Aspen Institute Releases Model State-Level Dialogue Report for Colorado

On January 31 the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries (DPL) released “Libraries: Building Community Resilience in Colorado.” The report presents the findings of The Aspen Institute Colorado Dialogue on Public Libraries, a meeting of community stakeholders and library leaders held on May 25, 2017, and builds on DPL’s work examining the evolving roles of public libraries and developing models to drive discussions between libraries and their communities.
On January 31 the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries (DPL) released “Libraries: Building Community Resilience in Colorado.” The report presents the findings of The Aspen Institute Colorado Dialogue on Public Libraries, a meeting of community stakeholders and library leaders held on May 25, 2017, and builds on DPL’s work examining the evolving roles of public libraries and developing models to drive discussions between libraries and their communities. The Colorado Dialogue, a collaboration between DPL and the Colorado State Library, brought together 24 public and academic library leaders, state and local officials, and business and civic partners. During the course of the day-long discussion the participants—who included Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes, and Colorado State Library Director of Library Development Sharon Morris—explored opportunities for Colorado’s public libraries to work more closely with multiple stakeholders, and to leverage their resources to build stronger communities across the state.


DPL, an initiative of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released its first report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, in October 2014. “Rising to the Challenge” focused on assets and opportunities, and outlined ways that libraries could best leverage their networks and connections. These recommendations sparked a series of discussions over the following two years that resulted in DPL’s Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library, a resource to help libraries evaluate their success in meeting community needs and identify new goals with their communities as active partners. The Action Guide, unveiled at the American Library Association (ALA) 2016 Midwinter meeting, was the product of a pilot program among 23 libraries of varying sizes from across the country. In 2016 and 2017, said DPL director Amy Garmer, "We focused…on creating a series of model community dialogs that could showcase how a community of any size, of any geography, with whatever kind of library it might have, could take the steps to convene community leaders to discuss the role of the public library and address the priorities and the goals of the communities." As DPL started to look at candidates for model dialogs, Pam Sandlian Smith, director of Anythink Libraries in Adams County and part of the original 35-member DPL working group, began advocating to bring the state-level discussion to Colorado. She had long encouraged library directors throughout the state to use the Action Guide to create stakeholder dialogs in their communities, she told LJ, “and the libraries who chose to utilize this have told me that in many ways that was the most rewarding conversation they had had.” Colorado, she felt, had a strong state library and engaged leadership, and would be a productive partner for DPL. Garmer ultimately agreed. "We saw an opportunity in…Colorado as a state that has both several large urban centers and a lot of smaller communities and rural communities. It looked like the perfect kind of place for us to develop a state model,” she said. “Each state is unique, but Colorado seemed like it was very representative and very prepared to work with us." "One of the things that we looked for," Garmer added, "is partners that have good connections or relationships with their business community, their elected officials, their nonprofit community, and their education communities, and can see how working with the Aspen Institute to develop a dialog like this can help them move their agenda forward." In addition to the conversation in Colorado, DPL’s dialogs included a pilot model hosted by the state of Connecticut and subsequent discussions in partnership with the single-branch Winter Park Public Library, FL, which serves a community of 28,000; Sutter County, CA, home to a four branch system serving a rural county and municipal jurisdictions with separate governments; and Houston Public Library, representing the large urban model (the Houston Dialogue concluded in November 2017; the report is forthcoming).


