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Third generation public libraries

Full report available for download in pdf format

Note: Third generation public libraries was written by Wendy Newman for the former Ministry of Culture and published in 2008.

Executive Summary

The Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture commissioned this report to assist with updating its policy framework for supporting public libraries. The report examines how visionary thinking and services could apply to Ontario's public libraries by 2020. To prepare the report, the researcher took into account:

  • Social, economic and technological trends
  • A literature review of the ideas of visionary thinkers in the library sector
  • Major initiatives where libraries have partnered with other organizations
  • Recent library conferences and awards
  • Library innovation in Canada and elsewhere
  • The Deputy Minister of Culture's consultations of 2006
  • Ontario government priorities.

Research shows that, in communities large and small, public libraries have a strong role in literacy and learning, innovation, community, and prosperity. The title of this report, Third Generation Public Libraries, comes from author Shannon Mattern's concept of public libraries that the public helps to design. This paper extends Mattern's concept well beyond architecture into partnerships and services.

Through changing times, people have continued to participate in and esteem their libraries. The public library of 2020 will respond to a new social, technological, and economic environment while keeping its enduring values. It will use new tools and partnerships in its traditional roles as part of a lifelong learning system and as an engine of cultural and economic development. It will remain an agent and sign of community and social cohesion. It will respond to Canada's uniquely “diverse diversity.” It will act on research on reading and learning and make information and communication technology accessible in a democratized and participatory digital universe of uneven quality. It will stimulate creativity in the community and provide exciting public spaces where people can participate and share ideas. Through all these means, the public library will contribute to sustainable prosperity for Ontario and Canada in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

It is hard to name a public institution that has retained such high rates of participation and esteem amid volatility and change. This report identifies leading examples of innovative practices and services in public libraries in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Nordic countries, Singapore, and Canada. These practices show that, more and more, national governments are acknowledging the value of public libraries through programs, policies and funding. That is not the case at the national level in Canada. However, Ontario can learn from statewide consortia in the US, for example, and from worldwide innovation to improve service delivery and citizen participation. There are differences between jurisdictions, but across Canada and elsewhere, common themes in public library roles and public library innovation do emerge.

Public libraries of the future will be catalysts and leaders in community-based economic development. They will have a strategic role in knowledge-intensive industries like digital media. They will also be mainstays of community-based cultural planning and development. The amount of information available will grow, and much of it will be of questionable value and accuracy. Public libraries will play an increasingly significant role in the literacies of the twenty-first century that enable people to select, assess and use the information that will best meet their needs. As the number of technology devices increases, libraries will enable increased equality of access and participation and help people create and exchange new content. One of the ways libraries will do this is by collaborating, within the library sector and beyond, to develop stronger networks.

Public libraries will continue to be welcoming places of community, both real and virtual. Renewed physical libraries will be exciting and involving spaces. Public libraries will widely adopt research-based approaches. This will enhance their role as the preschooler's door to reading and learning and will strengthen early learning and family literacy. Initiatives for youth in school and at risk will be staples of future public library service, and youth will thrive in the redesigned spaces.

The public library of the future will work more systematically with partners, including government, to integrate newcomers and socially marginalized people. Based on results from pilot projects of the past decade, libraries will be important in responding to language and other settlement needs. The growing numbers of seniors will enjoy services better customized to their interests and abilities. Services to Aboriginal peoples, on and off reserves, will be responsive and relevant to their needs and preferences. The longstanding role of the public library as society's informal learning system will change in terms of service delivery, but it will remain constant in its values and commitment to the individual.

Government and private sector roles will also evolve. Governments will have more fully developed partnerships with public libraries. As a result, governments will be able to deliver services in high-priority areas such as youth, early childhood, and immigration more seamlessly and effectively. In partnership with governments, the public library will be an effective advocate for a balanced approach to intellectual property and a robust public domain of ideas.

