What School Leaders & Education Philanthropists Can Learn from Public Library Vision Statements

What can school leaders and educational philanthropists learn from library vision statements? You might be surpirsed. In an 1889 article entitled, The Best Fields for Philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie wrote about how to share your wealth for the benefit of others. He wrote,

“The result of my own study of the question, What is the best gift which can be given to a community? is that a free library occupies the first place, provided the community will accept and maintain it as a public institution, as much a part of the city property as its public schools, and indeed, an adjunct to these… Closely allied to the library and, where possible, attached to it, there should be rooms for an art gallery and museum, and a hall for lectures and instruction as are provided in the Cooper Union.”

Libraries are special places for me. Books and the spaces that house them became tools and places for insight and inspiration starting in my late teens and early twenties. One my favorite movie lines is even about libraries, when Will in Good Will Hunting puts an over-confident graduate student in his place with the following quote:

See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a ****in’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!

Of course, I don’t completely agree with the quote. Many people value their formal education and consider it worth their investment. At the same time, this movie quote reminds us of a startling fact, that there are public buildings called libraries in towns across the United States that are committed to increasing access and opportunity. They play an important role in society and, for the curious and motivated person, they have opened doors to lifelong and free range learning unlike any other institution in the nation.

This brings me to the title of this article about what school leaders & education philanthropists can learn from public library mission statements. Out of curiosity, I did a simple search for public library mission and vision statements. My excitement and intrigue grew with each new statement that I read. These were astonishingly inspiring stirring statements. Few of them were about books and periodicals. In fact, they were not that different from the many things that educators have been discussing when we talk about 21st-century skills and equipping people for life in a changing and connected world. I must confess that these library vision statements are far more inspiring than many of the K-12 school and University mission and vision statements that I’ve read over the years.

Consider the following examples:

“Our Vision is an educated, connected community of readers, learners, doers, and dreamers.” – Pima County Public Library

“The Oak Park Public Library creates opportunities to participate, connect, and discover.” – Oak Park Public Library

“Cleveland Public Library will be the driving force behind a powerful culture of learning that will inspire Clevelanders from all walks of life to continually learn, share and seek out new knowledge in ways that are beneficial to themselves, their community and the world.” – Cleveland Public Library

“The Black Earth Public Library aspires to offer the citizens of the Village a safe, accessible, attractive place conducive to learning, research, enlightenment, creativity and enjoyment” – Black Earth Library

“To connect people with ideas that enlighten, encourage, inspire, enrich, and delight.” – The Mission Statement of Jacksonville Public Library

“The mission of The New York Public Library is to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” – New York Public Library

Do you see what I mean? These vision statements represent vital features of communities in a connected age. They have nothing to do with schooling, but everything to do with learning. The are about the types of learning that can transform a person’s future, not to mention the community where that learning is applied.

Some might be thinking that certain public libraries have become increasingly outdated in the digital age, but if you go to a local library, you will find that they are rarely empty. They are fulfilling these purposes for people, and if they are truly committed to the sort of visions listed above, I find it hard to see them decreasing in relevance. They may well adjust to the times as many have already done, but visions like these are more important than ever. They are places of curiosity and learning where people are often less motivated by grades and teacher expectations, although some students certainly use them for schoolwork. Instead, they are motivated by any number of largely self-directed goals or personal interests.

Whether a given library in your community is living up to such grand goals is open to debate. Regardless, as I scan these library vision and mission statements, I can’t help but notice lessons for both school leaders and philanthropists. As such, I offer four thoughts or questions for each.

To the School Leaders

  • What would your school look like if you adopted one of these library vision statements to shape and inspire what happens at your school? Or, do you have library in your school that lives out such a vision? How is it doing?
  • Notice the way these statements are less about control and direction, but more about support and inspiration. How could that happen more in your school?
  • Give the presence of such organizations with compelling visions and missions that likely align with that of your school, what would it look like to build partnerships with such organizations? I’m not talking about one-off programs and projects. Think about deeper and more integrated connections, and don’t just limit yourself to the libraries. What other organizations with inspiring learning visions and missions are potential partners in your work?
  • Is it more important for the school to run on your terms or for learning to go viral in your community, inspiring countless people to grow, learn, do, creative, imagine, and contribute? How might you experiment with that in your school?

