Libraries and community engagement

2011-08 036I’m meeting with somebody soon to discuss a workshop on asset-based community development (ABCD) for library staff. To help prepare myself I’ve been looking at some resources. Not surprisingly there isn’t much on ABCD, but there is quite a bit on community engagement.

Kretzmann and Rans (2005) published a report “The Engaged Library: Chicago Stories of Community Buildingwhich sets its exploration of the way in which local libraries can contribute to community development within the context of ABCD.

It starts by suggesting:

No longer the passive repository of books and information or an outpost of culture, quiet and decorum in a noisy world, the new library is an active and responsive part of the community and an agent for change (p. 2).

Drawing on ABCD they argue that successful community building involves discovering and mobilising community assets:

1. The skills and resources of its individuals
2. The power of relationships in voluntary associations
3. Assets present in the array of local institutions
4. The physical infrastructure of the community
5. The profile and dynamics of the local economy
6. The stories that define the community, its history and its dreams (p. 3).

Based on the experience of Chicago libraries Kretzmann and Rans identify eight lessons:

1. Get outside the doors. Successful community/library relationships are proactive.
2. Find the leaders. A concerted effort to discover who’s who in a community makes all the difference.
3. Be creative about what the library can contribute.
4. Discover and contribute to the unique capacities and conditions of the community.
5. Support local businesses and institutions.
6. Make the library building a community center.
7. Create a community-minded culture among library staff and volunteers.
8. Support library investments that jump start community redevelopment efforts (p. 3).

The report discusses various examples of libraries contributing to community development and provides a brief tool kit at the end of the report. While this toolkit is specifically aimed at libraries, it could be helpful in many other contexts.

The Urban Libraries Council (2011) – who published the Kretzmann and Rans report – also have a “Leadership Brief” on community-civic engagement. Drawing on the notion of social capital, they argue that public libraries “are ideal community and civic engagement leaders and partners in democratic governance because they are trusted, stable, apolitical, and positive” (p. 2). The suggest that:

While many libraries offer programs that serve civic engagement goals and contribute to stronger communities, stepping up to their proper roles may require realigning priorities, changing staff responsibilities, and leading in new and different ways (p. 2).

They then identify five leadership roles that libraries can contribute:

1. Civic Educator—raising awareness of civics, civic engagement, and civic responsibility
2. Conversation Starter—identifying challenging community issues, creating forums for sharing opinions, and developing action strategies
3. Community Bridge—bringing diverse people – including local government officials – and organizations with different perspectives together to build stronger communities
4. Visionary—leading efforts to develop a broad and inclusive community vision
5. Center for Democracy in Action—walking, talking, thinking, and acting as the place where democracy, civic engagement, and public discourse happen (p. 2).

The Urban Libraries Council (2012) also published a longer report on civic engagement. They define civic engagement as:

Deliberate, consistent, and purposeful outreach that creates an environment in which people of all ages and from all backgrounds believe they have a voice and a role in decisions and actions that affect their lives. It includes volunteering, voting, participating in civic and social organizations, engaging in public discussions, connecting with community and government decision makers, running for public office, and caring about and working to make a difference in the places people call home (p. 5).

Their five key ideas in relation to libraries and civic engagement are:

1. In a world of decaying trust in public institutions, libraries remain highly trusted and respected, which makes them ideal civic engagement leaders.
2. Today’s library must be a more extroverted resource driven by the ability to participate in community life in meaningful ways.
3. Maximizing the library’s potential as a civic engagement leader requires raising the library’s profile, changing how stakeholders view the library, changing how libraries operate and view themselves, and being prepared for the challenges of a leadership role.
4. Library trustees, in their positions as community leaders, can help change how stakeholders view the public library.
5. A higher-visibility leadership role may produce new challenges for libraries which must be managed in order to maintain the library’s stature and reputation in the community while producing good results (p.23) .

They also suggest four ways in which libraries can take more of a leadership role:

1. Make civic engagement a library priority, and let everyone know
2. Show up
3. Encourage and expect staff to get outside the library walls
4. Identify opportunities to make a difference in the community (p. 17-21).

In the UK, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council commissioned CSV Consulting to prepare a report and a toolkit on Community engagement in public libraries.

The report (CSV Consulting, 2006a) found that

Community engagement is not commonplace in libraries in any region. Where community engagement is taking place, this appears to be down to an individual’s passion and motivation for working more closely with the community. It has so far largely been a mechanism for delivering other agendas and target (p. 3).

