A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Knowing Our Communities

by Carolyn A. Anthony on May 8, 2014

Public libraries in the United States were founded at the community level, largely through the work of volunteer associations actively engaged in community building. As a result of this dependence on local initiative, there are still areas in Illinois that are not served by a public library. Funding for these early libraries was initially through donations and membership fees, although enabling legislation for public libraries was gradually enacted by states, permitting the collection of taxes to support a local library. On the contrary, state legislation requires that every person in Illinois be served by a community college and a network of tax-supported institutions was created to fulfill that mandate. The nature of the founding of public libraries has shaped their development as an American institution. Wayne Wiegand, in Main Street Public Library, observes that public libraries have been shaped in part by the people who have used them, precisely because they are not compulsory, unlike schools.1

Amy Dodson, director of the Pine River Library (PRL) in Bayfield, Colorado (named the “Best Small Library in America” for 2014 by Library Journal) is quoted as saying that “lots of libraries are there for the community, but here in Bayfield, the community built the library.”2 At PRL, serving a community of 8,749 people, dozens of volunteers donated hundreds of hours to build a 17,000-square-foot outdoor “living library” with a 24-bed community garden and a straw bale tool shed with a living roof, from which people can borrow tools. The living library also includes a fruit orchard, a 26-foot geodesic dome greenhouse, five Nature Explore outdoor learning areas, an outdoor movie screen wall, and space for reading and relaxing.

The living library is larger than the indoor library which has just 13,000 square feet and houses a Dewey-less collection, expandable meeting room, and a mobile computer lab.3 Many of the services offered (such as technology training, access to digital resources, book group meetings, and storytimes) are common to most public libraries, while monthly teen functions held on Saturday evenings, for example, were started in recognition that there are few entertainment options for teens in the area. Clearly, the Bayfield community has helped shape a public library that is just right for local needs. However, the model could hardly transfer to metropolitan New York or the plains of North Dakota.

It may be that it is easier for public library staff in small towns to be in close touch with their communities since staff is more likely to be local, and to be an integral part of community life, than is the case in larger metropolitan area libraries. It is also true that there is frequently more commonality of interest and less demographic diversity in a rural area or small town than in an urban area. A 2013 report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) notes that “Of the 8,956 public libraries in the United States in FY2011, 77.1 percent can be categorized as small.”4 Nearly 47 percent of public libraries were categorized as rural. The IMLS report also observed that rural libraries have higher per-capita levels of publicly accessible Internet computers and e-books than urban public libraries. Looking at the 2013 PLDS survey results, it is clear that these small libraries also have a higher per-capita number of visits, circulation, and program attendance than metropolitan area libraries. In many instances, the public library in a small town is the primary community center. So how are the majority of public libraries (the 53 percent categorized by IMLS as non-rural), as well as the 22.9 percent of public libraries which may be considered medium or large in scale, to emulate the role of the public library as community hub?

Many metropolitan public libraries are successful centers of community activity and engagement in spite of serving demographically diverse areas. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Miller Branch of the Howard County (Md.) Library System, which opened in December 2011. Calling itself a twenty-first-century facility for a twenty-first-century public education, the branch focuses on self-directed education, research assistance and instruction, and instructive and enlightening experiences. In a metropolitan area between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the Miller Branch has an Enchanted Garden which is an outdoor teaching garden for health, nutrition, and environmental education, and it hosts the Howard County Farmers’ Market on Wednesday afternoons from May through November. Staff told me that the Miller Branch had 849,368 visits in FY2013 and circulated more than two million items. It was apparent to a visitor that the branch was teeming with activity, engaging people of different ages and ethnicities.

From my personal observation, staff in libraries such as the Miller Branch, which is clearly meeting community needs, are knowledgeable about community demographics and the constituent markets comprising their communities, and are actively engaged on the local level, pursuing multiple partnerships with other agencies for service development and delivery.

The latest report on public library use from the Pew Research Center, previewed by the PLA Board at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in January, is a market segmentation of the U.S. population according to public library use patterns.5 In general, the report revealed that 30 percent of people are enthusiastic public library users, 39 percent are moderately engaged with public libraries, and 31 percent (nearly one third) are characterized by low or no engagement with public libraries. Interestingly, the most enthusiastic two user groups are “more urban/suburban” and “less rural” than other groups. The groups are also characterized as being 70 to 80 percent college-educated, skewing female, including many parents, and having a median age range of 40 to 44. Pew Report author Lee Rainie describes two groups which are in the middling engagement status with public libraries and five distinct groups of infrequent or non-users. The breakdown of the low- and no-engagement population shows where there is real potential for increased engagement. For example, 7 percent of the population is in a low-engagement group with individuals who are young, in transition, and uncertain where the nearest library is. Twenty-eight percent are looking for a job and 26 percent are students. The public library could have a lot to offer people in this group, but staff would have to reach out to connect with them as they are preoccupied with activities related to finding a job and establishing themselves in the area. Another 7 percent of the population is designated as “rooted and roadblocked” and is characterized as being older, possibly retired, with a significant percentage having experienced a major illness in the past year or living with a disability. They are long-time residents of their neighborhoods, but socially disengaged. While they may have used a public library at some point in their lives, and have positive feelings about libraries, only about a third visited a library in the past year.

