November 30, 2015
By Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew

We recently held the IMLS Focus Conference in New Orleans where nearly 300 library and museum professionals gathered to discuss the crucial role that libraries and museums play in their communities.

In a nutshell the main take-away: Libraries and museums are more important than ever in the fabric of our society.

Using the main themes of “Community Engagement,” “Engaging Learners” and “Collections and Digital Access,” participants tackled issues such as how libraries and museums can provide better services to new Americans and immigrants, how our museums and libraries can harness the collective wisdom of the crowd to generate content, why we must rethink the user experience and taking a closer look at tools and resources available for libraries and museums engaged in making.

Many of you mentioned being particularly struck by a plenary session on “Community Connections during Times of Crisis.” It included shared practices from Melanie Adams of the Missouri Historical Society, which sits near Ferguson, Mo., and Carla Hayden, a member of the National Museum and Library Services board who also serves as executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. (As a side note that panel was moderated by another NMLS board member, Luis Herrera.)  These Maryland and Missouri institutions  were both faced with crippling riots in their communities but managed to use their connections and long-built relationships within the community to help bring calm.

Plenary panel with Luis Herrera, Melanie Adams, and Carla Hayden

Plenary panel with Luis Herrera, Melanie Adams, and Carla Hayden.

These type of deep-rooted community connections are emerging more and more as libraries and museums innovate into full-fledged community partners and anchors that help to shepherd in major revitalizations. Perhaps the best recap of the renewed focus on those types of community connections came in the words of many of you who commented during our wrap-up:

“We are not our parents’ institutions. We have an opportunity to lead the country.”

“The only thing that’s changed is everything. We can do this.”

“By providing a place and avenue for communities to share stories, we are creating agents for social change.”

“Museums and libraries have a very unique story and a very huge opportunity to leverage one another.”

Ralph Smith delivers closing keynote

Ralph Smith presenting closing keynote address.

Ralph Smith of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading reminded us during his closing keynote that we have to think of libraries and museums as the “social glue.” How very true. I am hearing these same narratives at every conference and in the museum, library and community partner gatherings that I have attended since starting at IMLS.

Participants listen to plenary speakers.

IMLS Focus participants listen to plenary speakers.

There is a movement to look “outside-in” with our communities to understand how the organizational assets of museums and libraries can best be used. The opportunity to build on libraries and museums as places for creating social and learning networks is tremendous.

I am very optimistic about the future of museums and libraries and the role that they will play in our communities. We have yet to identify the community-specific lenses to use to find our way there.  But after our Focus conference, I’m even more inspired by the commitment and passion that I’ve heard from those of you that I’ve met so far. And I know we will make tremendous progress together to support and shape our communities.