings substantial assets to civic action such as the physical space, technology, skilled staff, and connections to influential groups of people. However, libraries possess a great deal of untapped potential to function as leaders in civic engagement.

ULC’s Brief on Community-Civic Engagement

So how can libraries advance toward this goal? A strategic approach that stretches out further than the physical walls of the library is needed. ULC suggests libraries realign priorities, reassess staff responsibilities, and look at innovative ways for leading the community. Specifically, the brief lists five key roles that libraries should welcome in order to be true leaders in advancing civic vitality.

Civic educator – Libraries can maximize access to information on resources for civic engagement. They can use their nonpartisan status to provide un-biased facts to support voter education.

Conversation starter – Libraries can start the important conversations by identifying emerging issues, engaging the appropriate organizations and facilitating action in a safe, impartial environment.

Community bridge – The library can seek out disengaged members of the community, identify their needs and offer programs to bring them into the community and teach cultural awareness for all.

Visionary – Libraries should encourage and lead the visioning process. They can link existing long-term plans from government and civic groups to shape a broader community vision.

Center for democracy in action – Libraries can empower citizens to contribute to their communities by providing necessary resources and taking on the controversial issues that are crucial to community vitality.

In essence, for the public library to move from a supporting player to a valued community engagement leader, the Urban Libraries Council feels a clear definition of the scope of library civic service is required, as well as a strategic agenda that can widen the impact of the public library’s actions.

Read full brief >>

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EngagingCities is online magazine that shares creative strategies and new technologies to foster public engagement for livable communities. Chris Haller is our EngagingCities blogger. Chris heads up Urban Interactive Studio (UIS), a consulting firm specializing in online approaches to public engagement, with a focus on land use and community planning.

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  1. Laura Walth says:

    This is our second year of having a series we call, “Civic Engagement at the Library”. Citizens have the opportunity to discuss public issues using the National Issues Forum booklets in a moderated forum. We hold these one Saturday a month in October, November, January, February, and March from 9:15 AM – Noon at the Des Moines Public Library. Our next forum will be on February 11. The issue is: “The Energy Problem: Choices for an Uncertain Future”. March 10 the issue will be: “Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis?” We collaborate with Iowa Partners in Learning, a volunteer coalition that helps promote public deliberation in Iowa.
    Laura Walth – Librarian

  2. […] Shifting Roles for Public Libraries: From Supporting Player to Community Engagement Leader […]

  3. Thanks for telling us about your programs, Laura! What kind of turnout do you tend to get for these forums generally?

  4. […] Shifting Roles for Public Libraries: From Supporting Player to Community Engagement Leader – This is an excellent blog entry on the role of public libraries in community engagement, posted to the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) blog, and shared with deliberate@ala.org, the ALA listserv for those interested in civic engagement. This links to the excellent, 4-page, Urban Libraries Council Leadership Brief on Civic Engagement. […]

  5. Richard Frieder says:

    Thanks for this post. ULC is showing real leadership in the area of urban public libraries and civic engagement. I work at Hartford (CT) Public Library – we are a ULC member. At Hartford Public we have been working for several years to build a program of civic engagement activities. We have partnered with Everyday Democracy on two deliberative democracy forums and intend to do more. We have done a couple of Kettering issues forums. We have an ongoing series of other public programs related to civic engagement and we’re working towards establishing a center for civic engagement. As ULC says in the issue brief, public libraries are perfectly positioned to be civic engagement leaders. This will be a major part of what pubic libraries can offer to their communities in the future.

    Richard Frieder

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