Libraries and Community: From Informing to Engaging

Back to Fall 2018: Volume 107, Number 3

 Ellen M. Knutson

Libraries and librarians have long played an essential part in the development of strong democratic communities. They have championed literacy and education and have served as community spaces, open to all people, dedicated to providing the tools for citizens’ self-education.

In Sidney Ditzion’s seminal work, Arsenals of a Democratic Culture, he describes the history of U.S. libraries during the 19th century, arguing that the library was a place for all the people to gain knowledge; thus, it was an institution that could support the young American democracy.

As the nation grew, librarians continued to play a role in citizenship education, including being active in the Americanization movement during the interwar period, providing citizenship education to the foreign-born. In the midst of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered the oft-quoted words:

“Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides our world, and for two reasons; first, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society; second, because the contemporary conflict touches the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the mind, and even the survival of culture, and libraries are the great tools of scholarship, the great repositories of culture, and the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.”

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have seen an uptick of interest in public libraries as democratic institutions. This interest has continued to grow in the last several years as evidenced by the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) that enables librarians to deepen their institutions’ involvement with their communities. The initiative builds the capacity of library leaders and next-generation librarians to engage their communities in authentic, innovative, and meaningful ways. The Urban Libraries Council has pursued similar goals by focusing on civic and community engagement in its Libraries Stand Tall initiative and as one area of its annual recognition of top library innovators.

The rhetoric about the civic role of libraries is not limited to the United States. International organizations such as UNESCO and the World Summit on the Information Society have also positioned libraries as civic institutions in their programs. The International Federation of Library Associations contends that libraries are key institutions to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As part of his study on the economic value of public libraries, Svanhild Aabø examined several international documents from organizations like ALA, UNESCO, and studies from Scandinavia and Britain and his analysis shows the main purposes of the public library are to further democracy, to further equality and social justice, to increase access to information, to disseminate culture and knowledge, to contribute to a meaningful and informational leisure time, and to be a communal institution and a social meeting place.

To fully realize these purposes, libraries must deepen their community engagement. In an article in the Journal of the American Society of Information Science, Brenda Dervin argues that the relationship between information and democracy is not a totalizing, essentialist narrative. In other words, it is not the case that the more information people have the better democracy will be. For libraries to move toward supporting democratic practices, the relationship between the library and the community must contain a communicative, dialogic aspect and not simply be one of providing access to information. In the era of “fake news,” this understanding could not be more important. Moreover, now that libraries do not corner the market on providing information access—many people carry information access devices such as smart phones in their pocket—librarians are well served to deepen their understanding of their communities in order to determine relevant and impactful library and information services.

As Julie Biando Edwards, Melissa Robinson, and Kelly Rae Unger write in their book Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: “Libraries need to look beyond just providing access to information to focus on the ways in which library services create and expand community, and that, in repositioning themselves as the centers of an active and vibrant community life, libraries will be in the best position to demonstrate their worth in a more compelling way.”

This move from simply informing the community to engaging the community can be envisioned as a continuum. Building off the spectrum of public participation, developed by International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), the Working Together Project published the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, which includes a public involvement continuum for determining library services. There are five points on the continuum: Inform/Educate, Consult, Discuss/Debate, Engage/Participate, and Partner/Collaborate. On the continuum’s left-hand side, the library is making decisions on the needs of the community and communicating its programs out to the community. As a library moves to the right, it will start eliciting feedback from the community and then join in conversation. Continuing to the right, the community will become more involved in decisions perhaps by serving on advisory boards. When we reach the far right of the continuum, the library is fully working collaboratively with community members to plan services.

Put another way, in order for a library to deepen its engagement with its community, librarians should change their thinking from providing services for or to the community, to working with the community.

Recently, the Charles F. Kettering Foundation invited a group of librarians to join in a learning exchange that ran from 2015 through 2017. It was focused on the foundation’s research on how institutions can better relate to and support the work of citizens. Librarians who participated began to experiment with how changing their routines to focus on working with the community would shift their relationships with the community. Over the course of the two-year exchange, members of the group worked through the insights Kettering has learned from decades of research on what it takes to make democracy work as it should and shared their own experiences and struggles in their local context, thereby creating a shared learning environment. The programs and projects that came out of this exchange provide practical examples of what the shift from for to with looks like in the library.

In Portland, Oregon, the team from Multnomah County Library brought together patrons who are experiencing homelessness and library staff for regular coffee and conversation sessions at the central library. These informal gatherings challenged the typical patterns of interaction, which often focused on behavior modification, and led to changes in how these two groups relate to each other. The experiment garnered interest from management and librarians in other branches who also wanted to shift the way they relate to this group of patrons.

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County developed a planning advisory team and worked with other city and community organizations to organize forums around the problem of how a downtown public park should be used. Originally, the team framed the issue of one of homelessness, but working with the community, the team came to understand it more broadly as the park usage cut across multiple issues facing the community.

At the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas, the team responsible for the library’s new learn and play bus adapted its standard decision-making procedures to include 15-minute concern-collecting sessions with children’s caregivers. Earlier efforts to get community input focused on conversations with educational experts and other professionals and did not necessarily reveal what mattered most to citizens. Putting children and their care-givers at the center significantly changed how the bus is being utilized: instead of only academic success, the goals now include children’s social and emotional readiness for kindergarten; and developing a learning community comprised of all caregivers so that everyone’s expertise and experiences can be shared. Staff training now includes active listening and shifting the teacher role to a facilitator of learning.

Similarly, in New Brunswick, academics from Rutgers University working with the New Brunswick Free Public Library found that starting with conversations with members of an underserved population revealed a mismatch in a model for delivering consumer health information through libraries.  Public health professionals developed the initial model but did not center the actual health needs and concerns of an already marginalized community.

Finally, at the Houston Public Library (HPL), librarians partnered with a grassroots literacy organization, a school, and parents to support the learning needs of elementary students. Unfortunately, in the midst of the project, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city, hitting the neighborhood they were working in particularly hard. Consequently, the library, together with the community, shifted its focus to helping to support access to residents’ most basic needs (housing, food, clothing, and disaster recovery resources). Nevertheless, HPL reports the changes they made in how librarians work with the community had lasting impact and strengthened their relationship with the community.

Each of these brief examples illustrates that the shift from for to with may stem from small actions, but it can have profound impacts on building the relationships necessary for truly community-engaged library. The brevity of the examples does not capture all the difficulties and competing interests that were at play but does give a flavor of the kind of work being accomplished.

Ellen M. Knutson is a Portland, Oregon based research associate at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation and an adjunct assistant professor in the online master’s program at the University of Illinois’ School of Information Sciences.


Aabø, S. The Value of Public Libraries: A Methodological discussion and Empirical Study Applying the Contingent Valuation Method. Acta Humaniora. Vol. 222. Oslo: Unipub Forlag, 2005.

Dervin, B. “Information↔Democracy: An Examination of Underlying Assumptions.” Journal of the American Society of Information Science, 1994, 45(6): 369-385.

Ditzion, S. H.  Arsenals of a Democratic Culture: A Social History of the American Public Library Movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850 to 1900. Chicago: American Library Association, 1947.

Edwards, J.B., Robinson, M.S., and Unger, K.R. Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2013. p. xvii.

Working Together Project. Community-Led Libraries Toolkit. Vancouver, BC, 2008. Retrieved July 15, 2018, from

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