The private sector will recognize that public libraries have a key role in reaching a huge market of people seeking information and knowledge. Businesses will understand how this applies to testing exportable software and new media in the “home market.” The long relationship between libraries and the publishing industry will thus extend into the future. Other private sector roles will include designing and supporting facilities, collaborating in business and economic development initiatives, and supporting libraries through volunteerism and philanthropy.

Ontario is in a leading position in several strategic areas relevant to this view of the future of public libraries:

  • The Knowledge Ontario consortium, which built on the experience of consortia in Canada and elsewhere
  • A strategic plan for service to Aboriginal people on reserves
  • Growing capacity in library boards and staff through the Southern Ontario Library Service and Ontario Library Service North.

Ontario is rising in the following areas:

  • Delivery of government services in public libraries through the Service Ontario partnerships
  • Participation in intergovernmental discussion and cooperation.

In other areas, Ontario needs to take steps to ensure that public libraries achieve their potential:

  • Systematic and stable provincial framework for children and youth services
  • Growing and sustaining Knowledge Ontario
  • Multicultural services and collections
  • Infrastructure and broadband
  • Operating and special funding.

Through leadership in developing and supporting policies, and with reinvestment by the province in operating funding, Ontario has an opportunity to leverage the role of public libraries to achieve maximum benefit for the province. The province could also play a role in interprovincial collaboration to seek partnership with and stable support from the federal government.

Several key policy themes have particularly high potential to advance Ontario's interests and priorities in the knowledge-based economy to 2020:

Knowledge Ontario

Knowledge Ontario is a platform for innovation as well as an information service. Broadening the partnership to include education and post-secondary ministries will be essential to its stability and growth.

Library buildings

Public library buildings should be prominent in the infrastructure revitalization programs of all levels of government. In addition, the Trillium Foundation should expand eligibility for grants to include libraries in communities of all sizes.

Broadband access

Comprehensive broadband access is important to achieving the goal of equity of access to the full range of technology. It will also have economic benefits.

Role of public libraries in government programs

Ontario's programs for literacy, student success, and youth at risk should comprehensively and explicitly include the role of public libraries.

Early childhood learning

Public library support for early childhood learning needs coordination and explicit policy attention.


Public libraries have a longstanding and growing role in literacy, including digital literacy. Through interministerial collaboration, Ontario should align this role with other provincial literacy programs.


Ontario is a large territory and has great diversity in its population. It is a challenge to serve hundreds of communities with a full range of resources tailored to diverse needs. Building the capacity in the six large urban public libraries, which serve 40 per cent of Ontarians, would respond not only to diversity in these communities, but would also make resources such as collections and professional expertise available to other communities on a shared basis.

Economic development

Public libraries have documented potential to contribute to economic development. Ontario has major opportunities to leverage that potential more systematically.

Changing demographic profile

Population trends show that Ontario will need a stronger policy and program focus on the elderly, persons with disabilities, newcomers, and marginalized people. Knowledge Ontario and new technology will be important tools in responding to changing needs. Interministerial and intergovernmental collaboration will be necessary.

Services to Aboriginal people

Grassroots planning and models exist to improve services to Aboriginal people on reserves.

Government priorities and services

With branches in every community, public libraries offer opportunities for government to apply the potential of public libraries in priorities such as health promotion and prevention to make information more available and visible.


Ontario should continue to advocate for carefully balanced copyright laws that respect both creators and users to ensure reasonable access to ideas to promote learning and innovation.

The evidence shows that the exciting vision of innovation described in this report is achievable. Ontario has strong public library foundations on which to build. Achieving the vision will involve the local efforts of public libraries. It will also require the Ministry to renew its library expertise, operating grants, and capacity for interministerial and intergovernmental collaboration. Those elements have dropped sharply in the past 10 to 12 years. Learning and literacy, innovation and strong communities are fundamental to the Ontario of 2020. An innovative, province-wide library system is therefore an attractive government investment.