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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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FINE Newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Family Engagement in Children’s Learning Through Libraries


This commentary was originally published as part of Felton Thomas Jr.’s inaugural President’s Column in Public Libraries, the official journal of the Public Library Association.

Nearly 20 years ago, I made one of the best professional decisions of my life and joined the American Library Association. Soon after, I became a member of the Public Library Association and began to volunteer with the fine organization. Even then, I could never believe that the young boy who started working in public libraries at the age of 13 to escape gangs in his neighborhood would one day lead the organization that represents more than 9,000 public library workers, and supports more than 16,000 public libraries throughout the country. There have been many mentors over the years, and I begin by thanking them for their belief in me, and for their great counsel. I also want to thank my staff and board at the Cleveland Public Library for their support of this leadership journey. Finally, I must thank my family in advance for their patience and love.  

The Public Library Association’s mission is clear: cultivate a community of talented public library professionals where anyone can contribute, and everyone can grow. PLA is where leadership, kinship, and innovation combine to create possibility for public library people.

I ran for PLA president because I felt that I could be an effective communicator of stories of leadership, kinship, and innovation that are essentially the foundation for our future. My time as PLA president will be focused on being the best communicator of your efforts to create innovations in neighborhoods throughout the United States and the initiatives that are being driven by the staff and volunteers at PLA. My role is to share stories about what PLA is doing to make sure public libraries are a wellspring of possibility.

In this spirit, I’d like to describe PLA’s initiative to investigate the best practices and innovative ideas around family engagement. Family engagement is generally defined as the beliefs, attitudes, and activities of families to support their children’s learning. These are concepts that PLA and public libraries have helped advance for many years through PLA’s toolkit, Every Child Ready to Read. And around the nation, federal, state, and local agencies have identified family engagement as critical to student achievement and school improvement. This increased focus on family engagement outside of libraries has pushed PLA to better understand what work is being done inside libraries.

Last year, former PLA president Larry Neal convened a task force to consider the vital role that libraries could play in engaging families. The task force was convened under the leadership of co-chairs Clara Bohrer and Kathleen Reif with the charge to explore partnerships and consider resources to be developed to help public libraries learn about and implement successful family engagement practices.

An initial review of the research on family engagement introduced the task force to the work of Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP). A leader in applied research on the topic, HFRP welcomed discussions with us to consider how both organizations might work together. After these early conversations, HFRP staff expressed their eagerness to work with us, as they see libraries as an important part of the out-of-school ecosystem.

We agree, and with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, an exciting new project—Libraries for the 21st Century: It’s a Family Thing—has been underway for eight months. The reports, articles, and resources in this FINE Newsletter: Family Engagement in Children’s Learning Through Libraries reflect the work of this project to date. The first resource HFRP and PLA jointly provide is a call to action—Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement—a comprehensive report on how libraries value family engagement. In the weeks to come, Harvard Family Research Project will share results of a national survey of family engagement in public libraries and highlight case studies of libraries that are doing exciting, comprehensive family engagement work. 

I want to thank Clara and Kathleen for their leadership and the hard work of the task force as we unveil this work to the public library community. I also wish to thank the Family Engagement Learning Community, which is a group of nearly 20 librarians from around the country who have helped shape and inform this important project. Lastly, Harvard Family Research Project has been an invaluable partner in shaping the possibilities of this project.


Felton Thomas Jr.  is director of the Cleveland Public Library and in June began his term as the 2016-2017 president of the Public Library Association (PLA), a division of the American Library Association. Thomas has served on PLA’s Board of Directors since 2012 and on standing committees since 2006, including PLA’s Family  Engagement Task Force.

This resource is part of the August 2016 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project