Next-Level Engagement: Leading Communities on Resilience | Editorial

I love the framing of the new report from the Aspen Institute, “Libraries: Building Community Resilience in Colorado,” published January 31. Casting libraries as engines of resilience is so right-on and so smart as we strive to better articulate our impact and potential.

I love the framing of the new report from the Aspen Institute, “Libraries: Building Community Resilience in Colorado,” published January 31. Casting libraries as engines of resilience is so right-on and so smart as we strive to better articulate our impact and potential. This project is focused on Colorado but has much to offer anyone, anywhere, about how to think about connecting to community needs, anticipate future needs, and respond with a more integrated statewide approach.

This report continues a line of deep thinking the Aspen Institute embarked upon five years ago when it initiated its Dialogue on Public Libraries (DPL). The Dialogue has always been about fostering a reflective, expanded conversation with many stakeholders at the table, and this is no exception. A number of public and academic library directors were joined by Colorado State Library leadership, Colorado Department of Education heads, city and state elected officials—including Gov. John Hickenlooper—and business and nonprofit representatives. This broad base of perspectives is essential to even beginning to address the goal of the project. That objective was directly tied to statewide priorities reflected in the state of Colorado’s Resiliency Framework, developed in 2016.

There is no time like the present to foreground the concept of community resilience, given the rapid pace of economic and political change and the rising instability brought by global warming. It’s useful to reflect on what resiliency means. This Aspen report offers the definition used by the Colorado Resiliency Working Group:

The ability of communities to rebound, positively adapt to, or thrive amidst changing conditions or challenges—including disasters and climate change—and maintain quality of life, healthy growth, durable systems, and conservation of resources for present and future generations.

That’s a lot to aim for, and, as I have noted when I’ve written about the work of the New York Library Association Sustainability Initiative over the last several years, we need to go for it, with urgency. Not a dream, addressing future resilience will be done by taking it on, changing how we live and work, and letting it inform what we help our communities achieve. It requires a pragmatic, partnership-driven method that builds on existing networks and capacity, while refining the lens we put on the problem. That’s especially exciting to think about in a statewide context, as this project does, reasserting the state library as a hub for scaling impactful initiatives.

The resiliency vision will be met with a shift in focus combined with a shift in practice. The “how” is evolving, but as LJ’s Lisa Peet describes in her coverage of the results, DPL helped scope ten areas in which deeper library-community partnership can be fostered. They are all worth attention, but I am pleased to see “look at education and lifelong learning as one interrelated ecosystem” and “adopt whole approaches to children and families for closing achievement and other gaps” among other key insights into where the field needs to develop deeper collaborations with nonlibrary partners. It doesn’t stop there, however. The project also posits four projects to work on, enabling steps forward, with the library in the lead. I would like to see more explicit attention to sustainability issues here but am intrigued by these as mechanisms to strengthen library capacity and relevance in addressing civic gaps.

I am a fan of holding up the resiliency of our communities as a vision for our work in libraries of all types—and it will be sped by a network intent on this vision. It strikes me as a fundamental reframing of what we might mean by customer service. As the bar has moved outward on the skills required to deliver excellent customer service, so has how we connect with the people libraries serve: from the reactive—handling questions over a service desk—to the proactive and engaged—anticipating what people will want in a rapidly unfolding tomorrow. That will require robust soft skills, called for by the bulk of current library leaders interviewed for LJ’s “learning in practice” focus (see Teaching to the Team and Susan Hildreth: Bridging LIS and Practice).

Our communities need to become resilient—the future depends on it—and libraries can help them get there. It’s time for the next level of engagement.

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