A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

From Project to Branch Integration and Sustainability: Community-Led Work at Halifax Public Libraries

by Kenneth Williment, Tracy Jones-Grant, & Denise Somers on April 26, 2013

 “I have learned a totally different approach to librarianship and the library than I have ever heard of before. I went through how many years of schooling, and it never touched upon it once. My whole idea of librarianship is now community-development centered. All it took was a shift in thinking. It is not extra work; it is a shift in my duties.”—Branch Staff Evaluation

With the completion of the Working Together Project in spring 2008, the senior management team (SMT) at Halifax Public Libraries (HPL) in Nova Scotia, Canada, created a community development manager position to assist in the integration of community-led approaches in the library system. The community development manager was to move the community-led approach from a project setting1 and help integrate the tools and techniques into branches. In order to do this, HPL took a sustainable approach, where all staff within branches learned and were involved in the process. The process that library staff was taken through changed the way in which they work with community members. In order for the community-led approach to be successfully adopted by library staff, they were viewed as a community to be involved in each step of the process.

The Approach: Integrated and Sustainable

In order to ensure that the community-led approach would be sustainable within branches, HPL approached community-led library services with library staff as a mainstreaming process―where work cannot just be bolted on2—impacting the way all library employees completed their work. Community-led service planning builds upon the traditional library service model: providing new methods to bring library staff together with community members in an effort to identify and meet community needs. Socially excluded (underserved) community members, lapsed users, or current library users, in collaboration with library staff, can be involved in each step of the community-led service development process, including needs assessment, program and service development, delivery, and evaluation.3 This nonprescriptive model is flexible and can be applied in all library settings. The advantages of involving all staff in the process include:

  • All community members could expect a similar service, regardless of the staff they approach either inside or outside the branch.
  • Many of the branch staff were from the local community and had pre-established trust.
  • It allowed for a more dynamic workplace where staff discussed community issues and needs as they arose.

Community-led work is not prescriptive; thus, there is no one how-to for this type of work. In fact, one standardized set of instructions would be rather counterintuitive, since the distinctive characteristics of each community (and branch) must be considered when implementing a community-led approach. It is a flexible approach to working with the community. Ultimately, the approach will be driven by the community and its needs, which are unique from all others. As much as this was a teaching process, it was also a staff engagement process. Staff discussed and began to understand the community-led approach before determining how to implement it within each distinctive community. The community-led approach needed to fit the context of the local branch (with unique staffing workload, time, and finances) and the context of the community it serves.

Starting the Process

“Before the process . . . we were meeting our own understanding, our own guessing of the needs of the community, with some facts thrown in.”—Branch Staff Evaluation

Over the course of the Working Together Project (2004–08), key lessons were communicated to SMT and managers. By sharing information (such as community development terminology, approaches, and successes) branch managers began to see the value in adopting the approach. They also began to envision how it would be implemented in their respective branches. Managers who had expressed an interest in the community-led approach volunteered to be involved in the process.

Two of the fourteen HPL branches were initially selected to pilot integrating the community-led approach. The process began by meeting with all staff to discuss their perceptions of the local communities. During this meeting, staff members were asked:

  • Who are the current library users and nonusers?
  • What barriers do people experience accessing library services?
  • What groups could be targeted in the community?
  • What does community-led service mean to them?

The answers to these questions provided a baseline understanding of what staff knew and perceived of the local communities and their members. The purpose of this was to begin conversations with staff about communities and to enhance their appreciation of a different approach. By involving staff voices
throughout the process, staff members became more trusting of the new approach being offered to them by the community development manager.

Staff Engagement

“The meetings were helpful because we were able to ask questions and we got honest answers.” — Branch Staff Evaluation

In order to involve staff in the community-led process, HPL supported the development and implementation of community-development training, which were referred to as staff engagement opportunities. To guide this process, a branch implementation plan was developed in coordinationwith the branch manager.  This plan consisted of regular checkpoint meetings, an overview and timeline of concepts to be covered with staff, and support needed from the branch (for example, writing about lessons learned in their monthly reports).

Next, the community development manager developed staff engagement materials, based on the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit.4 By pulling out key messages and approaches from the toolkit, major lessons from the project were captured. This information was developed into nine separate staff  engagement documents:

  1. Social Inclusion/Social Exclusion
  2. Community-Led Service Model and Outreach
  3. Community Entry and Relationship Building
  4. Customer Service
  5. Asset Mapping
  6. Partnerships
  7. Information Communications Technology (ICT) Training
  8. Community Engagement Techniques
  9. Measurement—Outputs vs. Outcomes

The documents were used to engage staff, providing them with an understanding of the community-led approach and why it was being integrated into their current work. In addition, the content provided staff with background information to understand and work better with particular communities.5 Over the course of five months, as time permitted during regularly scheduled weekly meetings, the community development manager and all branch staff reviewed the items covered in the nine engagement documents.

These staff sessions went beyond providing community-led information to staff. The branch staff was able to discuss and explore the application of community-led approaches within both branch- and community-based activities. By providing staff with the time and space to learn and examine community-led concepts, the staff was able to begin investigating the possibility of building upon the approaches they already used to work with (and within) the community.

