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Sustainable Communities Thought Leadership

Museums and Libraries: The indispensable connective tissue that keeps healthy communities together

By Michael Norton, Ph.D., Chief Policy Analyst at Reinvestment Fund

Public libraries and museums are deeply embedded in their communities in ways that enrich the wellbeing of local residents. Through their core services, programming, and partnerships with other organizations, they catalyze broader networks of support that meet a diverse range of needs for individuals, organizations, and their broader communities. 

Reinvestment Fund recently completed a national study of the nation’s museums and public libraries to explore the different ways these institutions promote the quality of life in their communities. As a mission-driven financial institution, Reinvestment Fund has an unwavering commitment to make communities work for all people. In addition to bringing financial tools to partnerships to ensure that everyone has access to essential opportunities, we also offer data and research tools to help us and our partners understand markets, communities, and impediments to opportunity.

This national study was done in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, with the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice and HR&A Advisors.  The multi-year, multi-market study found the presence and usage of public libraries and museums to be positively associated with multiple dimensions of social wellbeing by promoting public health, supporting education, facilitating connections between individuals and organizations, and enhancing the cultural environment of their communities. 

Aarti Sharma, Executive Director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Foundation sees libraries as integral to healthy and thriving communities. “When libraries are fully utilized as critical convening and programming hubs, we succeed together,” shares Sharma. “Programming at libraries, like One Book, One Read in Fulton County, bring people together across lines of difference to engage in critical conversation and build community.”

Reinvestment Fund’s study team also visited 24 museums and libraries across the country. These visits confirmed that the ways these institutions engage with their patrons and organizational partners is heavily informed by the local context—the type of community they serve (urban, suburban, or rural), the type and size of their institution, and the needs of local residents and communities. Museums and libraries adapt to local contexts and customize their services to advance their institutional missions and goals while being responsive to changing conditions and observed needs in their communities.

One of our site visits was the Woodlands Garden in Decatur, a nonprofit public garden. Woodlands Gardens provides an urban refuge and promotes wellbeing as a resource for others to use, rather than as an active agent of change. This approach is grounded in the Gardens’ commitment to accessibility as welcoming to populations that can benefit from their resources. 

“Dr. and Mrs. Morse’s gift of Woodlands Garden in 2002 was built on making the urban sanctuary at Scott Blvd and Clairemont Ave in Decatur accessible to the community,” shares Kate McAlpin, Executive Director of the Garden. 

Decatur residents with developmental disabilities are one group that Woodlands Gardens have focused on serving. The Garden is currently partnering with an area chapter of a non-profit, L’Arche Atlanta, that provides semi-autonomous housing to individuals with disabilities. As part of their recent expansion, the Garden acquired an eight-bedroom home on an adjacent parcel of land. The Garden sold the property to L’Arche, which is working to renovate the property. The house will be owned and managed by L’Arche, allowing residents permanent and easy access to Woodlands Garden. Individuals with developmental disabilities already participate in many of the Garden’s annual activities, and those with sensory sensitivities find the Garden to be a therapeutic environment. 

“We look forward to growing our partnership with new neighbor, L’Arche Atlanta, by collaborating on volunteer projects, sharing educational opportunities, and continuing to promote accessibility for all audiences at Woodlands as inspired by the Morse family,” said McAlpin.

The Garden’s largest event of the year, “Fairies in the Garden,” also represents its focus on urban education and engagement with the intent of contributing to social wellbeing. The event is held for children and families in the community in partnership with the Skyland Trails clinic, a local residential psychiatric clinic and non-profit mental health treatment organization. For the last nine years, the clinic’s art therapy patients have worked together to create fairy doors and fairy homes that are installed throughout the Garden. Children and families come to Woodland Garden to find the fairy homes and participate in arts and crafts, managed by volunteers from the local YMCA. The event is free and extremely popular with the local community: in the past year, the event attracted 750 individuals in a two-and-a-half-hour period. 

This event exemplifies the ways in which the Garden seeks to contribute to social wellbeing: the event provides a sanctuary for children and families that come annually to the event. For campers at the local YMCA, the event is an educational experience and an opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills through planning and staffing arts and craft activities. For the participants in Skyland Trail’s therapy programs, the event is an opportunity for patients in the organization’s expressive therapies program to share their work and give back to their community. 

The missions and programs of cultural institutions across the country afford an opportunity for communities to reflect their collective best selves. The findings from this study suggest that local libraries and museums are actively involved in animating social and institutional connections that catalyze the creativity, ingenuity, and empathy within their communities in ways that promote personal and social wellbeing. Working with community partners, they are able to address community needs more effectively than they could alone. 

As critical civic institutions that engage communities and advance inclusion, they are uniquely aligned with Reinvestment Fund’s own work to build strong, healthy and equitable communities. The services these institutions provide, the collections they maintain, and the interactions that happen (intentionally and fortuitously) through their spaces and through their community networks are crucial threads in the broader social and institutional fabric of places that promote human flourishing. 

Learn more about our study Understanding the Social Wellbeing Impacts of the Nation’s Libraries and Museums.  To learn more about Reinvestment Fund’s Policy Solutions team and its analytical work, visit: Policy Solutions | Reinvestment Fund

 

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