Submitted to the AFRO by Susan Benton

No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, it’s tough not to argue we are in turbulent times. Can we depend on our local and national government leaders to guide us through the 21st century challenges we are facing? Maybe.

Can we depend solely on government leaders to lead our democracy forward? Absolutely not. But one place we can look for real leadership – leadership that has always been there and will continue to move us forward – is the public library. The library is an essential component of local government and serves as a vital community cornerstone, technological hub and entrepreneurial center. More importantly, libraries serve all, leveling the playing field for everyone.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the narrative of the public library was dusty bookshelves and signs saying, “Quiet Please.” But it’s not just about books anymore. No institution has evolved like the public library. Serving patrons in new and innovative ways, libraries are leaders in advancing racial and social equity, economic and workforce development, entrepreneurship, education and so much more.

Susan Benton, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council. (Twitter Photo)

Libraries serve all members of their communities without conditions or judgment. Children from low-income families without a home computer or internet access rely on the free computers and Wi-Fi at their local library to do their homework. During the summer, when schools are out of session, many children from impoverished families count on libraries to provide them with nutritious meals.

Facing tough economic times, the unemployed use libraries to search for and apply for jobs and develop their professional skills. Immigrants turn to libraries to help them navigate the daunting immigration process and adjust to their new homes. And, a growing number of libraries are employing full-time social workers to serve the needs of patrons with mental health and substance abuse issues.

You have a perfect example of the innovative and forward-thinking work of today’s libraries in Baltimore. As part of the Urban Libraries Council’s Strengthening Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs initiative, Enoch Pratt Free Library and Baltimore County Public Library are partnering to develop a program that supports local entrepreneurs by providing access to a collaborative network of library resources, services and partnerships that offer education, training and support. This program focuses especially on supporting women, people of color and veterans in pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. Across North America, major library systems are implementing similar programs to support their local entrepreneurial ecosystems. The public library has come a long way.

In early September, library leaders from North American libraries came together in Baltimore for the Urban Libraries Council’s 2018 Annual Forum. Following the forum’s Leading Forward theme, they charted a path forward, not just for their libraries, but for the communities they serve. The public library has a duty to serve. It does so in myriad ways, sometimes loudly and publicly and oftentimes quietly and behind the scenes. But what library leaders and staff all know, is that they are responsible for the wellbeing of all of the members of their communities.

Libraries are cornerstones of democracy, putting into action the belief that all people should have unmitigated access to resources to aid in their education, economic stability and civic participation. They serve as the beating heart of their communities and are always looking to better provide for the millions that depend on the library’s commitment to supporting the goals of its users and the jurisdiction’s priorities. Libraries are leading forward.

Susan Benton is the president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, which just concluded its annual forum in Baltimore City.

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO.

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