The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Nov 03, 2011

In a digital society, libraries become important places for people to engage and connect with their city

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

Over the next two days, directors of some of the most creative libraries in the U.S. and key civic leaders are sharing ways public libraries can help strengthen community engagement.

The Urban Libraries Partners for Success Conference 2011 brings together thought leaders in today’s civic engagement movement and young people who will shape the future of American communities.

“Civic engagement comes in many forms and libraries are at the top of the list of places where people can get involved,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez told the crowd as he helped open the conference. “Libraries contribute to a stronger sense of community and help produce solutions to local issues. I’m confident that will continue to hold true.”

Knight Foundation sat down with Susan Benton, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council to learn more about the connection between libraries and community engagement.

Q: What is the role that libraries play in developing community engagement? 

S.B: Libraries are part of the natural infrastructure of the community. In many neighborhoods, we are the primary community asset and the place where people come together on a regular basis.

Q: In what kinds of ways do you see citizens interacting with their local libraries?

S.B: We see people doing lots of different things, not only choosing books they want to read, but more importantly using the library as a place to learn with others. If you’re a parent, you may bring a child to have one of their earliest learning experiences at a library, or if you’re an elderly person, you may come to have a librarian teach you how to use a computer and gain an email address so you can email with your grandchildren. It really is a place where people come together as individuals to form a society and to participate together.

Q: Can you describe the changing role of libraries in a digital society?

S.B: One of the things that have filled our libraries in the past have been books. But with the digital age, libraries now have banks of computers that are used by citizens everyday. It is especially important for those who do not have Internet access at home and for those who don’t even have a computer to be able to come to a place to gain access to the breadth of information that’s available online. In a digital society, the library becomes even more important for people to be able to connect to what’s going on in towns and cities across the world.

Q: Can you think of an example of how a library has played this role recently?

S.B: Recently I was in a cab on a way to a meeting and when the cab driver found out what I did, he described to me his experience with his local library. He and his wife aren’t fluent in English, but they know that at the library their kids can get homework help through a local library program, so they take them there on a weekly basis. While they are there, his wife will use the Internet to email with relatives back in her home country of Egypt and he can use it to look for a better job. This is a family that doesn’t have a computer at home. But at their local library, they have tools that they need to get a better education for their children, communicate with family and better their life circumstances.

Q: Are there examples of certain library systems that have been particularly innovative and exciting when it comes to engaging citizens in the digital space?

S.B: There are dozens and that’s partly what this conference is about. One highlight is what the Chicago Public Library System has done in creating YOUMedia, a program whose purpose is to provide a space where teens can come and learn to use digital devices. We know the tool for the 21st century is a digital device. So if we want our young people to be successful we need to make sure they know about all of the digital devices and are able to use them. The program ensures young people are comfortable using digital devices, it enhances their day-to-day learning and becomes part of their skill sets.

Knight Foundation currently supports the expansion YOUMedia to Miami as part of its Knight Library Initiative, which supports libraries in 27 cities become true digital community centers that help foster informed and engaged communities.

The conference, taking place today and tomorrow in Miami, is hosted by the Urban Libraries Council which has partnered with the Miami-Dade Public Library System. The full agenda for the conference is online.

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