The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities

Posted Sunday, June 30, 2013 - 11:46
Alexia Hudson-Ward (right) lightens the mood for co-panelists Maureen Sullivan (ALA president, far left) and ALA Past President Molly Raphael.

Saturday morning’s panel session, “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities,” hit home with an engaged crowd and a passionate panel. The ALA President’s Program was cosponsored by the Public Information Office.

ALA Past President Molly Raphael opened the session by focusing on the community’s aspirations, noting, “Aspiration looks for the best in us, and brings people together. There’s a tendency to say 'We have a problem. How to we fix it?’ But turning outward is how to do something with a community rather than to them.”

Each of the panelists (including President Maureen Sullivan, ALA Past President Molly Raphael, Iowa State Librarian Mary Wegner, Penn State Abingdon Associate Librarian Alexia Hudson-Ward, and the Harwood Institute’s Rich Harwood) spoke about how they had used methods learned in Harwood Institute workshops to engage their communities, whether a city, a university, or a school.

Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute makes a point to co-panelists.Harwood said that the process starts with looking to community members for input and what their aspirations are, as well as listening deeply. Librarians are perfectly poised to effect meaningful dialogue in their communities using this method. “We need librarians and libraries today more than any other time in this country. On tough issues, we can come together. There’s a palpable sense that we can do better and need to do better [as a country],” Harwood said. He went on to talk about how many well-meaning groups and nonprofits have a specific agenda, but libraries do not have these preconceived notions. That’s why communities tend to see libraries as a safe space, a place to open up about what matters to individuals. In addition, he said that librarians in particular want to be change agents, and to be involved in their communities. So there is a natural fit between what is needed of libraries and what librarians can offer, given the right tools.

Those who do not live in Hartford, Connecticut, might define the city’s major issues as lack of employment and high crime rate. But when the Harwood Institute worked with the city library, they found local people wanted a safe space to talk about issues, not about crime.  Area residents wanted to discuss what they saw as ideals for the community. “We get different answers when we do needs assessments,” Harwood said. “That focuses on issues that are important, but not what the community says it wants.” Richard Freider, coordinator of community networking at Hartford Public Library, who was in the audience, said the work builds on itself. “Get out there and become part of the community and people will start coming to you.”

Librarians need to move outside the library and encourage people to meet and discuss what concerns them. “We cannot become captives of our building. You work as much in the community as in your building,” Harwood said.

Iowa State Librarian Mary Wegner likes flexibility and a focus on aspirations. “We don't start with ‘If money were no object,’” she said, because money is a factor, and it's important to ground ideals in reality. In place of a SWOT analysis, they used one of the Harwood techniques to keep people focused on aspirations.

Hudson-Ward said that at first, she was a bit unsettled by the Harwood approach of focusing on aspirations. “As a librarian, I’m looking for a toolkit, buttons, pins, how to am I going to bring this back home,” she said. But when the sex scandal about Jerry Sandusky began to impact Penn State, she found that the techniques she had learned “helped me to understand that turning inward was not the best way.” It helped that the library, which was the most central entity to the campus, was a place for people to gather and talk. As a result, PSU focused on the return to its mission as a land-grant university that contributes to the people of the commonwealth.

ALA is also committed to making meaningful change, and President Maureen Sullivan announced that Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels plans on having 150 staff involved in a Harwood training program. In addition, this program will be rolled out to the membership as soon as October. There will be 2½ day learning sessions about what it means to turn outward, how to conduct these conversations, what happens after the conversations, how to enable things to occur, and what it means to be a public innovator. “We’ll have coaches and a series of workshops so you can apply it the next day,” Harwood said.