A new report from the Aspen Institute looks at the importance of U.S. public libraries, and how they can change and improve to meet new roles in the 21st Century.Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” was written as part of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a multi-year effort that brought together “library professionals, policymakers, technology experts, philanthropists, educators and civic leaders” to explore the future of public libraries.

“No longer a nice-to-have amenity, the public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change,” the executive summary reads. “[Libraries] promote a better trained and educated workforce. They ensure equitable access and provide important civic space for advancing democracy and the common good. Public libraries are engines of development within their communities.”

The report explores how public libraries can “respond as the digital age increases the demand for high-speed information access, changes in our education systems, innovative job training models and additional community services to help people and communities compete in the new economy.”

Specifically, the report recommends communities leverage three important library assets: the library's historical ability to connect people and strengthen communities; the library’s physical and virtual spaces; and new “high-speed interactive platforms” to collect, organize and share ideas and knowledge. "Enabling all libraries to fulfill their new roles," the report concludes, "will require library leaders, policy makers and community stakeholders to re-envision the public library and take advantage of the opportunities it offers."

The report recognizes the transformations libraries have made in the digital age, but offers an array of discussion points to advance libraries further.

“As society tries to keep pace with the innovation happening around us, libraries have become a place for more than just circulating books,” said Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, in a release. “Libraries need to be a place where people can come together, collaborate and be coached in digital learning. Public libraries becoming platforms for learning, creativity and innovation opens up a whole new avenue for libraries, and helps communities close economic gaps and bridge social divides.”

The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multi-stakeholder forum managed by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, which focuses on “projects and initiatives that address the societal impact of communications and information technologies and provides a multidisciplinary venue for considered judgment on communications policy issues.”

The full report is available here.