The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization with the mission to “foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.” The Communications and Society Program within Aspen dedicates its work to activities that “…focus on issues of open and innovative governance, public diplomacy, institutional innovation, broadband and spectrum management, as well as the future of content, issues of race and diversity, and the free flow of digital goods, services and ideas across borders.” Among the current projects of the C & S program is the Dialogue on Public Libraries. Their October 2014 report, titled Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries, addresses the need to transform public libraries in the digital age. The Aspen Report uses three “key assets” to shape the information and recommendations: people, place and platform. On the heels of a year where YALSA introduced The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action, I was curious to see if and where these two reports overlap in their visions.
The Aspen Report’s first key asset, The Library as People, focuses on building community relationships and cashing in on the “human capital” of the population that any given library serves. Library staff are encouraged to use outcomes-based reporting, to build strong relationships with those who create and provide content, and to act as navigators rather than gatekeepers. The report refers to an “entrepreneurial learner,” one who is capable of “finding resources anywhere and using them to read the world and teach themselves.” This reflects the paradigm change presented in YALSA’s report: moving toward a kitchen-type model where library staff can mix resources “in order to empower teens to build skills, develop understanding, create and share, and overcome adversity.”
The second key asset outlined by the Aspen report is The Library as Place. Libraries can act both as a community’s living room for casual information browsing and as a destination for specific activities, be they recreational programming or co-learning opportunities. A library’s virtual presence is important, but the digital divide remains a very real hurdle. While The Future of Library Services for and With Teens report does not have a completely analogous section, YALSA continues to stress the need for safe public places for teens. YALSA recommends a move from fixed seating/meeting arrangements to more flexible options, and notes that the whole library should be available to teens, not just one designated area. The development of maker or similar creative spaces in libraries can help bridge the tech gap many teens encounter. Teens’ motivation to learn, as covered in the Futures report, also connects to the idea of place—there are multiple benefits to providing both formal and informal learning environments in both a physical and virtual space.
The Library as Platform is the final key asset. According to David Weinberger of Harvard University, the library platform can be thought of “as an infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town, or the classrooms and yards of a university. Think of the library as coextensive with the geographic area that it serves, like a canopy, or as we say these days, like a cloud.” Instead of strictly lending materials, the new library will help analyze information problems and connect people to information in “serendipitous” ways. Again, there is no direct comparison in YALSA’s paper, but the ideas from Aspen are reflected in various parts; for example, the Futures report notes how libraries can connect teens with other community organizations, and how libraries can get teens involved with various youth participation projects.
Overall, the general themes of these reports are similar: in the digital age, libraries need to seriously consider what they offer and how they interact with their communities in order to remain not just relevant, but highly valued organizations. Expanding the literacies of current and potential library users is crucial, and collaboration is key. The Aspen Report offers many ideas for the digital-era library, while the YALSA report focuses in on one particular service age. Reading and learning from a variety of reports like these helps all library staff plan for a bright future.