Ellis: Libraries are respected brands that can help create strong, resilient communities

November 08, 2011

Gia Arbogast, branch administrator for the Miami-Dade Public Library System describes how YOUMedia Miami will engage teens in building digital literacy skills

Libraries have a fundamental role in how attached people are to where they live, Knight’s Paula Ellis, vp/strategic initiatives, told a gathering of library and civic leaders last week.

That’s particularly important because how residents feel about their community may lead to greater economic vitality, the Knight-funded Soul of the Community study found.

The study identified three factors that drive why people are emotionally attached to their neighborhoods and cities. They include: openness, or how welcoming a place is, its social offerings and aesthetics, Ellis said at The Urban Libraries Partners for Success Conference 2011:

“Openness is at the top of the list of what drives people to love where they live. What is more welcoming than a library? Being welcoming is what gets people in the door and then people can form this emotional attachment to the library as a true community center and place for personal transformation.”

According to the study, communities with the highest number of attached people had the highest rates of economic growth over time.

Ellis and a panel also discussed a second study, that looked at the civic health of Miami and St. Paul, Minn. - two cities on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to being civically engaged.

In fact, research shows that Miami is the least engaged major city in the country, said Nancy Jones, vice president for public affairs and communications at the Miami Foundation. For example, only 7% of Miami residents reported working with an elected official on an issue relevant to their community. Minneapolis-St. Paul on the other hand, was the most engaged metropolitan area. Its residents were more than twice as likely to volunteer as Miami’s (37% vs 15%) and nearly twice as likely to trust their local government (42% vs 24%). Twin Cities residents also had stronger social networks than residents of Miami, including being more likely to use the Internet to connect with their family and friends, talk to neighbors and have meals with other members of their households.

Paul Williams, deputy mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota and Katherine Hadley, library director of the Saint Paul Public Library system, discussed what may explain their city’s higher levels of civic engagement, including having strong public institutions and a thriving nonprofit sector.

Hadley also cited examples of how city’s libraries are playing a strong role in creating civic engagement. One St. Paul program library program hopes to increase residents’ digital literacy skills. The library is currently taking up to ten laptops out into the community to offer digital literacy classes in Spanish, Somalian and Karen. The program trains native speakers in digital literacy so they in turn can train other community members.

Raymond Santiago, director of Miami-Dade Public Library System, said that although he was surprised that Miami was rated so low for civic engagement, one factor behind the numbers is that Miami’s residents are are highly mobile and transient. Because there is such a large influx of various ethnic groups and residents still have a strong connection to their home countries, they often have a lack of ownership over Miami.

Santiago said that this actually brings an opportunity for libraries to help build the brand of civic engagement and community involvement. One way Miami-Dade’s libraries are doing this is through YOUMedia Miami, a program set to launch later this year that will empower teens by building their digital literacy skills.

Ellis concluded the session by encouraging participants to think of libraries as one key way to build the public trust for citizen and community engagement:

“In world of decaying trust, one brand remains highly trusted and respected and that’s the brand of the community library. Embrace the reach of that and help us to all create more resilient and strong communities.”

—Elizabeth R. Miller


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