The dialog, which convened at the History Colorado Center in Denver, was designed from the outset to build on the Colorado Resiliency Framework, a plan developed in 2016 under the leadership of Governor Hickenlooper’s administration. The plan identifies strengths of and challenges to state and community resiliency in the face of an uncertain economic, educational, climate, and social landscape—a natural opportunity for libraries to serve as strong partners with local businesses, educators, civic groups, policymakers, and more. Libraries have been underrepresented on statewide commissions and task forces, however, and dependence on local funding has meant that libraries are not consistently able to provide the level of support their communities need. Throughout more than 14 years in public service, Governor Hickenlooper told LJ, “[Of] all these public-private partnerships I've been working on and trying to expand…libraries are one of the ones where we've had some of our best successes—and yet I think there's still some of the greatest potential." The dialog helped connect libraries to a number of statewide initiatives and programs, as well as highlighting opportunities for new funding models at legislative and local levels. Moderated round table discussions in the morning were followed by small group breakout sessions in the afternoon, winding up with a final plenary session that highlighted specific proposals. Ten opportunities for strengthening library-community partnerships were identified—what Garmer considers "a reflection of having so many people around the table from different stakeholder communities":
  1. Build into the resiliency of communities the knowledge that people change career paths all the time.
  2. Look at education and lifelong learning as one interrelated ecosystem.
  3. Adopt whole approaches to children and families for closing achievement and other gaps.
  4. Develop partnerships for collective impact.
  5. Connect libraries with the creative community.
  6. Build networks with the private sector.
  7. Create a new office to facilitate public-private and public-public partnerships (“P3 czar”).
  8. Reclaim the salon culture in libraries.
  9. Attract, inspire and enable diverse talent in the library and the community.
  10. Change the culture and policies that inhibit innovation.
In addition, the dialog proposed four specific projects: Library in a Box, a platform to centrally gather and share stories of library impact and associated data; Youth Voices, which would examine video production as a way to engage young people with libraries; Workforce Training Modules Pilot, which would identify future workforce needs and develop training modules; and Civic Umbrella, a project proposing the library as a central place for exchanging ideas, networking, and developing citizenship and civic identity. What makes these projects strong jumping-off points, Garmer explained, is that they position libraries to lead, but not alone. "Each project relies on reaching out to, and developing a relationship and working with, other key partners that will help to amplify and get the projects outside of just being in the library,” she told LJ. “They're really community projects that are led by the library." Hickenlooper came away from the discussion with a revived admiration for libraries’ capacity and flexibility, he told LJ. Library participants “were saying, you show us another need you have, set a challenge in front of us, and we'll figure out a way to address it.” In addition, he added, “One of the comments that came out [of the dialog] was that libraries are one of the building blocks of resiliency, and that might be more useful now than ever."


The report, as the executive summary states, “is not intended to be prescriptive, but to encourage fresh thinking and further dialogue on the role of public libraries in ensuring that every Colorado community is vibrant, prosperous and resilient.” Each partner present took away its own benefits; Sandlian Smith noted that the conversation helped clarify language that she would later use for Anythink’s new strategic plan. “Our businesspeople, stakeholders, policymakers, and folks from government told us that Anythink is an innovator already, and they look to us to be that catalyst to support innovation and entrepreneurship in our community for businesses, government, and people,” she told LJ. “I have to say that floored me. It's not every day that a community says that to you…. That kind of respect is refreshing and there's a lot of responsibility connected to that. We're building even stronger partnerships and relationships as a result of this continued conversation that we're having." Colorado was chosen as a representative state, noted Garmer, but libraries in other states should consider convening similar forums. "There's immense opportunity for libraries, particularly at this moment in the national conversation…particularly around trust and credibility, information, the future of political discourse, social interactions, [and] education.” Although not every state library may feel like it has the resources to pull together a dialog with public policymakers and civic leaders, Garmer stated, "It's a matter of defining something like this as a priority. I know that state libraries have been really crunched—budget, demands for services, whether it's professional development or…responsibility for technology. It’s challenging to say you're going to put this on your agenda and you're going to do this, because it does take a lot of work. But it's really worth the investment if you're ready, if you know how you want to move forward.” Garmer suggests identifying state and local level officials, business partners, and community based organizations that can help the library advance its goals—and who will also, in turn,  benefit from giving putting libraries on their radar. “Build an agenda that allows you to start not from what the library is and what it can do for you—which is where I think a lot of library community conversations start now—but with identifying what goals and priorities are for the people who come to the table from outside of libraries, and to identify where the intersections are with library strengths." She also encourages interested libraries to visit the stories tab at DPL’s website to read up on various library leaders’ experiences re-envisioning their own libraries. "We'd like to see what we can do to expand that and equip other organizations, perhaps state libraries in particular, with the knowledge and some of the skill sets that we have, so that…they feel comfortable to do this themselves," Garmer said. Aspen’s resources, noted Sandlian Smith, have not only offered new avenues for community engagement; working with DPL “elevates the credibility of the library in our communities. You know, sometimes it's hard to get some folks' attention. But because it was the Aspen Institute, I think it was easier to encourage people to participate and to elevate the conversation to a higher level. We're always trying to position libraries in ways that command respect…. I see Colorado libraries moving forward even more powerfully because of this work.”
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