They suggest seven broad ways libraries are involved in community engagement.

1. The library as a space for community activity.
2. Partnership working with the voluntary sector.
3. Community involvement in relation to boards/ strategic decision making.
4. Involvement of volunteers.
5. Community involvement in one – off decision making.
6. Community involvement in relation to projects.
7. Partnership working with other public services towards community engagement (pp. 7-9).

The toolkit (CSV Consulting, 2006b) focuses more on the practice of community engagement by libraries. For example they suggest six key ingredients for successful community engagement:

1. Flexible approach. Be willing to adopt new working practices to overcome obstacles.
2. Willingness to take risks. Be willing to give it a go, avoid a blame culture
3. Work in partnership. Don’t try and do it alone.
4. Mutual trust and transparency. Show the community you trust them. Encourage them to trust you by being open and honest.
5. No fear of failure. Accept that if something doesn’t work out you will learn from the experience. Be willing to try a new approach.
6. Customer focus. Think about what works for the customer; adapt working practices to meet customer need (p. 9-10).

Anne Goulding (2009) in “Engaging with community engagement: public libraries and citizen involvement“ focuses more on the role of libraries in community engagement in terms of planning and decision making. Quoting Rogers and Robinson (2004) she defines community engagement as encompassing

A variety of approaches whereby public service bodies empower citizens to consider and express their views on how their particular needs are best met. These may range from encouraging people to have a say on setting the priorities for community safety… to sharing decision-making with them in relation to defined services uses (p. 38). (There is a range of other definitions of community engagement here.)

She discusses a range of literature (including drawing fairly extensively on the CSV Consulting report and toolkit) to explore ways in which libraries can contribute to community engagement. She concludes:

Documentary, policy and empirical evidence indicates that, increasingly, the public library is being positioned not just as a place to borrow or read books or even to access digital material, but, as a key community resource and facility which can act as a venue for community events and as an access point connecting individuals with one another, connecting people with their local communities, and connecting communities with wider society (p. 42).

Betha Gutsche  (2012) discusses a range of resources on “The engaged and embedded library: Moving from talk to action”. She provides links to a range of interesting resources and case studies.

Finally, within the Australian context, inCite (the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association) had a special edition on libraries and community engagement in 2008. There are various short case studies including:

  1. A slice of the pie: how Emerald Library engaged local youth
  2. Reconnecting through art
  3. On ‘The Edge’ at the State Library of Queensland
  4. Engaging at UQ’s Boilerhouse
  5. E-learning and 23 things – the East Gippsland way
  6. Youth engagement – verbYL Youth Lounge/Youth Library

I’d love to hear from you if you know of any good resources on community engagement and libraries or know of any great examples.

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. What is community engagement?
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  4. Online community engagement – from tools to strategy
  5. Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families
  6. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description


CSV Consulting. (2006a). Community engagement in public libraries: A report on current practice and future developments. London: Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

CSV Consulting. (2006b). Community engagement in public libraries: A toolkit for public library staff. London: Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

Goulding, A. (2009). Engaging with community engagement: public libraries and citizen involvement. New Library World, 110(1/2), 37-51.

Gutsche, B. (2012). The engaged and embedded library: Moving from talk to action. WebJunction Retrieved from

Kretzmann, J. P., & Rans, S. (2005). The Engaged Library: Chicago Stories of Community Building. Chicago: Urban Libraries Council.

Urban Libraries Council. (2011). Library priority: Community-civic engagement. Urban Libraries Council Leadership Brief, (Fall). Retrieved from

Urban Libraries Council. (2012). Civic Engagement: Stepping Up to the Civic Engagement Challenge. Chicago: Urban Libraries Council.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Working with communities and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Libraries and community engagement

  1. April Doner says:

    What a rich repository of resources and insights. Thank you very much for sharing this! Would love to hear more about your learning since posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Be Part of the Community | A Life in Libraries

  3. Pingback: Exploring My “Neighborhood” | A Life in Libraries

  4. cbecker53 says:

    Excellent post. Thank you! I’ll be sharing it on my blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. willimen says:

    Hi – You may want to look at some of these resources –

    My best

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tania says:

    Excellent post. Love it and so true!


  7. Thanks Graeme, a great starting point for libraries to build on.


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