It Takes a Library to Raise a Community

Marjatta Asu
Library Development Advisor
Ontario Library Service-North

Leanne Clendening
Chief Executive Officer
Ontario Library Service-North


This paper is based on a conference presentation given by the authors at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference, held in Toronto, Ontario, January 31 – February 3, 2007.

Keywords: Community development; community building; capacity building; social inclusion; asset mapping


In 2001, Ontario Library Service–North (OLS-North) conducted an environmental scan as part of its strategic planning process that highlighted many of the issues facing northern communities. Northern Ontario makes up almost 90% of the geography of the province and less than 10% of the population.  Among the issues facing our communities are that they are isolated geographically and are reliant on resource-based industries such as mining and forestry.  Community problems are further compounded by the reduced municipal tax base and the strains of additional services assumed by municipalities in the last decade.

When primary industries suffer, the communities suffer.  When the community suffers economically, the public library suffers.  Libraries must be seen as part of a solution to community problems by community leaders and primary funders. Libraries which are successful in promoting their value to the community often receive increased support from the municipality and from various community partners.  These libraries demonstrate that public libraries are important partners in developing solutions to community problems.

As part of its commitment to assisting libraries with community development, OLS-North created a Library Development Advisor Promotion and Community Development position in February 2002.

OLS-North’s latest strategic plan calls for the creation of five community development toolkits. It Takes a Library to Raise a Community: A Community Development Activities Tool Kit for Public Libraries is number one in the set.  Its purpose is to set the stage for the remaining tool kits. This kit demonstrates, in practical and everyday ways, how libraries build communities.

In 2003, OLS-North received funding from the National Crime Prevention Strategy’s Community Mobilization Fund to develop a series of workshops and a toolkit to help public libraries take a lead role in developing local crime prevention initiatives. Crime Prevention & Personal Safety for Your Library and Community, which is actually the second volume in the set of community development tool kits, was e-published in 2004.

Overview of Research

Throughout the 1990’s and early into this decade, research into the role of public libraries in community development focused exclusively on a particular aspect of community development, such as the role of the library in supporting local economic development (Walzer and Stott 13). Works supporting the libraries’ role in economic development include The Libraries Contribution to your community  by dmA Planning and Management Services  and Southern Ontario Library Service, and “Libraries as Equity Blocks” by Andrew Richard Albanese.  In addition, some work has centered on the broader goal of sustainable communities (ALA), or building socially inclusive libraries (DCMS 12).

Research referred to when writing the community development kits may be accessed through the Ontario Library Service Clearinghouse of Professional Information - Community Development Resources. A link to this Clearinghouse is available on the OLS-North website (

In A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building, McCook advocates that librarians need to find their place at the community table (104-105). The absence of library representation in various community building movements in the United States is discussed (37-40). Key factors for successful community building (44-53), case studies of community-building librarians (55-68), and a new model of work for librarians who believe that community building must be a goal of public libraries are presented (94-107).

Values of community-building librarians are described by McCook (68-69). They include librarians who are committed to community building, who attend community meetings and who are actively involved. They are aware of, and can identify community issues. They believe it is important to work with the community and learn from the community, adapting library programs, services, and policies to meet the community’s stated needs. As much as is possible, librarians believe in the importance of developing library services from a community-wide perspective. They believe in meaningful and inclusive collaborations. They believe that a strong community is a good place to live and work and libraries contribute to a better quality of life. Finally, community-building librarians believe the library can make a difference and that their library plays a strong role in the community. These values are reflected in the organization of OLS-North’s community development tool kit “It Takes a Library to Raise a Community: A Community Development Activities Tool Kit for Libraries”.

There should be a librarian at every table - every community meeting, every council meeting, and at community functions to ensure the library is not kept out of public planning (McCook 97-100). The library cannot work apart from community planning and expect to be remembered. “As the library’s presence in the community decreases, so does its value and visibility to the community” (Markey).

The Engaged Library: Chicago Stories of Community Building (Urban Libraries Council 20) demonstrates, through case studies based on conversations with administrators and branch managers at the Chicago Public Library, the importance of recruiting staff who are community-minded, and training staff to build community connections to increase library relevance.  The Engaged Library demonstrates practically how librarians who participate at the community table increase library relevance in their community.

The State Library of Victoria’s publication, Libraries/Building/Communities (State Library of Victoria 23), documents the contribution of public libraries in four key areas: overcoming the digital divide, creating informed communities, promoting lifelong learning and literacy, and building social capital. This research project aims to demonstrate the impact of public libraries on the whole community.

