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Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities

The role of public libraries in their communities has evolved over time and has gone from being mainly repositories of knowledge sources and items typically dispensed through physical shelves and manual catalogues to becoming anchor institutions with the unique ability to understand and support community needs, strengthen civic life, and facilitate engagement among community members to achieve shared goals.


Currently, public libraries offer programs and services to a variety of patrons to meet their diverse needs and demands. They also provide a safe and neutral space within the community for patrons to participate in different activities, interact with each other, and enjoy free and easy access to information and a variety of technologies.


All these features make public libraries a potential strategic partner in smart city and community initiatives, understood as cities/communities that:


  • Promote a comprehensive view of the city/community, which materializes in different types of initiatives, from waste management to traffic control or water management.

  • Adopt a double perspective, technological and human, which means that technology is key in their development (and, therefore, it is the tool par excellence) but that, at the same time, smart cities and communities have to be developed for, by, and with citizens. As a result, urban governance and participation processes as well as investments in human and social capital are inherent attributes of a smart city.

  • Pursue a triple goal: to improve the efficiency of urban operations, to improve citizens’ quality of life, and to promote the local economy, having as a common background environmental sustainability.

The idea that public libraries are necessary partners in urban development is not new. In the specific case of smart cities and communities, and particularly after 2009, when the term “anchor institution” made its first appearance in United States law in the context of broadband policy, public libraries have been widely identified as anchor institutions that could extend connectivity and the benefits of robust broadband, playing a key role in digital inclusion.


In addition, libraries have also embraced the digital era, becoming technological hubs: it is no surprise to find public computers and free WiFi in libraries today; also e-books and online databases for research and an array of other online resources. Further, libraries are using Facebook and Twitter to connect with patrons.

Yet, as parts of the digital, knowledge, and creative infrastructures of smart cities and communities, public libraries can go beyond the provision of access to computers and to the Internet. Our research shows that, generally speaking, public libraries have the potential to contribute to smart cities and communities by 1) developing smart citizens, 2) enabling citizen participation, and 3) providing an innovation environment.

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First, given the emergence of proficiency in digital skills as an essential aspect of being a smart citizen, public libraries may, for example, provide training to help improve patrons’ digital literacy and understanding of open data.



Second, public libraries may enable citizen engagement by providing opportunities to participate in the development of smart cities and communities. It is not enough to have access to the technology and to be able to use it if there are no opportunities to meaningfully use the technology to engage in smart city and community initiatives. Public libraries are already considered trusted physical (and also virtual) environments where, among other, civic and cultural engagement, lifelong learning, establishing feelings of identity and belonging to a community, and civic engagement can take place. Thus, they can also enable the participation of the civil society in smart city and community initiatives.



Finally, public libraries, may also create and support maker labs where entrepreneurs and small businesses can experiment with very diverse technologies. Further, in the context of smart cities and communities, public libraries may serve as open spaces or techno-centric hubs for stakeholder engagement and they may become knowledge hubs and innovation environments where reliable sources of knowledge are shared to understand, discuss, and potentially solve community problems.

There is, therefore, a clear opportunity for public libraries to become a strategic (and formal!) partner in the development of smart cities and communities, which surpasses digitalizing libraries or democratizing the benefits of digital connectivity. The traditional and important role of public libraries as trusted information intermediaries provides a powerful platform for public libraries to become key players in smart city and community initiatives, reinforcing their role as community anchors.


About the Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox

The Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox is a set of resources for public libraries that want to strengthen their role in developing a smart city/community. It will help you to start taking advantage of the opportunities that you will find in the Opportunity Agenda and Roadmap Report. The Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox provides guidance to your public library in terms of how to advance its role as a community anchor in your smart city or community by offering numerous resources and ideas.


The core of the Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox is structured in three sections: 1) Programs and Services, 2) Organizational Processes, and 3) Marketing and Outreach Tools. In each of these sections you will find an explanation on how to think about the topic in terms of making a greater contribution to the development of a smart city/community. You will also find specific examples to implement different ideas. Finally, each section provides you additional resources in case you want to further explore new programs and services contextualized to community issues and interests, changes in organizational processes, and uses of marketing tools.


The Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox also includes a Resources section, that includes all the products that CTG UAlbany has created to help raise awareness about the concept of smart cities and communities as well as to support public libraries’ contribution to developing smart cities and communities, and a virtual space (enabled by a Facebook group) for public libraries to connect and interact (Networking). You can explore the Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox at your own pace prioritizing the sections and information that fits your needs better. However, if you do not really know where to start, please start your journey at the Getting Started section.


We hope you find this Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox useful. It is time for public libraries to become an acknowledged and strategic partner in smart cities and communities!


About CTG UAlbany and About This Project

The Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany (CTG UAlbany) works with governments worldwide transforming public services through innovations in technology, policy and management. A research institute at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, CTG UAlbany was established in 1993 to pursue new ways to use technology to address practical problems of information management and service delivery in government.


CTG UAlbany collaborates with hundreds of domestic and international researchers on understanding and applying emerging technologies. At the same time, CTG UAlbany works with scores of local, state, federal, and international government bodies as a trusted advisor and consultant through funded projects about management and policy decisions to govern the use of new technologies as tools for public service transformation.


More information is available at:


The four-year research project “Enabling Smart, Inclusive, and Connected Communities: The Role of Public Libraries” is one of CTG UAlbany's research projects, conducted in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA)’s Center for the Future of Libraries. This project was supported by IMLS Grant No. LG-96-17-0144-17 awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It aims at better understanding how public libraries can advance their role as community anchors in smart city and community initiatives by contributing to the community’s understanding of and participation in such initiatives.


Two research questions guide the study: 1) to what extent do public libraries, building on their expertise, knowledge, and background, contribute to communities’ understanding of and participation in smart city initiatives?, and 2) what are the existing and potential benefits, costs, risks, challenges, and unintended consequences for public libraries increasing their involvement in their communities’ smart city initiatives?


To address these two research questions, the following activities have been conducted: 1) a literature and current practices review, 2) an analysis of four case studies, and 3) a national survey. The project includes two main deliverables, the Opportunity Agenda and Roadmap Report and the Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox, as well as several dissemination activities of results. The research is supported by the expertise of an Advisory Board which has provided strategic advice for multiple stages and activities.


The intended outcomes for public libraries, local governments, and researchers include:


  1. Increasing and sustaining relationships and collaborations between libraries and other organizations, such as city governments and community organizations.

  2. Designing and developing two new and replicable resources to guide libraries willing to advance their role as community anchors in smart cities and to provide libraries with numerous resources and ideas for new programs and services contextualized to community issues/interests: the Opportunity Agenda and Roadmap Report and the Public Libraries in Smart Cities and Communities Toolbox.

  3. Enhancing the relationships between researchers and practitioners by communicating research findings in different events and ways that will lead to improvements in library services.


More information at:

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