Libraries Transforming Communities

Posted Monday, May 5, 2014 - 07:18
A project for ALA and all types of libraries
Keith Michael Fiels

All around us, libraries are transforming as they adapt to broader changes in the communities they serve and the environment in which they now operate. In the process, librarians have discovered that as they better understand their communities and their aspirations, the more deeply they are “engaged”; the more impact they can have on their communities; and the more support they will receive in return. 

The new “Libraries Transforming Communities” project, supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will focus on the development of new tools, resources, and support that will allow librarians to engage with their communities in new—and deeper—ways. The project will strengthen librarians as community leaders and community change agents, and help promote innovations in library services.

ALA is working with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation on this project, and leading this effort will be the ALA Public Programs Office (PPO). PPO is a perfect match for this job, having a long and successful history of helping libraries in their role as community cultural centers and as places of cultural and civic engagement where people of all backgrounds gather for reflection, discovery, participation, and growth.

The two-year project will include in-person training and coaching of librarians to support the transformation of library services and the expanding role of libraries as community conveners. ALA is offering a wide variety of distance-learning and conference-based opportunities, including four sessions at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition. (Thanks to support provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, ALA has already offered well-attended introductory training sessions at the 2013 Midwinter Meeting and Annual Conference.) While the project will focus initially on public libraries, the tools, techniques, and training developed will be applicable—and available—to academic, school, and other libraries.

In April, a cohort of 10 libraries—representing communities in a range of sizes and geographic locations—was selected. This group will be trained in the Harwood Institute approach in order to understand its potential for the field and create an active group of early adopters. The cohort librarians will provide models for use in diverse settings and will serve as mentors and ambassadors for the role of libraries as innovative community change agents.

Learning from the experiences of the cohort libraries, ALA will create, refine, and share resources and learning opportunities that will allow thousands of librarians to bring the tools of library-led community innovation to their own communities. Free resources are already available through ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities website.

To reflect the shift in orientation and competencies that this project brings to libraries, ALA staff and member leaders will also train in the Harwood Institute approach. This will help build the Association’s capacity as a leader in supporting the transformation of libraries of all types and help support sustainability of the effort going forward.

Each library serves a unique community. Through deep knowledge of community aspirations, libraries will be better positioned to navigate and work with changes in community demographics, leadership structures, and local fiscal and social issues. Positioning librarians as facilitators of community knowledge and dialogue will enhance the library’s potential as community change maker, and deepen the reservoir of trust enjoyed by public libraries nationally.

The result: increased innovation, increased impact, and ultimately, a more successful community—and a more successful library.

KEITH MICHAEL FIELS is executive director of the American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago.

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