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Dispatches from PLA 2014 — Want Collaboration? Engage Your Community

by on March 24, 2014

How can libraries come up with new ways to engage their communities? In the PLA 2014 Conference session, “Want Collaboration? Engage Your Community,” the Omaha Public Library staff and its partners sought to answer this question by explaining the development and implementation of their 2-year IMLS grant to create a replicable model for community engagement in libraries. After completing a strategic plan to find out which services the Omaha community lacked, the staff determined that there was a need to establish the library as a trusted neutral place in the community to support local organizations. To launch the idea of the library as a “no agenda” organization, the staff developed new skill sets, looked at the library as a business, and reexamined professional services.

Presenters Theresa Jehlik, Cheryl Gould, Sam McBane Mulford, and Linda Trout discussed the progress and lessons learned with the Creating a Collaborative Culture through Community Engagement project. They established a new Outreach and Relationship Department and instituted a FIT (Facilitators in Training) team consisting of 16 staff members and 4 support staff to write a new strategic plan and execute the project. The facilitators were trained on how to involve the library in community engagement through outreach. The presenters defined outreach as engaging your community with one another without the inclusion of the library. In this model, the library becomes a neutral place for the community to engage with one another. In their attempt to create a progressive success model, the FIT team reassessed current programming, created new positions and tools, and developed 3 pilot projects focusing on networking, problem solving, and creativity.

The FIT team decided to keep all of the Omaha Public Library’s programs and focus on programs in areas such as, advocacy, correctional facilities, and after school programs. The team worked on building relationships with community organizations with similar goals. The Outreach and Relationship Department created new positions to support these programs and evaluate the metrics of the pilot projects. The team employed 7 new open source software tools to assist them creating and monitoring their engagement model and partnered with the University of Nebraska in Omaha to evaluate projects. For Pilot Project 1, the team wanted topics that impacted the community, but allowed the library to maintain its neutrality. This phase of the project is now complete, and the staff is currently working on Pilot Project 2, which will highlight training guides and tools, evaluation, and the cycle of experimentation and learning. By carrying out this project, the FIT team faced several challenges and, in the process, learned valuable lessons.

The FIT team encountered challenges in getting staff to use the Mothernode software tool to compile a master list of community organizations, and a lack of staff support and understanding about the team’s purpose. In addition to these challenges, the team learned that excellent communication skills are essential, the Omaha community needs facilitation, building relationships takes both time and commitment, and that facilitation involves catering to the needs of the community and not the library. The presenters emphasized that creating a successful engagement model involves considering “not what you get, but what you can do in service to others.” By using the pilot projects to improve relationships between the library, community members, and organizations, the Creating a Collaborative Culture through Community Engagement project is well on its way to improving the quality of life in the city of Omaha and setting a precedent for all libraries to follow. More information about the project can be found on the website: www.communityengagement.us.