The Working Together project was initiated by the Vancouver Public Library in March 2004 and will continue until April 2008. As part of this project, community development librarians work with socially excluded individuals and community organizations. The objective of the study is to use a community development approach to build community connections and relationships, and to identify and investigate systemic barriers to library use. A “lessons learned” tool kit and information session will be presented at a one-day pre-conference workshop at CLA in 2008.

Provincial Developments Impacting Public Libraries

Two important provincial developments that impact library positioning are the Municipal Cultural Planning Forums and Business Retention and Expansion. Municipal Cultural Planning Forums were introduced across Ontario in 2005. Created by municipal and provincial partnerships, the purpose of these forums was to bridge the gaps between provincial policy makers, municipal staff/associations, and the cultural sector. Municipal cultural planning examines the significance of culture in local economic development. It is “asset-based community development which aims to map broadly defined local cultural resources and leverage these resources for economic development and community building” (Baeker 2). Library boards must consider how the library contributes to local cultural planning and be represented at the community table.

Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) is a community-based economic development strategy goal of the Ontario government. The focus is on supporting the development and growth of local businesses. BR+E depends on strong, committed local leadership and partnerships between local government, businesses, and agencies that support business development. How do libraries support BR+E? Small and home-based businesses can benefit from access to the library’s computers, software, internet access, office equipment, print and online resources, and onsite training to use these resources. Located in a small north-eastern Ontario community, the Powassan and District Union Public Library provides access to software, hardware, and training. Staff assist and train business clients to design web pages and search for products online. Local businesses value the library’s high speed internet access, computers, fax machine, and other office equipment. The library helps small businesses grow.

Community Development

At the Ontario Library Association’s Super Conference, the It Takes a Library to Raise a Community session introduced terms commonly used in community development, as follows:

Community development is a process in which community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems (Frank and Smith 9). Community development builds relationships between individuals, local associations, and local institutions and is an essential tool for building a stronger community (Kretzmann and McKnight; Beaulieu 5). It requires community capacity to be built. Community capacity consists of all the people, skills and community resources needed to get things done. This combination of people’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and gifts is referred to as human capital.

The main goal of community development is community sustainability – the ability of a community to continue to exist and thrive in spite of obstacles. Community or social sustainability expands the definition of sustainable development to include the social and cultural aspects of a community, building on human (or individual) capacity and social (or community) capacity (Berryman 19; State Library of Victoria 10).

Social capital is the glue that holds communities together (Centre for Urban Research and Learning 4). It requires that relationships be based on mutual trust and support. Social capital refers to the bonds that link people and organizations that are alike and the bonds that bring people from different backgrounds together (State Library of Victoria 24). Social capital creates a sense of identity and common purpose and helps bring about positive change (The World Bank Group). It helps create connections for employment opportunities (especially for those in communities with weak social connections), and provides links to funders and others with similar concerns. Social capital helps develop concepts beyond the capacity of the individual, group or business (State Library of Victoria 10-11).

Social inclusion is another aspect of social capital. An inclusive society gives isolated people better links to the community and brings excluded people into the community’s decision-making process. Librarians believe in equitable access, and socially inclusive libraries deliver on that promise.

 “Successful economic development depends upon social well being and not the other way around. An increase in social capital increases a community’s productive potential and improves the chance that the community will be wealthier and healthier in the long term” (Libraries/Building/Communities 10).

Community Mapping

Community asset mapping is an important tool for building community, for understanding community strengths and assets, and for sustaining economic viability.  It begins with the belief that local residents can play an important part in finding solutions to local problems. It may be used to identify the gifts, talents, strengths of individuals, citizen associations, and local institutions that make up the community. Community of interest defines a group of people by common cultural heritage, language, beliefs or shared interests, age, geographic location, and so on (Frank and Smith 7). People may belong to several communities at any one time.

Asset mapping asks, “What resources (assets) do we have in the community right now to address this problem ourselves? What capacities exist in our community?” (Kretzman & McKnight 346).  It is the first step in promoting development of the community. Community development depends upon people working together to reach community goals. Asset mapping helps identify community resources that can be used for community building. 

Community asset mapping focuses on the strengths and capacities in the community and the ability of a community to develop and grow. A needs assessment which focuses only on problems or the empty, deficient, and needy part of a community can be problematic. Under this model, old solutions that do not work often continue to be applied to problems (e.g., education problems to school boards, social services issues to human service agencies, economic development concerns to economic development, etc.). There may be little or no interaction between the agencies that deliver services. Thus, the dependency cycle continues for people targeted by these programs as little is done to build capacity (McKnight and Kretzman 18-19).

