4 Important Things About Urban Public Librarianship in 2017

4 Important Things About Urban Public Librarianship in 2017

Library technology and books come together

Urban public librarianship has always faced a unique set of challenges, from funding cutbacks despite increased demand for services, to the need to adapt to shifting populations in local communities. However, with these challenges come a wide range of possibilities, and the potential for urban public librarians to deeply affect the communities they serve. In the coming year, these librarians have a number of opportunities to create libraries that have a high impact on their local patrons. Here are four innovative ways that public urban libraries can serve and promote their communities in 2017 and beyond.


Urban public libraries have always held a special role for the communities that they serve, and the concept of viewing these institutions as “place makers” helps advocate for their continued integral role in aiding the development and social health of their city. As the name also implies, place making puts the public library in the position of helping to define a community’s identity through the public space it provides residents, as well as the ways in which the library’s services further the happiness and well-being of the community.

For urban libraries and their staff, place making occurs in a number of ways. Being a place maker starts with the design of the institution as a core of the urban environment that can attract nearby residents as an interesting destination. The services that an urban public library provide also contribute to its role as place maker. From assistance for disadvantaged community members, including the poor and the homeless, to general support for the local community’s learning capabilities, public libraries have an important role to play in shaping the prosperity of a community. Likewise, urban public libraries as place makers can make important contributions to the future of the cities that they serve by engaging community members in planning services and helping to innovate around issues of environmental sustainability and economic regeneration.

Community Mirroring

Hand-in-hand with the idea of the urban public library as a place maker is the notion that these institutions can better serve their communities by acting as a mirror for the diversity of their cities. The communities that urban public libraries service are generally marked by high levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity, and promoting equity in these areas is one important method that these libraries can use to create harmony in their communities in the coming year.

For example, the St. Paul Public Library, which was recognized by the Urban Libraries Council for its innovations in this area. Through its staff, this library has sought to mirror the population of the city it serves; approximately a quarter of the full-time employees and half of the part-time staff are persons of color, in line with the overall population of St. Paul. Furthermore, the library has made offerings on race and social equity a key part of their overall program. A discussion series on topics of race was held with a series of guest speakers, and the children’s story times were expanded to include eight additional languages besides English. Lastly, the St. Paul Public Library recognized that the requirement that patrons show a library card in order to use their computers disproportionately prevented persons of color from utilizing the library’s resources; in response, the library removed this requirement.

Outreach Programs

While urban public libraries must recognize their role as a place for their communities to congregate, the ability to comprehensively serve their local population can involve moving beyond the library’s physical walls. In 2017, librarians working in urban public libraries should consider the potential for outreach programs to reach traditionally underserved community members.

For example, a national program called the Book-Rich Environment Initiative was recently launched with the support of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Education. The program’s primary goal is to target the millions of children and their families living in HUD-assisted housing and bring this often-overlooked population access to high-quality books. In conjunction with the National Book Foundation, public library branches — primarily urban due to the distribution of HUD-assisted housing — will be provided with books to distribute based on the needs of their local public housing communities. Much of the logistics of distribution are being left to the public libraries, in recognition of their unique capacity and the relationships that these institutions have with their local communities.

Envisioning Libraries Without Books

It’s no secret that one of the biggest challenges that urban public libraries face is the reduction in their operating budgets. Since book acquisitions account for a large portion of most present-day public libraries’ spending, looking to technology to help envision the way that a library can serve its community without a reliance on physical books will be key for urban librarians looking to meet the challenges of the future.

To find an example of a library without books, all you need to do is turn to Bexar County, Texas. Recently, this county, which encompasses the fast-growing exurbs surrounding San Antonio, was faced with creating a new library system with a budget of just $2 million. This shoestring budget didn’t allow for the acquisition of vast collections of books. Instead, the library’s creators looked at what makes a library work for its patrons. The idea of obtaining physical books was discarded in favor of supplying the community with 150 e-readers, 50 computer stations and 50 laptops and tablets. The Bexar County Library recognized that much of what the community needed could be provided without physical book collections, and this model system is providing internet access, digital literacy classes, open classrooms, and program offerings for children. By redefining the library as a learning center rather than simply a book repository, this visionary library provides guidance for all urban public librarians in the 21st century.

Urban public librarianship requires a unique set of talents and skills nurtured through the right educational option. With an online MMLIS degree from the University of Southern California, you can gain the foundation and management skills to pursue a satisfying and fulfilling career in an urban public library. Our professors will tailor your education to meet the particular needs and challenges of your chosen field of practice. To learn more about our Master of Management in Library and Information Science Online, please visit our website to download a free brochure outlining our program details and requirements.