It is important to note that the complexity of the staff engagement sessions grew due to the increasing number of employees and varying job descriptions within each branch. For example, in a small rural branch, all employees could meet at one time. However, in a larger suburban branch—while all staff initially met as one large group – the training sessions needed to become more targeted (for example, circulation team, information team) as it was easier for staff to discuss and process community-led approaches in smaller groups.

Initial Apprehensions

“Put all your preconceived notions aside, you need to start with a blank slate . . . It takes a different perspective and it takes time. It is a mind shift, it is a shift in thinking rather than a way of getting things.” —Branch Staff Evaluation

At first, staff members were apprehensive about changing the way they conducted their work, and their apprehension could have easily been viewed as resistance to change. At the outset, staff wanted clarification on why they were going through this process. As discussed by Peter de Jager,6 when going through a change management process staff will want to know why they were being asked to change the way they do their work. To answer this question, it was important to use previously developed messages regarding the rationale for implementing community-led processes,7 while applying it to HPL’s context: the mission statement. When starting these discussions, branch staff showed an understanding and interest in the importance of public libraries involving community in identifying and developing programs and services, based on community-identified need.

There was a sense of disbelief and unease by the staff that the approaches being discussed would be implemented in the branch. To address this issue, a senior director attended several staff meetings to show senior management support. Initially staff members expressed confusion because they believed they had already tried community-led approaches. They provided examples, such as participating in community parades or going to the local school to talk about or deliver library programs, as doing community-based work. However, as the staff engagement progressed, these early thoughts changed and they soon realized that when they had previously participated with the community, they had not used a community-led approach.

Branch staff initially thought, since there was success with community-led work with the Working Together Project, programs and services developed during the project could be implemented in their branch. To address this issue, a former Working Together Project staffer visited both branches to talk about the project. A more in-depth discussion followed, allowing staff to become aware of the flexibility of the community-led approach, and how tools and techniques had to be adapted to meet the unique needs of each branch and local targeted communities.

Staff members were also concerned about perceived additional time and duties they believed were being added to their already heavy workloads, and the additional resources these would absorb. They were assured that management would address the need for additional resources if required. Ultimately, changes were only needed in the ways in which they did their work. While some staff members were initially opposed to changing the way they conducted their work, they were comfortable working with specific groups of people (for example, seniors or teens). Staff members were then assigned to work with one of these groups. By making the process fit staff comfort levels, the approach became viewed as less cumbersome and more exciting to participate in.


“You are not doing a bad job now; you are not doing it wrong now. It is something else to improve on what you are doing.” — Branch Staff Evaluation

When engaging with staff, it was important to be aware of the wording used when talking about community-led services. A slight shift in the way concepts were phrased helped staff see the value of community-led work. It was vital to discuss this as a process not a project. Projects have start and end dates; a process focuses on long-term, sustainable approaches to changing the way work is done.

What’s more, current or traditional approaches to working with community were not framed as wrong or incorrect. Therefore, community-led work was framed as a way to build upon existing skill sets and provide new tools for staff to use when working with community members. Finally, instead of referring to target group members as socially excluded or included, the target group in the community was referred to as underserved. It was essential to expose staff to the concepts of social inclusion and exclusion; however, it was important not to label community members. By using the term underserved, the responsibility for creating change, addressing barriers, and meeting community needs shifted from individual community members (and the social conditions they lived in) to the library system.

What Will Change?

While discussing each of the nine staff engagement documents previously mentioned, it was essential to address the question staff ultimately worried about the most: How will this change the way in which we do our work? In other words, when they come to work on Monday what does the branch manager want them to do the same or different?8

These conversations showed staff that a community-led approach would not change everything they were doing, but was rather an enhancement to their current practices. As a result, this provided them with an opportunity to explore possibilities and to be actively involved in deciding how the new tools and techniques could change the way they do their work.

This was neither a prescriptive nor a top-down process. The community development manager did not go into the branch and tell staff, “This is the community-led approach and this is how you will do it.” Since staff were actively involved in the process, it was important to acknowledge there would be successes and failures when working with community. Staff members were assured they would be supported by management throughout the process, which was as important as the end product.

Community Engagement

“You are building relationships . . . Information comes with trust. As people begin to trust you, or begin to know you, they start discussing things with you.You listen, so you see an opportunity where you can help.” — Branch Staff Evaluation

Since the basis of community-led work is engaging with an identified community to discover its needs, and subsequently developing and delivering programs or service responses with the community, it is tempting for staff to initially want to simply go out into the community and do it. However, during the first year, community engagement was viewed as an internal process, where staff learned community development approaches, and engaged with community members who were already entering the branch. This occurred before moving engagement outside the branch to create external community connections. Part of the reason for doing this was that staff needed to learn how to naturally engage in conversations with community members, and have opportunities to practice. Talking with familiar community members within the branch was a good starting point.

