Library-Led Community Engagement and Innovation

To wrap up our 2013 ALA Annual Conference coverage, Judy Hoffman writes about two Conference programs: “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities: A Presidential Initiative Update” and “Community Engagement Conversation: Advancing Library-led Community Engagement,” both held on Saturday, June 29.

Oddly, in this age of unlimited and unstoppable social connections, there appears to be a growing hunger to connect and engage in a different way. Recognition of this need, and the unique guiding role libraries can play, inspired one of ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s key initiatives: The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities. ALA has partnered with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to develop a sustainable plan to advance community engagement and innovation, and transform the role of libraries in their communities.

Transformation. You’ve seen it before in relation to libraries. Your response might be “It’s too big …wouldn’t know where to start.” Good news—this important work is manageable, and there is a defined place to start. The tools to begin the work of libraries-as-change-agents are now available for free online.

The new tools and the experiences of libraries that have implemented the practice behind the tools were spotlighted in two sessions at the 2013 Annual Conference. On a morning panel, librarians trained in the Harwood method shared how they have been using the tools, their results to date, and the potential they see going forward to effectively engage communities. In the afternoon, 130 attendees rolled up their sleeves for a hands-on session with the tools.

The session work primarily focused on the Turn Quiz and the vision of “turning outward.” The quiz was created to help libraries assess the focus of their efforts in the community as they further shift their orientation from internal to external. This is the first step that libraries need to take to help them prepare to guide conversations that will move their community forward. This includes the ability to:

  • Engage people in a different way: Libraries can take a leadership role by engaging people around their aspirations and the small actions they can take to get started.
  • Find common ground for action: People want to restore the belief that we can come together and get things done. By convening diverse groups, libraries can help people see what is held in common, and take the first step to restoring belief in one another.
  • Forge deeper relationships: Reflecting back the insights from these conversations gives people a sense that they’ve been heard, and is the first step to forging deeper relationships within the broader community.
  • Strengthen library efforts: Insights about people’s aspirations and where they can get started will also help the library think more strategically about its programs and efforts, and be even more relevant moving forward.

More good news—the tools created for the initiative are easy on the eyes (not text heavy), concise, and easy to follow. The Promise of Libraries tools include four assessment worksheets (Turn Outward, Aspirations, Intentionality, Sustaining Yourself) and a conversation guide, How Librarians and Libraries can Lead Community Conversations for Change, that provides a step-by-step plan for convening small group community conversations about shared aspirations and to share their finding with the community.

The small group work at the hands-on session with the Turn Quiz was energetic and animated. I was inspired watching the groups interact, and by the ideas shared. In the morning session, one librarian described the experience of using the tools in his community as “wildly participatory.” I’ve now seen it in action, and highly recommend an exploration of the initiative and the tools, which have been made possible with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.