I’m in Austin, TX, today engaging with librarians, digital curators, and technologists working at the nexus of communities and knowledge at the Electronic Resources and Libraries annual conference. You can follow along with the sessions today through Wednesday using #ERL11. I had the distinct honor of presenting the opening keynote and after talking with librarians supported in the TechSoup for Libraries program, part of the Community-Driven Innovation team at TechSoup Global, I’m excited to continue the conversations about libraries operating as the heart of the community, and the technologies that can help them do it. Below, I’ve shared my keynote remarks and slides and I hope you’ll share your ideas and further the conversation in the comments

Libraries: The Oldest New Frontier for Innovation

When it comes to innovation in civil society, there is nothing that can match the speed and ingenuity of communities that come together to make a change, develop a tool, or feed a need. “Innovating at the speed of communities” relies on a few core principles, but underpinning all of them is the concept of innovating WITH, not FOR the community.  I want to start, first, with a story…

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Minnesota Council for Nonprofits annual conference; and after my presentation, I spent a couple hours speaking with folks from various nonprofits, vendors and service organizations. I told one woman that I’d be headed here next, and she said, “Oh, I used to do the library makeovers for Target – I love libraries!” She then went on to explain the library program she used to work with at Target and how rewarding it was for her to get to support libraries in schools around the country. It sounded great, until her last comment: She told me that it was a really important program, because libraries are the heart of the community…well, in elementary schools at least. I was pretty surprised that she’d qualify that statement and so I asked her why she didn’t think libraries were the heart of all communities; and she just said, well, maybe they used to be.

That conversation is a perfect example of both the kinds of conversations I have had countless times when talking to people (whether they work for a library or not) about the future of libraries as well as the frame I’m using for this talk.

Why Community?

So, why community? Why focus on that instead of content, or knowledge or information or anything else? Well, at least in my opinion, the definition of a library includes the community – those that come every day, those that come to events or use the services, and those that haven’t yet engaged. As I mentioned when I started, in order to be positioned as the heart of the community and to continue evolving our services, programs, and thus our relevance, we need to think about how we innovate or work WITH the community, and not just FOR the community. That word change supports co-design, it encourages collaboration, and it ensures engagement.

There are a few core elements of the way communities work that we can learn from as a model for innovation as well.

Communities are flexible. “Membership” isn’t official and moderated (beyond basic rules of engagement) and as such can change all the time, but so can the focus and the operations. Because organized efforts are based on goals and the work or process itself, it’s easy for communities to iterate or change at any time and remain flexible in the decisions and steps created towards achieving those driving goals.

Leadership and decision-making come from adoption not from executive authority. If there’s an idea that the community is behind, and a project or plan that’s adopted (whether it’s a new way of operating or a new tool), then it moves forward, regardless of “who” thought it up or campaigned for it. Adoption is something we’ll come back to later as well.

Instead of grant deliverables or profit, passion and impact are the bottom line motivators for change. Obviously “profit” is a slippery slope, but in most scenarios, it isn’t the community at large that would financially benefit off of change. It’s that distance from financial consequences that let communities put best interest and opportunity ahead of other influencers.

Communities share, pass on, and constantly expand a collective wisdom and knowledge from experiences, events, movements and legacy. In an organization, when someone leaves, that knowledge is lost, but with a community it is shared so constantly and knowledge sharing is built into the way communities operate, that it is harder for information to disappear.

Community-Driven Model

Organizations, whether nonprofits, institutions, human services, or even ad hoc groups, can harness these elements of communities and use a community-driven model to design programs and services as well as create a platform for collaboration, and reposition themselves as the heart of the community. We can provide a map, the vehicle, and even the road snacks, but the community needs to be the driver. When we take over the driving, we move the community to the backseat and lose the opportunity to go where the community wants.

Before I talk about strategic elements of the community-driven model, I want to share some key conditions that need to be in place to ensure a library or any other organization can move to a community-driven model.


