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The Community-Led Public Library

What does a Community-Led Public Library look like? At the core of the Community-Led Library is relationship building, both internally (within an organisation) and externally (with local communities). A good relationship needs to be created between the staff who work for the public library before they can develop a good relationship between the public library and the community.

The community-led philosophy and values should be evident in all aspects of the Community-Led Public Library, including community consultation; needs assessment and research; standards; and monitoring of services.


Consultation can take many forms, but is often limited to the passive act of giving information or the reactions of local communities to proposals that have already been developed by library experts. The community-led approach enables local residents and organisations to work in shared planning and action with the library. The highest level of engagement is a leadership model where the community initiates and leads issues with support from library service.

Needs Assessment and Research

Consultation and engagement are the building blocks of relationship building, needs assessment and research. Community profiles and community asset mapping can establish baselines of what resources are currently available and what is required to meet community needs. These needs may range from very basic physiological requirements (food, clothing, shelter) to self-actualization (realizing a person’s full potential). The community is an expert in its own needs and a library should prioritize those with the greatest needs. Library needs assessments can be co-produced by the library and community working together in partnership.

Library Image and Identity

Library image and identity are significant factors in library use and non-use. There are a number of barriers to be overcome, including those that are institutional (opening hours, rules and regulations); personal and social barriers (lack of basic skills, low income and poverty); environmental barriers (access, isolation, poor transport links); perceptional barriers; and lack of awareness (people who do not think libraries are relevant to their lives or needs). Attempts have been made to change the image of libraries through re-branding exercises such as Idea Stores (co-located public libraries and adult learning centres) and Discovery Centres (co-located public libraries, museums and art galleries) in the U.K.

Outreach, Community Development and Partnerships

The word ‘library’ is often synonymous with a building full of books, but community-led libraries are focused more on people and relationships. Outreach is predicated on assumed needs, with programs and services designed, planned, delivered and evaluated by library experts. Community development is premised on shared resources, values and outcomes. Libraries can be transformed into living rooms of the community and democratic public spaces, which are co-owned by communities.

Information and Communications Technology

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is a means to an end – to meet community needs  – and not an end in itself or a magic bullet which can make libraries socially inclusive. ICT has an important role to play as a tool that can be targeted to socially excluded communities to provide access to digital skills and services including e-government. There is a strong link between internet use and household income. For example, within the 16-24 age group, 88.3% of those in the top income quartile have access to wireless internet, compared to just 26.4% in the bottom quartile. The balance is reversed when it comes to use of the internet in public libraries: 16.3% of those in the wealthiest group compared to 26.8% in the poorest group. In this example it is clear how ICT can be targeted toward those with the greatest needs.

Materials Provision

Materials selection has always been a political decision and has often been used as an agent of social control rather than social change. ‘Reads’ versus ‘Needs’ is an ongoing debate between those who see libraries as gatekeepers of knowledge and worthy literature, and those who view them as gateways to popular culture. Community-led libraries place more emphasis on equity than excellence and recognize that libraries exist to meet community needs rather than uphold professional standards.

Staffing, Recruitment, Training and Education

Community-led libraries put people first, which means great care must be taken in selecting the right ‘man’ for the job. Empathy and social skills are more important than technical library qualifications. Staff training and development should focus on developing a portfolio of community development skills: communication skills; listening skills; influencing relationships; reflective practice; improved confidence and assertiveness; negotiation skills; dealing with conflict. The community-led library worker skill-set should include a blend of personal attributes and behaviours (values and ethics); generic skills (including community engagement); core library and information skills (reading, learning and information literacy); and specific leadership and management skills (finance, human resources and performance management).

Mainstreaming and Resourcing

Community-led must be mainstreamed as a strategic priority so that it drives all aspects of library service, including structures (staff and services), systems (policies, procedures and processes) and culture (‘the way we do things around here’). This will in turn inform the allocation and redirection of resources. Community-led services must be internally funded, long-term and sustainable. They should not be project-based or reliant on grants and external resources.

Standards and Monitoring of Services

The community-led public library is able to identify, prioritize and meet community needs. But how do we know when we have met a community need? The answer lies in actively involving all sections of the community – library users, lapsed users and non users – in the design, planning, delivery and evaluation of library services. In this way monitoring and assessment becomes an ongoing process rather than a one off exercise. It enables services to be constantly evaluated and fine-tuned to ensure they are meeting community needs.

John Pateman is the CEO / Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. The Open for All? column explores the nature of libraries and their commitment to openness.

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