Libraries Leading Community

I am very lucky to live in place that is home to a large number of excellent public libraries. Going to the library is a regular family outing in my household. It is a place to get out of the rain, to bump into friends, to gather a new selection of books and to attend the wide array of free programs on offer.  I am very aware of how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful resource not far from our front door! It is for this reason that I am writing this post in praise of the role that libraries play in building community.

Here are six inspiring examples of libraries pushing their boundaries, complementing their traditional roles and being creative in community building:


1. Integrating social services

The Alachua Library located in Florida was created as a partnership that has allowed them to become much more than a place that just lends books. They now also host a community closet, which distributes clothing and food, and act as a home to social services such as assistance with rent subsidies, substance abuse and seniors socials. The Alachua Library received an award for this work from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2011.


2. School-library partnerships

The Howard County Library System has created a school-library partnership that they call “A+ Partners in Education”. This arrangement means that every school is assigned an associated branch and liaison person within that branch, every student receives a library card upon registering at school, and librarians provide programming within schools. All very simple ideas, but effective! I can remember running a school field trip to the library when teaching in a grade 5/6 classroom located a block away from the library. Over half of the students in that class did not have a library card before that field trip.

Some communities have experimented with combining public and school libraries into the same facility. There are pros and cons to such a model, as described by the Wisconsin department of public instruction in their useful guide on this topic. In the province of Alberta, 20% of public libraries are housed in schools, and the provincial government has written a useful report on their experiences with this approach.

For those very interested in this topic, Natalie Reif Ziarnik has just released a book examining the relationship between schools and libraries.


3. Hackerspace

The Allen County Public Library is re-imagining itself as a place where community members share much more than books. They have installed a ‘hackerspace’ or ‘Maker Station’ in their parking lot. The hackerspace is a place where community members can share skills and use machines such as computer controlled power tools and 3-D printers, which can create a plastic object from a computer file! The library director envisions the “Maker Station” as a place where peer to peer learning can occur and where the library can move beyond the “book business” to the “learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business.” This library has caught the attention of folks such as Make magazineNPR, and Mind/Shift.


4. Express library

The Greater Victoria Public Library system — which I’m proud to call my home base — has experimented with the idea of an ‘express library’ attached to a coffee shop, which is located in a developing suburban core. The small library branch only carries recently released books and videos, all displayed in a very browser-friendly manner. Users have access to computers and there is a corner in which kids can settle down and read. After checking out books, one can lounge in the chairs provided, move to the café next door or head out to a nearby park — all of which we regularly do with our family. While this kind of library does not replace a traditional library, it certainly provides a wonderful compliment to an already vibrant system.


5. Human library

Perhaps it is my own experience living and working in an international school that emphasizes the need to live together to understand one another, that keeps bringing me back to the human library. This is a wonderful way to build community and enhance peer to peer learning in our societies. This concept is growing fast. If one has not yet been organized in your local library, here is a description of how you can get one going.


6. Mobile libraries

There are many examples of great mobile libraries. In Thailand, the Minister of Education has funded boat libraries. The Columbus Metropolitian Library in Ohio has moved the library out of the constraints of its walls and into its community. The staff at this library travel to ‘at risk’ communities to share literacy-building skills aimed at children. In addition to workshops, they also offer mobile book checkout and library card sign-ups. For an entertaining read about mobile libraries, pick up the children’s book My Librarian is a Camel. If you’re looking to start your own mobile library, check out — a site where Australian librarians share ideas and experiences about running mobile libraries.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways in which libraries help build community around them. For those who are keen to think more deeply about the role that libraries play in building community, check out PPS’s Libraries as Porches, or the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, the result of an innovative project run by the Greater Vancouver Public Library. What about your library? Do you have an example to share?

Re-posted by permission from

Photo: San Jose Library

About the Lead Author

Laura Fulton
Laura Fulton
Laura Fulton is an educator who is passionate about communities in all forms. She has lived, worked and volunteered on four continents. Laura has taught learners from elementary children to adults. She has worked primarily in schools but has also fostered learning on archaeological sites, in museums and through NGOS. In addition, Laura has extensive experience in educational and community leadership; residential and outdoor education; and the design, development, evaluation and implementation of programs and curriculum. Communitiesknow allows Laura to combine her experiences with school communities with her experiences with place-based communities. Through this blog, Laura is nurturing a conversation about our capacity to create contexts and conditions that enhance community learning and health. Email Laura at

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