Community Conversations Begin @ your library
Nancy Kranich and Carlton Sears
ALA’s 2012 Midwinter program, ”The Conversation Starts Here,” prompted hundreds of librarians to envision the aspirations of their communities. David Lankes, Professor at the Syracuse University School of Information, told program participants, “Today, the most important conversation is with our community and learning what makes it better.” Lankes then charged attendees to engage in conversation where they considered new possibilities for increasing our impact. As table hosts, we were struck by the widespread acknowledgement that librarians need to listen in different ways to sustain relevance.
This provided a perfect prelude to Molly Raphael’s President’s program with Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation–an organization that seeks to spark fundamental change and authentic hope in American public life. Harwood urged librarians to gain a stronger sense of people’s aspirations for their communities and to use that knowledge to inform decision-making.
Both Lankes and Harwood recognize the need to engage people around their shared aspirations for the community. Unlike the divisiveness that defines much of public discourse, shared aspirations reveal the issues and concerns around which people are willing to rally. And by catalyzing and surfacing these, librarians can propel their communities forward.
ALA members from all types of libraries readily recognized the power of engaging in more authentic ways. Many were already talking about the need to engage, embed, and integrate libraries into the life of their communities. Academic librarians are eager to deepen their engagement on campus—embedding services in the teaching, learning, and research processes. School librarians strive to collaborate more closely with teachers and integrate their programs directly into the curriculum. And public librarians aspire to align their missions to their communities, build partnerships and craft services that boost impact.
Despite the excitement around new modes of community engagement, though, few librarians have answered the call to move beyond talk to action. They are yet to develop strategies rooted in an understanding of their community’s shared aspirations. It is not for lack of interest, but uncertainty about how to get started. Afterall, this type of knowledge is not gained through polls or statistics. It only comes from a certain kind of conversation.
Community conversations can transform libraries. To illustrate this point, consider efforts underway at Rutgers University Libraries where librarians have launched a series of conversations to recalibrate their interactions with the campus community. These conversations, focused on aspirations, are bringing people with common concerns together, unleashing new possibilities to occupy a more visible, valued role on campus, build partnerships, and “get in the flow of users.” As one librarian commented, “Being more familiar with University activities will inform our work.” Another suggested, “We need to engage in relationship-building and collaborations that are meaningful and synergistic,” and then asked, “How do we realign existing relationships—how do we become partners who are catalysts in the knowledge-building process?”
It is too soon to measure the impact of these conversations. But another library that took similar steps several years ago has reaped the benefits. The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County began a planning process by exploring the sense that the library, while deeply respected, seemed somehow disconnected from people’s day-to-day lives. They discovered a 1999 report by the Harwood Institute, Waiting for the Future, which described Youngstown as typical of communities struggling to recover from the wrenching disruptions experienced with the loss of major industries. The report explained what it takes to move communities forward, including the need for organizations, like libraries, to address specific issues in ways that also built the community’s capacity for change. “Waiting for the Future was a revelation,” said Kathryn Bennett, then Vice-Chair of the Library Board. “We saw that the library could do better than hoping people liked the services we pushed out. Harwood helped us to envision a greater sense of possibility. We could be relevant in ways that never occurred to us.”
The report also stressed the importance of safe spaces where people connect and build trust to take collective action. Youngstown librarians recognized their library as that trusted institution, providing meeting places and facilitators to convene discussions. More important, they committed themselves to listen deeply to what people from the entire community–not just the most visible–were saying and to understand the reality of their lives. Joyce Brooks, a planning committee member reflected on these conversations:
“We discovered…that our knowledge of the community was shallow and ill informed. The conversations gave us an understanding of people’s aspirations and concerns, the barriers that get in the way as they strive to make a better life for themselves and their families. This was invaluable as we decided how to move forward.”
Such conversations are valuable only if they lead to action, like when Youngstown librarians applied the knowledge gained from community conversations to find common ground over disparate preferences for a new branch library site. “Underneath the opposing viewpoints were shared aspirations. It led us to a decision that was embraced by all,” stated a library board member.
Proof that this public commitment was durable came when the library led an unprecedented 2-step referendum that asked voters to approve a 200% increase in library support after a sudden loss of state funding. Despite a highly stressed local economy, citizens passed both tax levies, validating the library’s efforts to engage authentically and infuse what it learned into its actions. Dr. David Ritchie, the Library Board president concluded: “The library had become so important to people’s lives that they were willing to go to bat for it.”
Harwood told ALA members: “I want to talk about why I believe libraries are needed today perhaps more than any other time in my lifetime, and I want to talk about what it will take for each of us, for each of you, to lead in this environment.” Indeed, librarians are critical actors in shaping the future of our communities and libraries. By engaging the community and making community aspirations the reference point for taking action, we open new opportunities to align our strategies. And we answer the question Lankes asked Midwinter attendees, “What does it take to transform libraries and librarians?”
A shortened version of this article was published in the March/April 2012 issue of American Libraries, under the title: The Conversation Continues @ your library.
Nancy Kranich teaches at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information and works on special projects at the Rutgers University Libraries. A Past President of ALA, she is also the founder and chair of the ALA Center for Public Life.
Carlton Sears is Executive Director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County (OH) and Certified Coach, Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.