Libraries Transforming Communities | PLA 2016

On Thursday, April 7, at the Public Library Association conference in Denver, several hundred librarians gathered at the session “Extraordinarily Engaged: How Three Libraries Are Transforming Their Communities” to hear strong endorsements of the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) initiative. The initiative, created in partnership with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit that facilitates ltccommunity problem solving, was launched in 2014–15 in response to increased demand from librarians nationwide for tools to enhance community engagement. The libraries presenting, including Spokane County Public Library, WA; Columbus Public Library, WI; and Red Hook Public Library, NY, a 2015 finalist for LJ’s Small Libraries Award, were among the ten libraries comprising the LTC Innovators Cohort that first tested the initiative’s waters. Called “Turning Outward,” the Harwood approach to facilitating change emphasizes seeking out community members to determine what they want their community to be like, focusing on their hopes, concerns, and values. That resonated with the participating librarians. Said Red Hook Director Erica Freudenberger, a 2016 LJ Mover and Shaker, “When we give programs and no one comes, it’s not a PR problem. We are giving people what we think they should want and not what they want.” With LTC, the strategy is to ask residents not what programs they’d like but what matters to them, with the end result democratic programming: “By the people and for the people,” clarifies Freudenberger. As Spokane deputy director Patrick Roewe explained, LTC offers a step-by-step guide to turning outward to the community, with specific tools falling into two main areas: internal tools that help librarians test how community oriented their institution is and external tools for collecting information and then figuring out major themes. The aim, he said, is “to gather, analyze, and act upon public knowledge to further community aspirations,” with that knowledge  “directly from and about the lived experience of community members, [making] it authentic and actionable.” Further discussing the experience at Spokane, a ten-branch system serving a population of 255,000, Librarian Amber Williams said that staff held 72 Community Conversations. (While LTC’s Ask Exercises are five- to ten-minute conversations based on four simple questions, the more detailed Community Conversations are 90- to 120-minute sessions often conducted in the home or workplace.) Drawing on what they learned, the Spokane staff realized that they had to “go where they people are,” said Williams. Now, the library's summer concerts are held in the park, afterschool programs at the school, adult programs at a café, and students’ enrichment programs at free summer meal sites and afterschool snack sites because many young residents come from families with few means. According to Cindy Fesemyer, director of Columbus Public Library, which serves a community that’s 15,000 strong, residents revealed that they want a viable and walkable downtown, increased civic pride, more space for social interaction and community-wide projects, and more things for kids and teens to do. A traveling “wish tree” on which people could hang notes ultimately morphed into the theme “Root for Columbus,” and the library became a convenient “convener,” as Fesemyer said, for stepped-up conversations on community aspirations. As a result, Fesemyer demanded to be part of the James Street Reconstruction project aimed at improving downtown conditions. In addition, with the help of the board of trustees, the library is now exploring the possibility of increased, multi-use space to satisfy community demand. At Red Hook Public Library, which serves a population of 14,000—but which expands “from 4,700 square feet to 36 square miles if you get beyond the idea that a library is a building” says Freudenberger—the tiny staff talked to 250 people and came to realize that residents wanted greater diversity, a more vibrant village, leadership opportunities for teens, and increased interaction with neighbors. Hence the Diwali festival that will now be held annually; the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration that lit up the quiescent farmers’ market; a reliance on teenagers to augment the staff, particularly given their knowledge of technology; plus more social events and a borrowed van that takes programs directly to neighborhoods that need them and patrons who don’t have the means to get around. “We can’t afford to pay experts, so we ask people to share what they know,” explains Freudenberger of innovative programing that has ranged from beekeeping and tapping maple trees to tango lessons and Mandarin Chinese. “We have a tremendous pool of talent that is called our community.” At the conclusion of the presentation, the audience liberally peppered the panelists with questions. How can LTC help collections? If you are sure to share what you have learned with the collection development staff, the collection can build in the direction of new programming and community needs. How do you get staff to commit? Not everyone may budge, but if the LTC idea flows from leadership through middle management and peer leaders, you will get more people on board. So far, it sounds as if LTC demands mainly staff time and the allocation of existing resources, but what happens when real money is involved? There’s the rub, but partnering with other community organizations from hospitals and schools to senior centers, businesses, and the police can bring support and sponsorship. And what if some of those organizations feel that you are stepping on their toes? Make it clear that you are on their side, and as some negative response is likely, stayed focused on those who say yes. Some librarians may feel that LTC work takes away from actual library work, but Roewe begs to differ. “Knowledge is library work,” he says of the public knowledge garnered through outreach. “It’s platform agnostic.” As neutral territory connecting a large cross-section of the populace, he argues, libraries are the perfect setting for community action and interaction. “We need to shift our perception,” he concludes. “Libraries are not just service providers but change agents. Telling the library story is telling the community story.”  

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