A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Community Values

by Pam Smith on March 3, 2018

PAM SMITH is Director of Anythink Libraries in Thornton (CO). Contact Pam at psmith@anythink libraries.org. Pam is currently reading Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews.

This has been the year of strategic planning at Anythink Libraries, where I work. The Anythink Board of Trustees challenged our team to reinvent the library once again, building on the revolution we started eight years ago, propelling us even further. This is a big challenge, even daunting, because it seems like we’ve barely finished creating Anythink. However, every organization must continuously improve in order to remain vital.

In spring 2017, Anythink embarked on a journey to ask the people in our community—Adams County (CO) just north of Denver—what they love about living here. We also wanted to find out what they thought was missing in the community, as well as their hopes and dreams for their families, and how the library could help them achieve those aspirations. We had groups of community members design their dream neighborhoods using markers, scissors, and butcher paper.

We had meetings in churches, fire stations, and community centers. We had one meeting at a local IHOP, where Kiwanis club members shared their thoughts as they ate their sandwiches, salads, and pancakes. Some of the feedback from this group was unusual: “Aren’t you straying from Ben Franklin’s original idea of a public library?” “Aren’t you competing with small businesses?”

Most of the feedback consistently brought us back to community values. People want to live in a community where they feel safe. They want a neighborhood that has a center. They want to feel connected. They value the library as a place that creates these connections.

They love what the library is already doing and they want us to do more. They want more classes for adults and seniors. They want more programs and opportunities for children and teens. They enjoy the events, the music performances, the opportunities to have conversations and public dialogue. They see the public library as the center of their neighborhood.

Sometimes their aspirations were difficult for people to express. We asked a very personal question: “What are your hopes and dreams for your family?” The answers were always heartwarming. People wished for caring communities. “A place where everybody is celebrated, where diversity is a great thing, where equity is a must, where neighbors are free to care for one another, where community is acknowledged and encouraged.” Strong educational systems and opportunities are priorities. Family is always at the center of their hopes and dreams, keeping their children close, ensuring a prosperous future, spending time with grandchildren.

One of the most endearing conversations was one we held with teens. It became evident from the beginning that their relationship with the teen librarian had become a life saver for many of them. In a way, the meeting reminded me of the movie The Breakfast Club. The group was eclectic, and they had formed a supportive club where they were comfortable with silly jokes, and a bit of wry sarcasm. When designing their dream neighborhood, they chose to put the teen librarian in the middle, as she represents—in many ways—the center of their universe. As they talked about their dreams for the future, they wanted the library to continue to play an important role. Their dreams were inspirational: “I want to study the English language and possibly become an author.” “I want to be around people who truly love and value me, for who I am and what I am.” “Survive high school without casualties.” “Travel the globe.”

The content from all of these conversations has centered our understanding and formed the path for our future work. As I think about these conversations, I believe that they would be similar in any community these days. And the positive sentiments about public libraries are global in nature, which reminds me of an excerpt from the PLA Positioning Story:*

PLA is people shaping possibility. Public libraries are a wellspring of possibility. They fill their communities with the vitality of learning. The joy of personal growth. The excitement of advancing with the times. More than just a building or icon or idea, the public library has always been an exceptional fusion of people and knowledge, continually opening new passages for anyone who enters. Generative and generous, public libraries never just sit there. Wherever public libraries are working, possibility lives.

The PLA Board is drafting a revision of our strategic plan. Leadership, inclusion, advocacy, and organizational excellence are key initiatives. As we say goodbye to 2017, one of the things I am most grateful for is my career in public libraries and my PLA connections throughout the years. It is easy to overlook how important public libraries are in the lives of people. But this year, I am constantly reminded how the library holds communities together in ways that we will not always know. And PLA is right there, supporting us and challenging us to evolve, to raise the bar and to consistently reinvent our relevance.

*Editor’s Note: The PLA Positioning Story was created as part of the 2016 PLA rebranding effort. For more info, email pla@ala.org.