Long gone are the days that libraries were only a place to borrow books. Many of today’s libraries feature scores of internet terminals, provide free Wi-Fi, host a wide variety of classes, afford spaces to read and offer state-of-the-art meeting spaces, all for the benefit of their communities.
Chicago, home to the American Library Association, will host the organization’s 137th annual conference June 27 to July 2. The conference will feature luminaries such as poet, feminist and activist Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple”; renowned film-maker and Academy Award winner Oliver Stone; and Emmy Award-winning food guru Giada De Laurentiis. They and other renowned speakers will shine the spotlight on the conference’s theme: “Transforming Our Libraries, Ourselves.”
The ALA has been the driving force behind ensuring that libraries not only maintain their relevance but become laboratories for exciting new ventures that benefit communities. Next month, for example, the city’s Harold Washington Library is scheduled to open a special lab on its third floor that will provide free access to technologies that include the ability to digitally manufacture a variety of creations with design software, 3-D printers, laser cutters, a milling machine and even a vinyl cutter. After six months, officials will consider expanding the pilot program to other libraries in the 79-branch system.
But that’s Chicago. In other parts of the state and the country, many libraries are struggling with basic funding to keep the lights on.
It’s easy to forget that libraries are this country’s gateway for free access to information that can open up worlds of opportunity to people; they welcome anyone, regardless of age, economic status or citizenship.
Libraries, by their nature, are ready-made to host members of the community when they come together to address their needs, challenges and hopes for the future. Library leaders stand ready to facilitate such engagement.
It is no coincidence that community engagement is one of the central themes of the upcoming American Library Association Annual Conference; the gathering’s many panels include one on June 29 that addresses the ability of libraries to transform communities. The discussion will be led by both of us in a show of our profound belief that change is possible with the right setting and the right tools. All of this is part of the larger initiative between our two organizations: The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.
In that same vein, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit focused on community change, will this fall launch a months-long tour of libraries across the country. The tour is intended to highlight the centrality of libraries to community life.
The Institute will bring together people from a broad cross-section of each community to meet and discuss their challenges and aspirations and begin the process of showing communities how they can change and work together for the common good.
It is our hope that the Harwood Institute tour will help demonstrate the fundamental role of libraries in transforming communities. It is also our hope and belief that libraries nationwide will get a significant jumpstart from within at the ALA’s annual conference.
We are fortunate that so many of the most brilliant, well-known minds of our time are rallying around America’s library system this week in Chicago. It serves as a reminder that libraries are vital to the health of individuals, families and our communities.
— Maureen Sullivan, president, American Library Association, and Richard C. Harwood, founder and president, Harwood Institute for Public Innovation