Youngstown and Mahoning County, OH Public Library

Several years ago, the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, began a planning process by examining why the library, while deeply respected, seemed somehow disconnected from people’s day-to-day lives. Librarians discovered a 1999 report by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, Waiting for the Future, which described Youngstown as a typical community 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 builds the community’s capacity for change. “Waiting for the Future was a revelation,” said trustee Kathryn Bennett. “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. Proof that this public commitment was durable came when the library led an unprecedented two-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. Library board President David Ritchie concluded: “The library had become so important to people’s lives that they were willing to go to bat for it.”

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