The It Takes a Library to Raise a Community tool suggests libraries identify community assets– the people, businesses and association and their skills, gifts, experiences – and how these can be used to build community. What do individuals (e.g., youth, elderly, artists, labeled people), citizens’ associations (e.g., neighbourhood associations, churches, cultural groups), and local institutions (e.g., businesses, schools, colleges, hospitals, public spaces) bring to your community table? Local capacities are not an asset if they just exist in the community. Capacities must be identified and used for the community’s development. What can the library do to help people in the community look at their community differently? It is suggested that boards contact community groups and agencies to find out whether a mapping process has been started in the community. If a process has been started, host a community meeting at the library to discuss community mapping. If not, consider initiating a mapping exercise in the community.

A Librarian at Every Table

Why is it important for the library to find its place at the community table? Libraries need to be aware of community issues and learn how they can be relevant in the lives of community members. Library directors, staff and trustees all have a role to play in community development.  Libraries participate at the community table to “connect with, consult with, and collaborate with the community to deliver programs and services that can support community goals” (DeFaveri). Libraries need to recognize that community input is needed to develop programs and services that meet community needs, and that community goals determine how library programs are structured.

A strong community development approach is built on relationships. Staff and trustees should be encouraged to participate in areas where they have a strong personal interest to provide the most benefit for the library and the community. In smaller communities, it isn’t reasonable to expect the librarian to fill this role alone. It’s important for Boards and staff to share the work of positioning the library as a valuable community development partner. Community development literature refers to this as ‘being a player’ or ‘being at the table’.

Libraries need a voice at the community table. Ontario Library Service–North’s community development tool kit encourages library boards and staff to examine the values of the community and of the library. Working through the kit will encourage discussion of the community’s goals for its development and will help define the library’s place at the community table. Worksheets and Checklists provided in the kit help to identify how the library currently supports community goals through its programs, services and partnerships, define future directions, and identify community connections needed to position the library at the community table.

Libraries and Capacity Building

What is the library’s role in building community capacity? Education, training and skills development are considered key components of economic development (Broad 8). The public library’s core business is developing ‘human capital’ (people knowledge and skills). In addition, libraries provide key support to economic development through direct job creation, contribution to cultural development of the local area, education, training and skills development, and the development of social capital and social inclusiveness. Public library programs and resources can help build capacity in key areas.

Library capacity

Library capacity consists of the people in the library, its culture, attitude, environment and appearance. It requires commitment to training to develop people skills. It requires libraries to identify and take advantage of opportunities and strengths. Capacity requires leadership, long range thinking and strategic planning; it requires that people who work at the library and live in the community believe they have the skills and resources to bring about positive change (Frank and Smith 10).

What are the abilities, talents and skills of people at the library right now? What kind of assistance would library staff be able to offer the community? Noah and Brickman describe capacity building for libraries and offer examples of library capacity-building efforts (Noah and Brickman 102). The authors identify action steps for librarians who want to develop and implement a plan to build library capacity.

How does one recognize that capacity is being built? The Community Development Handbook (Frank and Smith 11) identifies factors that confirm capacity is being built. “People are active, interested and participating in what is going on. People may also be questioning, challenging and debating – but they will be debating what should be done, not complaining that nothing will ever change. More people are getting involved, helping to identify key issues, and taking action. Results are becoming obvious and the abilities, esteem and resources of many communities are growing as capacity grows.”  These factors may also be used to indicate when library capacity is being built.

Public libraries can be critical participants in community building. Libraries provide community meeting space, facilitate access to computers and the internet, provide public access to critical information needed for community building, and facilitate community history and cultural projects. Libraries can bring experience in researching and compiling information sources for the community’s development (McKnight & Kretzman 26).

Library as capacity builder

Identify the library’s role as a community connector. Attend community meetings and events to raise awareness of community economic and social initiatives and to discuss how the library can help. Identify how the library can facilitate community meetings, forums, and events and be a catalyst for community building. Participating in community meetings may suggest potential partnership areas, including access to staff skills and abilities that are useful for community building. Use the library website to link local businesses, institutions, and community groups, and to offer content related to community issues.

Identify the library’s role in building community skills. What skills, services and resources can the library provide? Communities benefit from access to library technology, computers and training; staff expertise in assessment, strategic planning and meeting management; writing grant applications, annual reports, policies and procedures, constitution and bylaws; budgeting and financial management; and building information databases (e.g., Access, Excel or Word). For example, the West Nipissing Public Library is located in north-eastern Ontario and provides library services to the communities of Sturgeon Falls, Verner, Field, Cache Bay, and River Valley, Ontario. Staff members at the library help develop capacity of municipal staff by providing access to material specific to their work - dealing with difficult people, customer service, and managing stress- and public access to the Ontario Municipal Act User Guide.  Staff build awareness of library technologies and tools and teach municipal staff skills needed to use the technologies to find information using library resources.