To the Philanthropists and Educational Entrepreneurs

  • Schools are great places and school reform is a valuable investment, but don’t forget about the broader learning ecosystem in communities. How can you invest in growing that? If you want to invest in something that increases access, opportunity, and agency, consider supporting projects and efforts that extend beyond formal and structured schooling as well.
  • Has your focus been on schooling or learning and education? Have you treated those as synonyms in the past? What would happen if you broadened your interest to open learning and not just formal schooling and programming? These outside of school spaces and offerings are going to have a massive impact on education of the future, and you can help shape that.
  • Think about how we can empower and support curious people in our communities. Investing in them and their future accomplishments can have immense community benefits.
  • Consider how many people find their life’s passions beyond what they experienced in a formal schooling setting. That is significant if you want to invest in helping to shape our obvious transition from the information age to the innovation age and a connected world.

A $50 Million Competition to Design The Next American High School

Are you ready to design the next American high school? There are competitions for the best voice in the nation, the top model, the best shooter, the best dancer, the top chef, even the top stunt person. Why not a competition to design the best high school in the nation?

If you have ever dreamed of starting a new and better type of school, now is your time. The Super School Project just launched a competition that will result in at least five teams benefitting from a $50 million dollar fund to make their dream school a reality, to build the high school of the future. Go to the site, create the account, build your team, and share your dream.

As they explain on the site, “The Super School Project is an open call to reimagine and design the next American high school.” This competition is predicated upon the assumption that the world has changed, but schools have not adjusted…that we need more than tweaks to the existing system. Now is the time to start from scratch and imagine a school that will help students thrive and survive in the contemporary and emerging world.

In 2013, I wrote about Elliot Washor’s comparison between schooling and Mr. Potato Head. When Mr. Potato Head came out initially in the 1950s, it was a box with pins in it, and you provided the actual vegetable. “Any fruit or vegetable makes a funny face man.” With parents not happy about kids playing with their food, a future version of the toy came with a fake vegetable, eventually a plastic potato. Then there were concerns about choking hazards and the sharp pins, so those were recreated in future version as well. Over time, they even built the toy so that you could no longer put the eyes where the ears belong. It was safer. It didn’t waste food. It also didn’t risk teaching kids poor lessons about anatomy (as if that were a concern?).

Washor explained that the same thing happens with schools. Over time we layer on new policies, practices and procedures; often driven by valid concerns about safety or something else. However, those layers also have a way of slowing down the system, stifling true innovation, and preventing us from fully imagining the many promising possibilities and alternative ways of thinking about education. The Super School Project is an effort to address this problem, sparking the imagination of students, parents, community members, teachers or anyone else who wants to join in the fun. You don’t need a credential or pedigree. You just need a great idea and a compelling proposal. The best ideas win.

Benefits Beyond the Prize

While there are many philanthropic efforts in education today (and even more critics of those efforts), I’ve been intrigued by and pleased with this growing idea of creating competitions that are about more than just prize money.

  • They the existing fires of innovation in a given area of need.
  • They create energy and community around that need.
  • They draw broader attention to the issue.
  • They allow the community of participants to individually and collectively grow in their knowledge and understanding of the key issues.
  • Even those who don’t “win” the competition help push the field forward.
  • Those who don’t “win” also sometimes get alternate funding or find other ways to bring their dream to reality.

One of Many Prizes

While the Super School Project is a philanthropic effort of Laurene Powell Jobs through the Emerson Collective, it is one of many such emerging efforts, leveraging the power of competition to spark great ideas for a collective good. Other similar competitions are part of the XPrize, an online platform for hosting a variety of competitions that share traits like “a bold and audacious goal”, an unmet need or failure, a defined problem, a grand but achievable task, and something that provides “vision and hope.” At the time of this article, XPrize was running two education projects, the Adult Literacy Xprize (a $7 million competition) and the Global Learning XPrize (a $15 million competition). These are wonderfully creative ways to generate widespread and grassroots innovation around in the education space.

Now is Your Time

  • You can spend your evenings watching and cheering on the next top model or the best dancer in the nation.
  • Another option is to get involved, sign up for one of these competitions and join in the movement to solve some of the greatest problems in society or pursuing some of the most exciting opportunities.
  • Alternatively, why not start your own competition focused upon addressing a need or opportunity in education that resonates with you? It doesn’t need to be $50 million.
  • It doesn’t even need to be national or world-wide. Make it local.
  • You can fund it yourself or invite a group of others to pool resources and make it happen.

Let the games begin!