Other groups are similarly detailed, but the Pew Report shows that we need to understand more about the characteristics of those who use public libraries—and those who don’t—and how futile it is to speak generally about the non-user. Increased public-relations efforts (such as production of flyers and radio spots) are unlikely to persuade many people from either of these two non-user groups (“young, in transition” and “rooted and roadblocked”) to visit the library. Clearly, people in these two groups are in very different places in their lives and circumstances, and can only be reached through targeted outreach, perhaps by partnering with an agency that is in regular contact with them. The older population that is ill or disabled and more limited in their social engagement might be reached through a social service agency or Meals on Wheels, for example. The younger group that includes job-seekers might be reached through partnership with an employment counseling agency. Since this group is characterized by higher tech involvement, use of social media might also be effective in establishing a connection, if the message were targeted to their interests. A long, digital newsletter from the library featuring storytime news, summer reading prize announcements, and the upcoming class on flower arranging would not be likely to catch their attention. Use of Facebook or Twitter to talk about a workshop on résumé writing or mock interview sessions at the library might just draw them in.

It is vital that we think in terms of targeted groups of users as these are the multiple communities that make up our library service areas. The more diverse and complex our service areas become, the more attention staff must pay to identifying and targeting specific groups of users, with common characteristics and interests, so that we can actively relate library services to their interests and needs. We cannot continue to busy ourselves with only the people who come through our doors, knowing that about a third of the population is less library-engaged for one reason or another. IMLS funded a project of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) called “Built to Learn: A Model Community Engagement Project.”6 CMOM partnered on the project with the New York City Housing Authority to bring the museum learning experience into public housing developments, building critical academic skills and promoting healthy habits in young children and their caretakers in East Harlem. Weekly classes focus on storytelling, music, art, movement, and healthy eating. The project also provides older adults and families with access to other community resources. At the outset, CMOM completed a needs assessment with community members and parents in order to design responsive services. Such a program that takes CMOM’s resources and skills to the people will have a great impact on the lives of individuals and on the community.

How can we learn more about community needs? Five years ago, the Skokie (Ill.) Public Library (SPL) started a market segmentation project with CivicTechnologies. We at SPL discovered that our diverse and dense community of ten square miles is made up of eleven different socioeconomic groups. By geocoding patron registration, circulation, program attendance, and computer use, we were able to see patterns of library use and non-use as well as patterns in cross-use of library services that had not been apparent to us before. We identified an area, for example, that had only 36 percent registered borrowers and lower use of children’s services than would be predicted based on the demographics. Staff devised an objective to reach parents of young children through the schools and achieved 97 percent library registration for those children. Because we were able to get the children’s library card numbers embedded in their student records, we have seen increased use of library databases for homework help, independent of whether the parents are able to bring the children to the library or not.

As helpful as data is, it is a filter through which one regards the community at a distance, and therefore is an adjunct to direct community engagement. The American Library Association is working in partnership with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to enable libraries to transform communities. Rich Harwood talks about the “3 A’s of Public Life” being Authority, Authenticity, and Accountability:

  • Authority comes with having a deep knowledge of the community and making internal decisions and external partnerships based on that knowledge.
  • Authenticity is integrity and a demonstrated degree of caring through deep listening and regard for people in the community.
  • Accountability is a focus on what will make a real difference in the community’s civic health, a recognition that the community changes over time, and fulfillment of promises to the community.7

To begin to operate with the 3 A’s, one must have public knowledge which comes from engaging with people directl around their aspirations, their concerns, and their view of the community. It helps the library phrase issues and goals in terms that are meaningful to people. It also helps shape priorities so that library services are more relevant and have greater impact.

Coming back to Wiegand’s book and what we might learn from the history of the founding and development of public libraries that can suggest a future course, he comments on the social nature of reading and the role of the library as public space. While his research stops at 1956, the observations sound quite contemporary. There is an increase in the number of book discussion groups and a current vogue for writers’ workshops as well. And much has been written in recent years about the library as “third space”—neither home nor office, but a public place to meet a client, entertain grandchildren, learn a new computer skill, or escape for a while for reading or research. What is it that people in the community are doing and what kind of a community do they want to live in? How are people’s lives changing? We know that convenience and ease of use are all important. Amazon.com has built an empire on the concept. How can the public library better meet people where they are? Wiegand suggests thinking about the “library in the life of the user” rather than the “user in the life of the library.”8 There’s a real paradigm shift. Do we know our communities well enough to see where the library fits in to the life of the user?


  1. Wayne A. Wiegand, Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956 (Iowa and the Midwest Experience) (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Pr., 2011): 4.
  2. John N. Berry III, “Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, CO—Building a Living Library,” Library Journal, Jan. 29, 2014, accessed Feb. 27, 2014.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Deanne W. Swan, Justin Grimes, and Timothy Owens, The State of Small and Rural Libraries in the United States, Institute of Museum and Library Services Research Paper #5, September 2013, accessed Feb. 27, 2014, .
  5. Kathryn Zickuhr et. al., “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 11, 2013, accessed Apr. 9, 2014.
  6. IMLS Bulletin, Apr. 18, 2013, accessed Apr. 9, 2014.
  7. Rich Harwood, “3 A’s of Public Life,” Public Innovators Lab Guide training session, Oct. 28-30, 2013, accessed Apr. 9, 2014.
  8. Wiegand, Main Street Public Library, 4.