Original publication: June 2016
Authors: Barbara LISON, German Library Association; Natascha REIP (Co-Author), German Library Association
Short link to this post: http://bit.ly/2m6jPXF
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Subject Matter / Definition of the problem

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This briefing note provides an analysis and evaluation of the current and prospective roles of public libraries in their local communities, their services to the public and to their contracting authorities. It is commissioned by the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) in preparation for a workshop on “The new role of public libraries” to be held in Brussels on 20 June 2016.

The report aims to examine the role and function of the public library for local communities in the 21st century. It provides a description of the general challenges, risks and opportunities for public libraries to serve their respective communities and to meet the actual and future challenges. The paper also contains a presentation and analysis of international best practice examples from public libraries who have established their new and innovative roles in their local communities and thus ensuring their viability for the citizens.  Based on the findings the paper gives conclusions to actual developments and brings forward recommendations for policy actions at EU level.

Methods of analysis
The New Role of Public Libraries in Local Communities

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The methods applied in this paper are mainly desk research and personal professional experience of the author as public librarian and functionary in library associations at national and international level. The desk research included academic and research publications as well as policy documents of different origins and advocacy related papers from library organizations. Relevant additional information was also obtained from international colleagues of the field and from library associations. The briefing paper covers evidence from EU Member States as well as from other regions of the world where a development of public libraries is taking place which is worth mentioning.

Key findings summarized

Public libraries are important gateways to knowledge and inclusion
The briefing paper draws attention to the fact that the 65,000 public libraries in the EU have about 100 million customers which is about a fifth of the whole population in the European Union. In many countries libraries – and mainly public libraries – are the most frequented cultural institutions. Public libraries provide a wide range of services which cannot easily be afforded and organized by each citizen on his or her own. The public libraries’ role and function as gateways to knowledge and inclusion in local communities is quite unique and demanding as well. Therefore public libraries need the support of politics and administration in order to stay up-to-date and attractive for the citizens.

Libraries as central cultural and public spaces
Further, libraries play an increasingly important role as cultural spaces offering the citizens an open, non-authoritarian and non- commercial public cultural space in the community or in the neighbourhood. This service is becoming more and more valuable in increasingly privatised urban environments and also in rural areas. They are developing from a place for lending out material as primary objective into a place for staying in and use the offers and services on the spot: For many people they are becoming a “second living room” and a location for self-directed learning as well. With their programmes public libraries offer insights in cultural developments and events which are more than just the traditional public reading by an author. Their network is well developed and they partner with other institutions in order to increase their effectiveness and efficiency.

Economic Value of public library services
As public libraries are questioned for their efficiency there are some interesting approaches to document also the economic impact of public libraries. The briefing paper presents an example from Canada in this context.

Libraries as anchors for the high-street
As public libraries are highly attractive for the population of all ages and from all social groups they generally become a focal point of the community. This fact has been discovered by urban planners; they have recognized the value of a public library as a highly frequented cultural institution in order to revitalize an urban redevelopment area and to bring life into deserted parts of the city. Their concepts sometimes are based on the fact that the visitors of a public library very often become walk-in customers of shops, restaurants and cafés in the neighbourhood. Sometimes public libraries even initiate the settlement of commercial enterprises in their surroundings.

A recent example: Birmingham Public Library for instance with its 31,000 square meter premises since 2013 is one of the biggest public libraries in Europe. The old library had become unattractive and was rather poorly frequented; with the new library the number of visitors increased by 250 percent: instead of 4,000 daily visitors the library now counts 10,000 visitors per day. The business environment profits from these numbers considerably.

Public libraries as well recognized and open public service institutions sometimes can be also deployed to upgrade underprivileged urban districts like inoperative harbour areas or abandoned industrial districts.

Valuable initiatives: “Public Libraries 2020”

In regard to the initiative “Public Libraries 2020” a new approach towards public libraries has been noticed as the initiative is a concerted action at European level. The initiative is most helpful for the communication of the public libraries’ significant impact on individuals and communities towards political decision-makers.


Based on the key findings and on the demands resulting from these key findings the briefing paper contains the following recommendations towards the European Union as possible support actions for the public libraries in all Member States:

  • Recognizing public libraries as key actors in education, digitization and integration into policy strategies at national and EU level
  • Creating a fund or programme for the innovation in public libraries and establish a sustainable European network of public libraries
  • Creating a European (Public) Library Label, or (Public) Library of Europe
  • Supporting data collection on European Public Libraries

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/573-455

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Further reading:

Promoting Media and Information Literacy in Libraries

E-lending: Challenges and Opportunities


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