As part of winding-down the Global Libraries initiative, we’ve spent some time thinking about what we’ve learned in our two decades of engagement with and investment in public libraries. The following are what needs and opportunities we believe public libraries must accomplish in order to be embraced – and funded – as the critical community assets they are.
Progress Depends on Collaboration
The library field remains fragmented, with libraries across different countries and systems disconnected from one another. This lack of connection is detrimental to all libraries. There is so much untapped knowledge that is essential to share, and opportunities not only to collaborate but also to take collective action on policy and regulatory challenges. The time is now, and every library can contribute to better collaboration by prioritizing openness and transparency, proactively making connections, and sharing ideas. By working more closely together to build and sustain a global network of public library leaders and organizations, libraries can learn from one another, solve shared problems, and spark ideas and innovations that will help them meet immediate and pressing community needs and look together to the future. Progress comes only from collaboration within and across the library field.
Change Demands New Leadership
Inspired and tenacious library leaders can have a profound effect on the libraries and the communities they serve. Today, successful library leadership means leaders must be willing to take risks to do a job that’s evolving. This also means prioritizing partnership development with government, the private sector, and civic and nongovernmental organizations. To achieve this, the field must give young professionals opportunities to lead, learn, and develop.
Support Grows with Clear Alignment with Community Needs
Libraries and their champions must continue to engage with their communities—to listen to what people need, make sure library services address those needs, talk to local leaders about community priorities, and show how library services contribute to improving lives and making communities stronger. This also requires libraries to proactively position and promote what they are doing in the community and reinforce why it matters. When libraries consistently adapt to meet local needs—and when they talk about it again, and again, and again—outdated public perceptions of the role and the value of public libraries will change.
Proof of Impact
High school students using computers at a public library in Constanta, Romania.
The most successful public libraries around the world are proactively engaging with their communities to understand local needs and customize services to address community problems. What’s missing are the facts and data about how libraries directly improve people’s lives—including impact that advances the global Sustainable Development Goals. Without tangible proof to back up what library leaders intuitively know to be true, libraries will be forever fighting an uphill battle for recognition and resources. The knowledge and tools to measure library impact already exist. Leaders in the field must now commit to making outcome evaluation an integral part of library operations and using it to prove their worth.
Develop Partnership at all Levels
Pursuing partnerships outside the library field is essential to the future sustainability of public libraries to cement and promote their ongoing relevance and to secure a diverse funding base. This means continuing advocacy with government leaders who drive funding decisions, capitalizing on existing connections, identifying and networking in new circles of influence, and actively building and nurturing new long-term relationships in other fields like technology, economics, and health. For partnerships that can lead to new sources of funding, library leaders must be prepared with relevant data to make the case for support. All partnerships can strengthen how libraries contribute to their communities, if library leaders approach new relationships committed to aligning on shared community priorities and are able to walk away when it’s not the right fit.