Palaces for the people: Mapping public libraries’ capacity for social connection and inclusion

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About the project

Public libraries are trusted community hubs that foster connections with individuals of different socioeconomic statuses; ages; ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural backgrounds; and sexual and gender identities. Located in diverse settings, library branches offer resources and programs that meet the specific needs of their communities as they navigate the effects of our increasingly asocial society. Libraries have been shown to cater to individuals contending with higher levels of social isolation and loneliness, as well as increased rates of mental illnesses and antisocial behaviours. The shift to online environments during COVID-19 has exacerbated feelings of disconnection. During these times of change, public libraries facilitate resilience, helping communities withstand and adapt to difficult circumstances.

While several individual studies have separately examined libraries’ outreach efforts, what remains unknown is the broader knowledge landscape regarding public library practices, spaces and activities that collectively create and reinforce social connections in an increasingly asocial society. We examined scholarly literature to answer the following questions:

  1. How do public libraries help patrons create or maintain connections in their communities?
  2. What population groups are included in public library research and in what ways are they differently impacted by public library services, materials and/or spaces?
  3. How are public library virtual programming and services (especially prominent during COVID-19) changing the ways in which patrons engage with public libraries?
  4. In what ways does the Canadian public library research landscape compare or differ from that in European and Australasia countries, and what lessons can we glean from these differences?

Key findings

As a state-of-the-art review, our findings are geared to outlining current trends in the state of knowledge as revealed by our reading of the included articles. The core team searched the following five databases for peer-reviewed articles in English, published between 2012 and 2022: Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts (LISTA), Scopus, Library & Information Science Source, Library Literature & Information Science Index, and Library and Information Science Abstracts (LISA). We retrieved 2,708 articles, first eliminating 1,649 duplicates and then 388 articles based on abstract and title-level screening. A further 407 articles were removed upon closer screening. The following cursory overview is therefore based on a reading of 264 articles that met the inclusion criteria for this review.

Underlying a majority of the included articles is an acknowledgement that the role of public libraries is changing, from operating as information repositories to now also operating as community hubs. The ways in which public library systems and branches engage with their communities and patrons are therefore also shifting. Focusing in particular on the current state of public library-related research knowledge on issues related to growing feelings of disconnection, isolation and loneliness, articles explored the multiple ways in which public libraries afford connection for and among their patrons.

Public libraries draw on their spaces, staff, collections and materials, programs and relationships with community organizations to bolster feelings of connection. Given the distribution of public libraries across the country, in urban and rural locales and in neighbourhoods of high and low poverty, the ways in which public libraries both connect with and provide connection manifest differently depending on their contexts. Research on this topic reflects the many different population groups that public libraries engage with and support on a daily basis. The research focuses on a myriad of population groups, including: children, youth, older adults, parents, unhoused populations, differently abled individuals, immigrants and non-permanent residents, among others. This breadth of population groups, each with their own unique circumstances, needs and expectations, is indicative of the range of factors and contexts library workers need to consider and incorporate in their programs, collections, arrangement of physical and virtual spaces, and administration.

Across published research, public libraries fostered connection through the following means:

  • Encouraging feelings of belonging
  • Creating connections through technology
  • Reinforcing cultural identities
  • Creating safe physical spaces
  • Addressing issues of accessibility
  • Creating new educational programming
  • Creating new recreational/social programming

Policy implications

Public libraries occupy an increasingly visible role in how individuals and communities learn, interact, connect and share with one another.

  • Public libraries are important and unique public spheres that can support democratic processes.
  • Public libraries’ role in bolstering community connection and resilience was made much more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Library patrons want and value the informal knowledge exchange that happens between library workers and patrons, as much as they want and value library as place and library as a place for books and reading. Renewed and new research is needed to explore the disconnect between what library workers think library patrons want and value, and what library patrons themselves want and value.
  • Public libraries and library staff are being asked (implicitly and explicitly) to step into new social inclusion roles, as front-line staff: e.g., supporting unhoused individuals, responding to addiction and overdose.
  • In addition to contending with neoliberal agendas and financialized logics, public libraries are rarely adequately resourced to do this work. This can lead to staff burnout and physical dangers for staff and library patrons.
  • Trans-disciplinary knowledge exchange and mobilization are urgently needed to position and extend the roles of public libraries and public library research knowledge.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Nicole K. Dalmer, MLIS, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Health, Aging and Society, McMaster University:

Pam McKenzie, associate dean, graduate and postdoctoral professor, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University:

Paulette Rothbauer, associate professor, MLIS, PhD, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University:

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