Librarians as Taste Makers

A Pilot Project to Make Libraries More Personal

In a world where many of our deeply personal choices are offered up by an algorithm, from the next song we hear to the clothes we wear, libraries are still a haven—full of real people connecting together over a love of books and ideas. In some ways, these halls of public knowledge and ideas have worked too well for too long: people have gotten so comfortable with libraries, they take for granted the difference they’ve made in all of our lives.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has long recognized the importance of libraries in connecting people of all backgrounds, beliefs and socio-economic status with life-changing ideas. We’ve given over $27 million in gifts to public libraries over the years. And we are always looking for risk-taking projects that have the potential to make the greatest impact.

That’s why in 2013, we worked with The Library Foundation and Oregon’s Multnomah County Library system to fund a $190,000 grant for a pilot program in the area’s public libraries. Called Cutting Edge Reader’s Advisory, the project will strengthen what libraries have always been best at: deepening a personal connection to books and ideas. When a librarian connects with a reader, there’s a moment of exchange no algorithm can ever duplicate. And the dialogue doesn’t end after the book has been read—that relationship can continue on to more suggestions and more conversation. It becomes about more than just the books. Libraries are where you go when you want not just words, but understanding and connection.

This program will develop that essential nature of the library, putting forward a team of highly trained “personal librarians.” These librarians will channel their breadth of knowledge about books to guide and curate reading experiences. Through a web interface, readers will be able to see librarians’ faces, learn about their geeky areas of interest and peruse their recommended reading lists. Patrons can connect to the librarian that matches their interests. And for the busy, late-night types, librarians will be reachable by email and via social media—as well as by phone, chat, Skype, and in person during library hours.

For Merris Sumrall, CEO of The Library Foundation, this project will position the library to meet the emerging needs of thousands of readers. “Librarians are at the heart of what makes our public libraries unique. We can all access Google and Amazon but libraries have people. This grant gives us the opportunity to reshape the reader-librarian relationship for today’s virtual world.”

One of the reasons funding programs like this is so important is that for public institutions like libraries, it can be very hard to implement much-needed change. “It’s such a gift to have this grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. As the second busiest library system in the nation, it is challenging for our library to set aside dollars and people for innovative initiatives. The ability to design and test cutting-edge library service is a tremendous gift for our community of readers,” Ms. Sumrall said.

The personal librarian program is about to begin its test run, but early focus groups suggest that personal connections with librarians will create a more rich and rewarding library experience that can last a lifetime.


The Allen family recognizes the unique role libraries play in communities, and supports their growth and success.

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