Working with the community, working with anyone for that matter, requires a great deal of listening. But in a community-driven model, you can’t just listen for the sake of learning. You have to go beyond that and listen for action. Listening takes many shapes and what you “hear” comes in many forms and from many directions. The ideas, questions, requests, and needs that you hear regardless of how direct they seem, should provide you with the inspiration and impetus for either new programs, services or offerings or ways to change those that you already have in place. If you aren’t in a position to take action based on what you hear, there’s little purpose in listening or trying to use a community-driven model. The community will see that you aren’t making changes, aren’t communicating, and aren’t collaborating and will disengage.

Building on that listening, and supporting you in taking action based on what you hear, it’s integral that you have the capacity to change. There may be many things you do and provide that the community loves. There may also be things that the community wants you to change – and those may not be limited to a specific service or program. It may be larger than that. And without the capacity for change, the actions you take and the integration you can achieve with the community is limited.

Not only do you need to be listening and taking action, but as an organization, you need to have a culture that supports collaboration. Without one, you’ll be impaired further along the road as you start trying to implement new programs or services or innovate the way you work because you will be taking on all of the responsibility, management and work. Collaboration in the community-driven model doesn’t just mean you invite the public to meetings about what you’re doing, it means they are invited in, invested in, and share responsibility for the work you’re doing together.

Communities use adoption as collective decision making and prioritization. As such, adoption can be used as a currency, measuring the worth of your programs, services and opportunities. Those that aren’t adopted are prime targets for iteration and evolution and great places to start involving the community in creating changes that result in adoption and use.

All of these principles and community-driven practices all require communication and transparency. The community knows you’re listening because you are consistently sharing back what you hear and what might be possible. Your capacity for change and the opportunities to collaborate are visible through open communication and public information. You work with the community in a transparent process of engagement so community members can see when they might want to get involved, when they aren’t interested, and when there’s room for change.

These principles all underpin the degree of success you will have with your community engagement and integration. They also create the foundation for a community-driven strategy.

Community-Driven Strategy

As I’m sure many of you already know, much of this work, whether it’s building up the community, working on engagement, listening, evaluation, or anything else, relies on a strategy continues to come back around to the planning elements and through to evaluation, over and over. Not exactly a simple circle, but a cycle that after a few steps feeds back to the beginning. From listening, to creating to evaluating and then back to the listening again so that you can modify and then evaluate, and so on.

Who’s the community?

The first step: Identifying your community. That may sound simple, like “my town, or my campus, or my organization.” But think about it in more detail. What are they like: what are the demographics, the data, the stories? Where are they: where do they go and how do they get there? What other services do they use or organizations do they work with? What kind of action and interaction already happens, and what actions or interaction are they looking to find? Whether it seems important in the moment or not, it’s really valuable to make a list or chart or picture, whatever you want, of all the information you have about your community. The more you list and share, the more you’ll start to see patterns or clear paths emerge.

Where’s the sweet spot?

The next step is focusing on the right goals. I like to refer to that as finding the sweet spot. To do it, you first identify what your community wants – to do, to achieve, to create.  Next, identify what you want.  Those two “wants” will overlap and that gray area is the sweet spot. It’s important to remember that not everything you want to do or achieve, matches up with with your community wants, and vice versa. Maybe you provide services, and your community doesn’t want to be providing those services, but they are happy you are doing so. And maybe the community wants to endorse a specific candidate, and you don’t. But you can share a vision for the kind of community you want to support and create together.  That’s the sweet spot where you can count on focusing energy.

Which technologies support the work?

After mapping the community and identifying shared goals you can focus on, you can start identifying the online tools and technologies that the community (especially when you break it down into segments) already uses, for what, why, and how. You can compare the tools they are using with the shared goals in the sweet spot to highlight opportunities already in place to start more strategic communications or use of those tools and beginning targeted engagement. Don’t ever go for a new, shiny, cool social media platform or tool simply because you’ve heard others talking about it. Know where your community is and what tools they want to use, and either use those or build them together. At least if you plan on interacting with them!

What roles are needed?