Before the community-led process began in both branches, library staff members were having conversations with community members who came into the branch. Staff members overheard or were involved in conversations with existing library users, but the content of these conversations was not being brought forth to management; therefore, they had little impact on branch-based programs and services. As well, there were multiple engagement opportunities occurring in branches, but staff members were not actively engaging with community members. For example, at one branch, community members came into the branch to attend a program; however, staff members were not involved in the program, nor had they approached the community members hosting the program to see if they were welcome to sit in on the group activities (and thus form relationships). These were missed engagement opportunities with community members, where community input could influence library program and service development.

As the community-led process was being implemented, staff approached community members, such as the local arts and crafts groups that were already using the branch. While staff had been welcoming them to use the library as a space to hold their own program, there had been minimal engagement other than friendly hellos. Staff members were welcomed to attend the community-based programs and were invited to participate and engage with the groups. In response, the community development manager worked with staff to develop tools (checklists and procedures) and skills (primarily listening skills), which would assist them in capturing the content of their conversations with members of the community groups. These sustained conversations and subsequent relationships helped staff identify community needs. Library staff members were encouraged to have continued conversations with community members, so community voices could influence branch services and programs.

Impacts on Staff and Branch

“We had to relearn how to do things. Instead of suggesting, ask. You think you know what they want but you don’t. It seems to work a lot better when you know what they really want.” — Branch Staff Evaluation

This is an ongoing process, and branch staff and management needed to determine the amount of time and resources they could dedicate to community-led services. Also, since it is a long process, momentum can come and go. At the end of the first year, staff did not feel like a lot of changes had occurred. In order to ensure momentum was not lost, it was critical to periodically and clearly communicate accomplishments to staff. At this point the branch manager and community development manager created a document to show staff all of the content they had covered, and changes which had been implemented. Communication documents, such as this one, between the branch manager and staff, can easily re-establish a sense of momentum and common purpose amongst staff.

At the end of the first year, the branch managers were approached with an openended questionnaire with a number of questions regarding the branch managers’ perception of

  • changes to the branch;
  • impact of the community-led process on branch staff;
  • management of the process; and
  • tool development.

According to managers, engaging staff at all levels allowed them to

  • identify community needs and place them in a library context;
  • increase discussion amongst staff and communications with the manager;
  • create a more open and barrier free environment (for example, don’t automatically say no to the community);
  • provide exciting new methods for staff going outside of the branch and into the community to discover community need;
  • spend more time with customers, creating sustained interactions with individuals – leading to relationships; and
  • provide staff with a clear and unifying branch vision.

While this is not an exhaustive list of the benefits of involving all branch staff in the community-led process, it does begin to show the impact of spending time upfront working with staff and allowing them to adapt community-led processes to fit the branch and local community.

What to Do Differently

As with all processes, there are many things which will change the next time this process is implemented in an HPL branch. Some suggestions:

  • Follow up weekly staff discussions on community-led principles with activities.
  • Allow the process to progress at its own speed. While projects have tight deadlines, community work in branches should occur as need arises and as time permits. There are still the daily functions and realities of running a branch which need to be given priority. However, setting timelines does assist in ensuring that progress occurs.
  • When creating tools, create shortened versions. Staff members do not want to read long procedures, checklists, and cheat sheets.


“It might be the only path that libraries can take. People can get the information that libraries used to have so easily at home. If we maintain our ivory tower status we may not be very relevant for very long. If we look at our communities and find out what they need from us it may increase our relevance in the future.” — Branch Staff Evaluation

A little more than two years ago, HPL continued with its commitment to sustainably work with local communities to identify information needs, and to collaboratively develop programs and services to meet these needs. This approach is sustainable since the library system has made the commitment to spend the essential time upfront to work with staff, to both build an understanding of community-led services and provide assistance to staff implementing the approach. This provided a mechanism for a major shift in the way all staff view and implement library work with the community.


  1. Working Together Project, Community-Led Libraries Toolkit (Vancouver:2008), accessed Feb. 24, 2011; Kenneth Williment, “It Takes a Community to Create a Library,” Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 4, no.1 (Spring 2009).
  2. John Vincent, “Good Ideas: Now Act,” Public Library Journal 16, no.3 (2001).
  3. Working Together Project, Community-Led Libraries Toolkit; Williment, “It Takes a Community to Create a Library.”
  4. Working Together Project, Community-Led Libraries Toolkit.
  5. John Vincent, “Inclusion: Training to Tackle Social Exclusion,” in Handbook of Library Training Practice and Development, ed. Alan Brine (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2009).
  6. Peter de Jager, “The Art of Communicating Change,” University of Toronto Faculty of Information, accessed Feb. 28, 2011, .
  7. John Pateman, “Developing a Needs Based Library Service,” Information for Social Change 26 (2007–08); David Muddiman et al., “Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion— Volume 1: Overview and Conclusions” (Resource Library and Information Commission Research Report 86, The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, West Yorkshire, U.K., 2000); Sandra Singh, Brian Campbell, and Annette DeFaveri, “Toward an Inclusive Library Service: The Working Together National Demonstration Project,” in Reaching Out: Innovation in Canadian Libraries (Laval, Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2008); Williment, “It Takes a Community to Create a Library.”
  8. de Jager, “The Art of Communicating Change.”