Skills for Community-Centered Libraries: A Webinar Series with the Free Library of Philadelphia

Lynn Williamson, Neighborhood Library Services Division, and Kimberly Kirn, Project Coordinator, Skills for Community-Centered Libraries, Free Library of Philadelphia /

The Aspen Institute’s influential 2014 report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, predicted that in the coming years, the most successful public libraries will be the ones with services that prioritize and support local community goals. The report states, "What libraries need is to be more intentional in the ways that they deploy resources in the community, and more deeply embedded in addressing the critical challenges facing the community. This will require a level of flexibility and adaptability to change as community needs change." The report could not have anticipated a global pandemic, but the need for library adaptability and engagement are even more clear in the emerging post-pandemic world.

two people in training
Free Library of Philadelphia library staff staff participating in
Community-Centered Libraries training.

Like many libraries across the nation, the Free Library of Philadelphia is undergoing a paradigm shift. Their extensive collections offer boundless discoveries, but increasingly their focus is not only on what is housed within their walls and on their servers, but how they are engaging with their communities. To address this shift and support staff, the Free Library of Philadelphia created the Skills for Community-Centered Libraries curriculum to train over 300 full-time library staff including Regional Coordinators, Administrative Librarians, Library Supervisors, Librarians, Library Assistants and Municipal Guards in community engagement skills. This curriculum, which was delivered through both in-person and online workshops, was also used by seven other library networks throughout the United States and Canada, in rural and urban communities, training 121 additional library staff. The staff and trainers at these libraries provided important contributions in evaluating and improving the Skills for Community-Centered Libraries curriculum: Coy Public Library (PA), Columbus Public Library (WI), Cleveland Public Library (OH), Hartford Public Libraries (CT), Multnomah County Library (OR), San Francisco Public Library (CA), and Halifax Public Libraries (NS).

The curriculum, which is now freely available for all libraries to access and implement with their own staff, provides the opportunity to learn and practice the skills necessary to thrive as libraries evolve through the pandemic and beyond. Through the workshops, staff have developed new skills in identifying neighborhood assets, facilitating community meetings, emerging neighborhood trends, and enhancing the library's community engagement initiatives.

imams with Islamic manuscripts
Imams from the Majlis Ash’Shura admiring the library's
Rare Book Department collection of Islamic manuscripts.

As a part of this training initiative, participants developed a project that utilized the knowledge gained during trainings. Several of these projects were featured in a wonderful blog series including, a gardening for kids program, an unforgettable gathering with members of the Muslim community (10% of Philadelphia’s population) focused on the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, and a neighborhood photography workshop and art exhibit highlight the positive images of a neighborhood often associated with the opioid crisis.

Summer Webinar Series

WebJunction partnered with the Free Library of Philadelphia on a series of webinars on the Community-Centered Libraries project, highlighting facets of the curriculum, and featured staff with reflections on their learning, the impacts on their professional practices and the shifts in mindset toward a common goal of community engagement for their communities as defined by their communities.

Visit each of the webinar pages linked below to learn more about the Community-Centered Libraries series:

The Skills for Community-Centered Libraries curriculum was made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program awarded to the Free Library of Philadelphia [Grant #RE-95-17-0089-17].