Another piece of the local economy’s puzzle identifies the value of the public library as a community and cultural centre – a community anchor. The Seattle Public Library’s economic benefits study showed the new central library increased downtown livability, vitality and vibrancy. In northern Ontario, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library’s Churchill Plaza Branch has been recognized by the economic development office as a key tenant that attracts people to the plaza and provides spin-off benefits to retail establishments located in the mall (Strapp 12).

Lifelong learning is an important component of capacity building and is essential to community development. Library programs and services help to nurture a love of reading and learning and can influence a person’s desire for lifelong learning. Libraries help people clarify their information needs and develop skills to search for information. Information literacy skills do not come naturally to many people and the library can play a role in developing capacity. Schools in smaller communities may not have the resources to teach students information literacy skills. Libraries can fill a much needed role in capacity building.

Public libraries support lifelong learning and information literacy as demonstrated in the following examples of small northern Ontario public libraries. The Chapleau Public Library and community partners provide literacy resources in English, French and First Nations languages on a wide variety of topics and skills. Help is offered in living skills including filling out forms, and study skills. The Mattawa Public Library has created a game to develop children’s information literacy skills, and to teach them how to find resources in the library using the Dewey Decimal system, reference books, and the internet. Increased capacity is demonstrated by after-school kids who are self-sufficient in searching for information and manage with little or no assistance.

Culture “…is the glue that holds communities together and makes them last over generations…. Culture is the soul and life force of a community…”  (Nozick 181)

Libraries fill an important role in developing community culture. Libraries help community members to: discover their roots at the library; develop their creative potential by accessing books and other resources such as the history of the arts and technical books; and nourish community identity and community culture. In north-eastern Ontario, the Powassan and District Union Public Library hosts an art gallery that displays the works of local artists who meet at the library to paint and mentor new artists. In north-western Ontario, the Rainy River First Nation Public Library offers space for elders to meet with children. The elder teaches the child quilting, beading, and leather work and the child teaches the elder to use computers and the internet. Ojibwa language classes are held at the library.

Nozick tells us that there “there has to be continuing, meaningful human interaction in order to create the social bonding which is a prerequisite to building community culture” (Nozick 196-197). How do libraries support the social development of communities? Library programs help build bonds across the community and bring people from different social and economic backgrounds together to connect and learn about each other. This can lead to referrals to potential employers or specialists or other opportunities for the individual.  A children’s program held at the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library included families of autistic children. This led to awareness and sensitivity of children with special needs and created bonds between parents and children alike, thus reducing the isolation of these families.

What do we mean by social inclusion and what is the library’s role in creating an inclusive society? Socially inclusive libraries reach out to the community’s marginal groups, providing services that meet their needs. These may include the unemployed, social assistance recipients, offenders, substance abusers, the illiterate, and many others. Library boards need to assess barriers in the library that could make this group feel less welcome. Barriers can include technology, rules, fines and charges, language, and a structured atmosphere (Campbell 3). How can our libraries reach out to these groups? The Blind River Public Library partnered with a community group to provide a meaningful part-time custodial job to a man who was “high functioning” and lived on his own. This individual worked under supervision with his coach for several months until they were certain he could tackle the job on his own. Work at the library helped build his self-esteem and social skills. The Blind River Public Library Board has found that there are more rewards than drawbacks by working with these groups.

Libraries fill an important role in building the skills needed to use the new technologies. The digital divide refers to the gap in access to new information, communication tools such as computers and the internet, and other related technologies. It also refers to the lack of skills, knowledge and abilities to use these technologies (“Digital Divide”). Libraries fill an important role in local access and training to use e-government initiatives. The digital divide isolates people who cannot afford the technologies and lack digital literacy skills or motivation to develop these skills. Powassan Public Library provides high speed access to the internet and teaches people how to use computers and the internet. Staff help people apply for government benefits online.


Community development as a process can help position public libraries in community building.  Library boards need to assess community goals to identify whether the best library contributions can be made through board or staff involvement, the design of programs and services, or community partnerships. Consider how the library’s community connections, through its board members, staff and volunteers, may be used for community building. Identify strategies for positioning the library in community building. Raising the library’s profile in the community through active participation and engagement with the community will ensure that the library’s value will be communicated to library users, stakeholders, and the community at large.

It Takes a Library to Raise a Community: A community Development Activities Tool Kit will be made available to public libraries in Ontario following the Ontario Library Service-North Annual Conference in May 2007.

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