What does economic development have in common with libraries? We already knew the answer as we headed to the Urban Library Council (ULC) Partners Conference last week with Fremont’s Chief Innovation Officer Kelly Kline in tow. Among other things, libraries are on the front lines of developing a workforce, whether that includes increasing literacy, providing maker spaces, serving as a resource for entrepreneurs, or hosting small business seminars.

Libraries have always played a starring role when it comes to the cornerstones of democracy. However, our partners may not realize and fully appreciate the extent that libraries are embracing change as they prepare for the next century of their work. Work that has grown tremendously in scope to encompass nothing less than bridging a massive equity gap and creating a safe place for the civil exchange of ideas. Partnerships will be imperative and ours represents one of many that ranges from museum directors, to mayors, to educators, to community organizations, to public health institutions.

National Center for Families Learning are tackling the “word gap” head on by outfitting kids with word pedometers and vocabulary initiatives in multiple cities across the nation.

Our Philadelphia location lent itself to some historical gravitas. We were visited by none other than Alexander Hamilton (a popular guy right now) who reminded us of his immigrant roots and the importance of perseverance. His question to us was weighty, “Who are the modern day Hamiltons and how can we assist them in forming relationships to help them succeed?” We also visited the National Constitution Center, which is committed to non-partisan conversation. We tested the Interactive Constitution app, which examines all 80 constitutional clauses and provides viewpoints from liberal and conservative scholars for each.

Philadelphia’s own public library, Free Library of Philadelphia, is a partnership case study. This public space has “transformed the city from the inside out,” noted Philadelphia Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis. Philadelphia has struggled with race, class, and poverty, and libraries are a “leading example of a pathway to equity.” Working with the Penn Foundation and Knight Foundation, the City has embarked on a “Rebuild Initiative” to invest in civic assets. “Informed and engaged cities are the foundation of democracy,” says Knight’s Patrick Morgan. The private sector has played a role too. Gerard Sweeney, president and CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust, says that buildings such as libraries serve as connection points. “Civic acceleration happens when you bring people together from many walks of life.”

Political leadership, particularly at the local level, was a major focus at the conference. Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minnesota shared his insights on building a robust library partnership in his city that, among other things, has made library cards available to all school-age children. He defines leadership as the ability to express a vision and then develop a team to implement it (preferably one that “plays well with others!”) He cites livability as a primary driver which is unattainable without opportunity for all, a value that is supported by libraries. He says, “new buildings are nice,but it’s what’s inside the buildings that counts.” Coleman sees education as an increasing focus for mayors across the country. “We need to think about our kids as an investment in infrastructure.”

Other partnerships worth noting include:

  • South Philadelphia has a library facility housed within a children’s hospital in partnership with University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives. Based on a Pew Research Center study showing that 34 percent of the city’s library patrons were looking for health information and that residents visit libraries more often than their physician’s office, this new facility leverages the strengths of both institutions. Related assets include a culinary literacy center and an edible alphabet program for recently-arrived refugees.
  • Evansville, Indiana has a public education and library partnership to operate a “Community Inquiry Lab” that works with teachers to try new programs, both physical and digital, explore community questions, and build life skills.
  • The Baltimore library system partners with the League of Women Voters to achieve a strategic plan goal of being an “instrument of democracy” through election night programming and ongoing community forums on social justice issues.

These themes can be applied anywhere. Leverage partner expertise and connections to build capacity; seize opportunities to change dynamics of perceived culture and actual physical spaces; and ultimately, seek systemic longevity that will outlast personal relationships.

Fremont’s city and library partnership is nascent, but shared values and common goals ensure that opportunities for collaboration will be plentiful.