And finally, you want to identify the roles needed to create, facilitate, and implement the programs and services you design with the community.  I used the car metaphor earlier; another that works is to think of this as throwing a party. You need to have someone making food, someone pouring drinks and someone else pointing out the bathroom.  Just because your community is excited for the party and plans to be there, it does not mean that the party can just happen. Someone has to host, someone has to clean up. If you have the capacity to do that, there’s a great chance a good party can happen – especially if you’re willing to leave the punch and party games to the natural leaders that emerge in the community, allowing for ownership of the party’s outcome to be shared with the guests, and not just your library or organization.

We are at a very interesting time – with shifts happening locally and globally, governments changing, and new paradigms emerging. Such times create roles beyond the creation and implementation of programs, services, and institutions. But roles that will decide how we move into the future. For communities to change, they need a catalyst; are libraries ready? In order for change to be realized, we need vision for working toward shared, real goals; can libraries do it? To shape our future, communities need support to build and distribute power; can libraries support that?

Community-Driven Technologies

What are the technologies that support community-driven engagement and models of working? Well, they can be anything, really. Internally, take inventory of all the various assets you have, from servers to websites to software. Also think about access – access to resources and information, as well as access to partners and other organizations.

Externally, map all the various technologies in play already and that could be put to use. Whether it’s social media platforms or content that has captured the interest of the community – from citizen journalism to video storytelling.


When put into straightforward terms like this, community-driven methodologies sound pretty simple. But at least for the libraries I have talked to, there are some major barriers standing in the way of operating in a model like this.

First, the fear of succeeding, of actually being the heart of the community. I often hear things like: If we promote our space, everyone will try to come here; if we promote our services, everyone will try to use them. Maybe it’s just a matter of changing our perspective, or maybe it requires an actual paradigm shift. There’s a communication breakdown at play – not about promoting events or programs but about promoting possibilities, proving the library is open for what people want it to be.

Another barrier is the idea that we are all so different. I have heard before: I’m a university library, so I can’t learn from or build on the work from the community library because it is just so different here. I agree that every organization, city, region, and culture have differences that make us unique. And I’m glad we do. But when it comes to creating libraries of the future, we can’t limit the places where we take inspiration or we limit the options for collaborators and innovation.

Lastly, I have encountered a damaging dedication to a form of the membership model that’s outmoded. Libraries that say: we serve our members in the given community (whether that’s a city or a campus or anything else). Libraries that survive and thrive are ones who let go of the mindset that our members all have library cards.


Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had about the future of libraries doesn’t start with a discussion of how we use the library now, or what the library means to us today. Instead, the conversations start with “I wish that I could” or “I’d love to use my library for” and then exploring the way libraries support our lives and work regardless of how we may perceive them today. So, I want to share a few ways that I personally want to use my library.

Libraries + Work

I work from home. I occasionally head to a nearby coffee shop to work for a change of atmosphere. But what I really love to do is hot desk, or work for the day from a friend’s office that has an extra desk space. I only have my laptop and my notebook with me, so all I need is an outlet and the wifi password to get to work. I do it because the ability to work near others working, helps me focus and keep at it, but it also means that when I need a short break, the people around me are working on very different projects or work in different fields. The organic conversation often highlights new ideas or examples that I otherwise would never know about, and can even generate new collaborations and projects by finding ways to team up. I’d love my library to be my coworking space.

Libraries + Learning

I have a few topics that I am passionate and knowledgeable about and happy to teach or help others interested in learning more. With platforms like School of Everything and the Free School, I’m willing to sign up and put on small classes or provide training for free. But it happens in a vacuum. I might have someone contact me, ask for help with their project, and we meet at the café for an hour or so. And then the following week, I get the same request from someone else. I’ve love for my library to be both a physical and an online learning community. A place where I can post topics and hold classes to share my knowledge with the community.

