Knight Blog

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

Bringing new voices to the public library

Feb. 15, 2013, 10:50 a.m., Posted by Jenna Buehler

Librarians nationwide are blowing the dust off the old library model and redefining the space out of necessity. Often that means bringing in more people, and more voices into the traditionally quiet space.

At a recent libraries conference organized by Knight Foundation, directors from Colorado and Kansas talked about their experiments in engagement, from creating online campaigns to starting a library-based community news site. All  helped to reinforce the library’s role in strengthening the community, the directors said.

In Douglas County, Colo., for example, the library has become a center for conversations. Debates on fracking have been organized by library director, Jamie LaRue,  who said citizens need to have opportunities to hold decision-makers accountable. When medical marijuana was legalized, Douglas County librarians also served as public resources and policy experts for the county.

“Libraries are very well trusted and we’re even handed,” LaRue said. “We’re not pushing an agenda. Our job is to maintain the idea that the library is a community asset and everyone is welcome to be heard.”

More than facilitating conversations, librarians themselves have become change agents in Douglas County Libraries. He said that meant changing job descriptions so that librarians spend 10 percent of their time outside the office. By encouraging resource librarians to survey community members and serve as a resource for public decision-makers, LaRue says, citizens and government began to see the library as a hub for community engagement.

LaRue acknowledges that implementing out-of-the-box community initiatives is easier to do in Douglas County because the library is an independent body unaffiliated with the local government.

As a next step, LaRue plans to leverage the 2,000 library website views per day and become an independent news sources to help fill the gaps by the now defunct Rocky Mountain News.

“We need librarians now that can do everything,” LaRue said. “What happens if the library hires journalists to write the news and have an editor? Why not? We’re trusted information professional afterall. We’re in the intellectual content business.”

For the Wichita Public Library, the experiment in engagement started with Knight’s Soul of the Community research that revealed that locals were surprisingly unattached to Wichita, a mid-sized Kansas city with a low cost of living and a growing - yet underappreciated - arts community, according to survey results. A second wave of validation came from the National Citizen Report, which came to similar conclusions.

“We learned there was a certain amount of distrust with government and services,” said Cynthia Berner Harris, the director of the Wichita Public Library. “We weren’t listening in the way that they wanted and, while there were numerous community initiatives, they were happening in silos.”

So the downtown development corporation hosted a series of workshops that lead to a contest offering $500 for an idea that could mend the Wichita gap, Harris said. The contest itself was inspired and organized by Peter Kageyama, author of For the Love of Cities.

“People need to know we love Wichita,” Harris said. “It needs to come from us and other folks.”

The winner, a postcard developed by young creatives who launched a project called "From Wichita With Love”, used the library as one hub where people could get the cards and share their city with the world. The card and its Twitter hashtag #fromwichitawithlove have gone viral.   

Since then, three other groups, in partnership with the library, have launched experiments, including “I Geek Kansas,” a library funding awareness campaign.

Libraries realize they’re not in the service transaction business anymore, Harris said. The new model must reflect a need for conversations.

“To truly engage,” Harris said, “we need to say ‘we’re struggling with an issue here’s what we think, what do you think?’ How can we come together and address this?”

By Jenna Buehler, executive assistant/communications at Knight Foundation