A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

FROM THE PRESIDENT | A Foundation for the Future

by Felton Thomas on August 10, 2016

Nearly twenty years ago, I made one of the best professional decisions of my life and joined the American Library Association. Soon after, I became a PLA member and began to volunteer with this fine organization. Even then, I could never believe that the young boy who had started working in public libraries at the age of thirteen to escape gangs in his neighborhood would one day lead the organization representing more than nine thousand public library workers and supporting more than 16,000 public libraries throughout the country. There have been many mentors over the years, and I begin by thanking them for their belief in me and their great counsel. I also want to thank my staff and board at the Cleveland (OH) Public Library for their support of this leadership journey. Finally, I must thank my family in advance for their patience and love over the next twelve months.

PLA’s mission is clear: cultivate a community of talented public library profes­sionals where anyone can contribute and everyone can grow. PLA is where leader­ship, kinship, and innovation combine to create possibility for public library people. Because you who work in public libraries shape these essential institutions, we at PLA are committed to being your ally.

As your incoming president, I look forward to working with the talented staff at PLA to be the indispensable partner you deserve. And while some have asked me what my platform will be, I can answer without hesitation that I did not run for PLA president to create a new platform. We already have a new and effective public awareness campaign, Libraries Transform. I ran for PLA president because I felt that I could be an effective communicator of stories of leadership, kinship, and innovation that are essentially the foundation for our future. My time as PLA’s president will be focused on being the best communicator of your efforts to create innovations in neighborhoods throughout the United States and the initiatives that are being driven by the staff and volunteers at PLA. In each of my President’s Message columns, I’m going to share a story about what PLA is doing to make sure public libraries are a wellspring of possibility.

In this issue, I’d like to introduce you to PLA’s initiative to investigate the best practices and innovative ideas around family engagement. Family engagement is generally defined as the beliefs, attitudes, and activities of families to support their children’s learning. These are all concepts that PLA and public libraries have helped advance for many years through PLA’s Every Child Ready to Read toolkit. However, federal, state, and local agencies around the nation have identified family engage­ment as critical to student achievement and school improvement. This increased focus on family engagement outside of libraries has pushed us to evaluate what work is being done inside libraries.

In 2015, then–PLA President Larry Neal convened a task force to consider the vital role that libraries could play in engaging families. The task force was formed under the leadership of cochairs Clara Bohrer and Kathleen Reif with the charge to explore partnerships and consider resources to be developed to help public libraries learn about and implement successful family engagement practices.

An initial review of the research on family engagement introduced the task force to the work of the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), which is part of the Harvard School of Education. A leader in applied research on the topic, the HFRP wel­comed discussions with us to consider how both organizations might work together.

After these early conversations, they expressed their eagerness to collaborate with us, as they see libraries as an impor­tant part of the out-of-school ecosystem.

We agree and, with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, an exciting new project has been underway for eight months. PLA members had their first taste of this important work with the document “Public Libraries Are a Vital Space for Family Engagement,” which was released this summer (visit http://bit .ly/2bm2Bjc to download the PDF). A com­prehensive report on how libraries value family engagement and opportunities for even better relationships will be released later this year. I want to thank Clara and Kathleen for their leadership and also recognize the hard work of the task force as we unveil this work to the public library community.

Another new PLA initiative, the Global Libraries Legacy Partnership, was announced at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference. In May 2016, PLA received a ten-year grant of $10,805,701 from the Global Libraries (GL) Initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In May 2014, the foundation announced it would wind down its GL Initiative over the next four years, after two decades and one billion dollars invested in public libraries worldwide. In order to exit the field in a catalytic way, leaving it strong, GL chose three organizations to apply for funding as legacy partners: (1) PLA, (2) the Tech­nology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington’s Information School (TASCHA), and (3) the Interna­tional Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). PLA was honored to be chosen and will use the opportunity to deepen, expand, and transform its engagement with public libraries across the country. Much more information, in­cluding program specifics and how to get involved, will follow the field-wide launch by the three legacy partners in fall 2016.

I look forward to working with PLA members on these great initiatives and more in the year ahead.