Libraries + Networking

For libraries to truly be the heart of a community, they need people coming in, all the time. But work hours aren’t necessarily the times that generate the most interesting networking opportunities for the community. I spoken with various libraries who, when they learned about the NetSquared Local program asked why they couldn’t participate – and I told them that of course they could! The NetSquared Local program is a network of groups around the world, currently 80 cities in 26 countries, that hold monthly events focused on technology and social impact, and the topics vary from group to group depending on what’s most interesting to the local community. I think there are also some great examples to be used from the way museums have used social media to boost attendance via the power of social networking – whether it’s through special offers for the mayor on foursquare, late night events for networking and exploring the space, or community-generated content about the services and programs and even physical space. I’d love to be able to use my library as the network hub.

Libraries + Media

As someone that works with community groups on citizen journalism and other content or media creation projects, I know there’s a surplus of content available that’s created by the community and often valuable to the community, but often not known about, not accessible, or otherwise lost. Libraries have a great opportunity to collaborate with the community media organizations whether it’s a department within the school or it’s a nonprofit or public media organization, to integrate community-generated content into the archives and catalogues of the library, ensuring that more knowledge and content can be accessed and circulated.

Innovation Today

Built on top of Library Cloud, ShelfLife visualizes library stacks. Users can search, browse and otherwise navigate the library with this interactive system. Most importantly about this project is the fact that Library Cloud and ShelfLife open up the possibilities of what can be done through APIs and innovative uses of data.

The University of Amsterdam converted an existing 27,000-square-foot library into a public space that had no visible books to accommodate the 1,500 to 2,000 students who come to the library every day. Books are stored in other repositories or depots and the space is instead focused on work and collaboration.

The Making a small world smaller forum builds on a proposal jointly developed by the State Library and RMIT University, which explored how a new center at the State Library could use elements of social enterprise, community development and social media to increase Victoria’s intellectual and social capital. The proposal would bring together RMIT students, industry partners and staff from the Library to develop programs that focus on the socialization of international students, facilitate entrepreneurship among young leaders in regional Victoria and engage local secondary students in innovative activities.

Getting Started

I know that much of this was abstract and theoretical, but you will be talking about engaging your communities, co-designing the libraries of the future for the next three days. Before I close, I want to share a few principles you can start using today as you go to sessions, and right away when you get back to your work.

Let the community drive: As the organization/institution, you can provide the map, the gas, and even the car, but the community needs to be the driver. That will ensure passion and impact can go into steering, knowledge can help guide the way, and if no one wants to drive you have a pretty clear answer to adoption!

Stay in the sweet spot: There’s an area that I like to call the “sweet spot” that is where the institution’s goals and the community’s goals overlap. That’s where you can collaborate, harness the most passion and energy from each group and operate flexibly knowing you care about the same things.

Share the spotlight: Remember, you’re not driving. Your staff shouldn’t be in all the leadership positions nor should all the responsibility for moving a project (or program or service or tool) forward with development fall only on your shoulders. This is an opportunity, again, to gain adoption, harness passion, and ensure longevity.

Operate in loops: With community-driven design, there’s no linear path, instead the cycle is really that: a loop! Once you come up with a plan, and you test it, you then evaluate it and rethink it, and then iterate on the plan, test it, and come back around to evaluating it. Anytime in there you can make changes in direction or function and it’s okay, because you will get to plan, try and evaluate as you go.

Think big: Not just big, but bigger than you. Think of plans and services that are larger than your organization or your reach. The community is, inevitably, larger than your staff, your target audience, etc. So, if you want to be community-driven and operate nimbly, keep your goals big enough to guide you there!

Libraries & Community

This might sound silly, but I want to show you something. In order for this to work, you all need to close your eyes. If you really don’t want to, that’s okay – but trust me, it’ll be just for a second. Go ahead, close them.

When I talk with folks at libraries, regardless of the size or the affiliation, about the opportunities for integrating and working with the community, I always hear push back or complaints that they don’t have anyone in their community that’s interested in getting involved, or that they haven’t seen a single person try to engage or heard from anyone that wants to do that. When I ask how they know that their community isn’t interested, they say that they just haven’t seen any proof. But, right now, you have your eyes closed, and you can hear me. You don’t need more proof than that to trust that I am really still here, standing at the podium, talking to you. It doesn’t matter what I look like, or if you can see me from where you’re sitting or not. You can still hear me. And we can still work together.

