Libraries as leaders: An opportunity for our communities

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September 29, 2014 by Chris Jowaisas

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Knight News Challenge: Libraries offers applicants a chance to share in $2.5 million by focusing on the question “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Below, Chris Jowaisas, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, writes about libraries playing an active role in helping solve community challenges.

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Libraries can play a variety of roles in addressing the challenges that communities—and the individuals within them—face. They have the opportunity to move from being passive information providers to active assets for their communities–whether those communities are schools, universities or colleges, or the broader public community. 

Some libraries have already begun this transformation. But many libraries are hesitant to embrace this role because it involves a great number of uncertainties. The role that libraries have played in many communities is one that seems more certain. But shifts in demographics, service expectations and attitudes towards the value of government are creating a situation in which this supposedly certain role is beginning to be questioned to a greater degree than ever before.

At the same time, these same shifts have opened up the opportunity for libraries to be the connector in their communities that brings together physical, virtual and human assets to address global challenges in a local way. Public libraries can leverage the physical assets in their communities in combination with people and virtual services and collections to serve as a platform that can be a vital part of the solution to addressing local challenges. To do this, library staff and their communities will need to see the library’s role in a new way, library staff will need new or updated skills, and communities must embrace the challenges and opportunities that will come from having their libraries move into this role.  This is a lot to ask of all of the parties involved, but based upon the strong admiration that so many people have for libraries, I believe we are in a unique position to step into this role and help lead our communities in finding solutions for the challenges that we face. 

Libraries have the opportunity to draw in allies from a variety of fields to assist them in working through these challenges; we must do this if we are to be successful as thriving organizations that work to move our communities forward. 

To submit an entry for the Knight News Challenge or provide feedback on other submissions, visit newschallenge.org. Knight News Challenge: Libraries closes on Sept. 30 at 5 p.m. ET. Winners will be announced in January.

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