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Stretching into the future with a national dialogue on public libraries

Aspen, Colorado. Photo by Ontario Travel Bureau

There has been a lot of talk about the future of libraries. Anyone attending the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, for instance, could find about 100 sessions referencing the future and ranging from the Committee on the Future of University Libraries to “The Future is Now: Rural Libraries as Innovation Incubators.”

But this conversation becomes far more meaningful for libraries and the communities we serve when it takes place outside of Library Land, which is one reason I’m excited about the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries starting later this week (August 3-5). With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Aspen will convene leaders from libraries, but also executives from businesses (including publishing, technology and telecommunications), non-profits (such as the National Civic League), education experts, researchers, and officials from various levels of government. ALA Immediate Past President Maureen Sullivan will be there, as will Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The multi-year effort will explore and champion new ways of thinking about U.S. public libraries. The working group will consider solutions to ensure public libraries are at the forefront of serving communities for years to come. Then, over the coming year, Aspen and select working group members will seek other engagement opportunities to ensure the vision includes diverse perspectives from across the library field and beyond. The conversations will result in a report that outlines the vision and makes recommendations that will spark ongoing conversations in subsequent years.

“Libraries have always been a great equalizer in American society, serving as gateways to knowledge that have helped form the building blocks of our democracy,” said Charles Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. “We look forward to working with leaders in the field to ensure that public libraries remain relevant to the needs of our current and future generations as they have throughout our history.”

Whew. That’s a tall order. It’s a good thing Aspen has decades of experience convening conversations like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. I’ve long been a fan of Aspen’s work, and am pleased that ALA Office for Information Technology Policy’s (OITP) policy brief on Confronting the Future and American Libraries’ digital supplement “Digital Content: What’s Next” are on the reading list for the dialogue, along with new data from the Pew Internet Project. You can read along and even join the conversation via the Twitter hashtag #libraryvision, if you like.

The project meshes well with OITP’s Program for America’s Libraries in the 21st Century (AL21C), begun five years ago, as well as our larger role advocating for policy that supports efforts of libraries to ensure access to electronic information as part of upholding the public’s right to a free and open information society.

OITP’s focus is more outward than inward–less about what libraries are doing at the cutting edge (although we are also interested in that, too) and more about what is happening in the world that demands attention and even new library models and services. How can the ALA look into the telescope and help libraries reach the frontier more quickly and effectively? And how can we translate the rapid changes taking place in libraries into our national policy and advocacy efforts? This will be the focus of our own major initiative to undertake a systematic assessment of our work, engage new partners, try new approaches, and overall increase our capacity so that we may improve the strategic position of libraries through our policymaking and communications efforts. We have a high likelihood of grant funding to support this effort and hope to launch before the end the year.

Recently my yoga instructor encouraged all of us to find the space balanced at the edge of ease and effort to move our practice forward. We don’t want to hurt ourselves, but we must challenge ourselves to reach a little further than what is in our comfort zone.

It’s an amazing time to be working in libraries, and I look forward to the dialogue and engagement ahead as we find new strategies and collaborators to forge ahead on behalf of our communities.

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Larra Clark

Larra Clark is the deputy director of both the Public Library Association and Washington Office’s public policy team. Larra received her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arizona and has a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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