You can open your eyes.


Thank you for having me here and inviting me to be part of this conversation with you. I hope that you’ll share examples from your library, ask questions that others can weigh in on, and continue discussing the way we build libraries that carry us into the future.



Libraries: The Oldest New Frontier for Innovation
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  • What a great perspective, Amy … been thinking about how to leverage the opportunities of information with the brick-n-mortar facilities. In my mind, you nailed it!

    • Anonymous

      Hi Ian-

      Thanks so much for your feedback! Great to know that others are thinking
      about these things and I’d love to hear more about what you’re working on.


  • Amy,
    This is a very positive, compelling and well thought through contribution to the discussion on the future role of Libraries within Communities in our dramatically changing world – as we increasingly focus on how to best fill the vacuum vacated by the MNC’s (Multi-National Corps) as they migrate overnight with their Jobs to become footloose GIE’s (Globally Integrated Enterprises) with ever less involvement and sense of responsibility for progress within Communities. As the forces of the Knowledge & Innovation Economies have now taken a firm hold to create the Digital Society, nothing less than steps to replace those Jobs with new types of eSkilled Jobs & Traded-Services will now suffice at the Hub or Heart of the Community.

    So your thinking that Libraries as the Oldest New Frontier for Innovation is potent. My own thinking it is the TeleCentres within those Libraries (as well as elsewhere within Communities) that are especially well positioned to become virtual Community Hubs at the entrance to the Knowledge & Innovation-driven Economies that are flourishing around us today. While TeleCentres are already a proven ideal fit for Libraries everywhere, they do need to take the next substantive step, beyond the instantaneous Internet-based Information already being provided, and towards adding Understanding too through E-Learning – online, offline or mobile – via E-Community Tutors in particular as they embrace local Culture and Language in addition to their teaching skills. I will continue to follow your excellent work on Twitter.
    Richard O’Farrell

    • Anonymous

      Richard – Thanks so much for your feedback and thoughts! I completely agree
      with you that there is a great deal of potential for change and impact and
      influence from various parts of the library, not just the library as a
      whole, and that certainly includes the access points and the content of
      access. On the matter of content of access, I see some of the opportunities
      I touched on in this piece, like community media, and collaborative
      resources. I also see a similarity between your suggestions and mine for
      education and knowledge sharing.

      It’s definitely an interesting and rich discussion – thanks for

      • Thank you Amy, I am in full agreement here. I wish I had access to your lucid thinking a decade ago, I have since learned the hard way just how true and accurate that thinking really is. I fervently belief in the Community as the essential driver, because no-one else has the tacit knowledge or insights into their own Community. And yes, collaboration is the probably the only viable path to the future. Al it needs is just one spark within a Community, a handful of people and it will start to ignite for them. I have worked on the broad premise of your entire approach for many years now and especially with a concrete belief in the Community-driven Model as the ‘new’ and perhaps only sustainable way forward. I was very taken with the intensity and sheer belief conveyed in your article & presentation. The Library has been a fascination for me ever since I read of Carnegie and we have much in common today with those times. Communities hold within vast and virtually untapped resources but it is indeed as difficult a pathway as you set out and only Social Innovation will engender the local initiative required. The rewards for such initiatives are unparalleled.

  • Julius Suber

    It is incredibly refreshing to hear someone talking about the essence of the library.  Its function and its potential. Its life force should not be bogged down in budget numbers.  I agree passion is a currency.  We need to tap more into passion and compassion and make the library the center, without fear of who is a member, for the true exchange and exploration of ideas.
    Loved what you said.
    Publisher and former
    Chairman of the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System (AFPLS) Board of Trustees

    • Hi Julius-

      Thank you so much for your support and feedback! I’m thrilled that my message connected with you, and even more excited that these ideas are shared by individuals like yourself. I can say as much as I like, but until the same ideas about the potential of our community spaces are shared by those ultimately making the decisions, the thoughts aren’t worth that much. I’m so excited about the possible future of libraries!

      Thank you again,