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Dispatches From Midwinter – Lessons Learned

by on February 21, 2013

Libraries Transforming Communities
At the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting, I attended two complementary sessions, “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities: A Presidential Initiative” and “Community Engagement Conversation: The Work of Hope.” The first session was a panel discussion with Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, Tim Henkel of Spokane County United Way, Carlton Sears, former director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, and ALA President Maureen Sullivan, who moderated the discussion.

The discussion focused on the idea of libraries as change agents to help create and maintain strong, robust communities. Tim Henkel noted the importance of speaking to members of the community to determine what it is that the community really needs and what issues are important to its members. The panel reinforced the point that these conversations need to have a larger purpose; they should result in a common goal with a focus on measurable results.

Start a Conversation
The second session, “Community Engagement Conversation: The Work of Hope,” built on the concepts introduced in the morning panel discussion. The bulk of this session was spent in small group discussions. My initial reaction upon discovering the session’s purpose: “Oh, please, no, not group discussions! I haven’t had nearly enough coffee.” My inner introvert was halfway out the door. However, my tablemates and I introduced ourselves and were, within moments, engaged in a spirited discussion about our unique information institutions and the diverse communities in which we work.

Our conversation was based on ideas and questions set out in Rich Harwood’s book, The Work of Hope. We discussed our aspirations for our various communities, and the steps that we would need to take to make those aspirations a reality. Surprisingly, despite our vastly different work environments and geographic locations, our group uncovered a surprising amount of overlap between our individual responses to these questions. We discovered that although each of us worked in different types of libraries (public, academic, school, and special), our common aspirations were for each of our libraries to be active participants in creating strong, connected communities. We admitted that we would be beset by numerous challenges in working towards accomplishing that goal. For example, some members of a community may not feel that they have a “voice” or, alternatively, that their voice is not being listened to in the course of the community discussions. And, how would we deal with community members who simply don’t want to participate in community discussions? What about those who would rather voice negative opinions about the process rather than finding ways of making change happen? How about participants who act as if they are open to new points of view but are truly only focused on pursuing their own agenda?

One of our group members shared her interest in starting a Human Library program at her academic library–if you haven’t heard of human libraries, the program generally functions like this: a library user “borrows” a person for an hour in order to have a conversation, hear their story. A human library program is a wonderful way to learn about the perspectives of others and might be a good way to start the important conversations in a community that Harwood recommends. Harwood noted that the purpose of these Community Engagement Conversations is to reignite a deeper sense of compassion in the community by bringing different partners together for a common purpose—which synchronizes well with the goals of Human Library programs.

Hosting a Conversation in Your Community
Think about how to start a dialogue within your own community. Recently, Amber Mussman posted about community-library collaboration opportunities. Think about your partners and what would be useful for your community: perhaps a makerspace like the one in the Fayetteville Free Library? Or,perhaps, the creation of a hub for civic engagement?

Before you start planning specific goals, engage your community in a simple conversation. Go in with an open mind. And, of course, be sure to listen.