The Engaged and Embedded Library: Moving from talk to action

Betha Gutsche /
I think I will never grow tired of the expression ‘civic engagement” in relation to libraries
community engagement—a library survival skill in this day and age
—Comments from the ALA virtual conference Mapping Transformations, July 2012

The Shift to Engagement

Civic engagement is not a new concept for libraries, which have long been active community hubs reaching out to all sectors in their jurisdiction. However, in this age of library transformation, it is time to escalate the scale of community engagement. On one level, it is survival; it is also the natural progression of a trusted, localized institution of long standing.

Public libraries are trusted and tested resources that aren’t going away. They have deep hometown roots and broad assets that contribute to community building. And, many libraries have already invested in programs that support civic engagement goals which contribute to stronger communities.”
—ULC report on Civic Engagement

[Photo: Youth empowerment workshop at Howard County Library (MD)]

The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) report on Civic Engagement: Stepping Up to the Civic Engagement Challenge (Jan 2012) seeks to rally libraries to become known as leaders of community engagement, to grab that “missed opportunity for libraries, local governments, civic groups, and the people they serve.” The report cites several case studies of libraries leading the way around these five roles:

  1. Civic Educator—raising awareness of civics, civic engagement, and civic responsibility
  2. Conversation Starter—identifying challenging community issues, creating forums for sharing opinions, and developing action strategies
  3. Community Bridge—bringing diverse people, including local government officials, and organizations with different perspectives together to build stronger communities
  4. Visionary—leading efforts to develop a broad and inclusive community vision
  5. Center for Democracy in Action—walking, talking, thinking, and acting as the place where democracy, civic engagement, and public discourse happen

See also ULC publication, Library Priority: Community Civic-Engagement.

The Edge initiative, which is developing public access technology benchmarks for public libraries, recognizes the importance of community engagement in the language of the benchmarks:

  • Benchmark 7: Libraries have leaders and staff who actively engage in high-level community planning and digital inclusion efforts to amplify their value in the community
  • Benchmark 8: Libraries build strategic relationships with community partners to maximize public access technology resources and services provided to the community

The awareness is shifting but the supporting action is just beginning to germinate. In a recent study Investigating essential elements of community engagement in public libraries (June 2012), the authors conclude that libraries need to “develop a belief that the community has the capacity to understand their [own] needs” and to learn better “how to genuinely facilitate community-based projects.” If a library can develop these skills, their community engagement has the potential to become a “truly transformational development tool.” The Conversation Continues @ your library [article no longer available] describes an ALA 2012 Midwinter program that “prompted hundreds of librarians to envision new ways to engage their communities.” Although the meeting heightened the interest and produced a host of colorful ideas, “few have answered the call to move beyond talk to action.”

Tools of Engagement

High level community engagement efforts involve new competencies. Fortunately there are several organizations that provide tools and strategies for achieving effective engagement.

1. America Speaks (now closed) worked with communities around the country to engage citizens in public decision-making on challenging issues that impact their lives. Delivering their (for-fee) services to a host of locations, the America Speaks facilitators helped people find their voice in local governance. The 21st Century Town Meeting strategy is just one tool in the portfolio of approaches applied.

2. The Harwood Institute of Public Innovation is also on a mission to lead change and empower people to participate in improving their communities. Richard Harwood has presented at ALA Midwinter and Annual conferences, urging librarians to gain a stronger sense of people’s aspirations for their communities in order to inform decision-making. He asks, "Do you see people as consumers, waiting to be served, or as citizens waiting to be engaged?"

3. ALA Center for Civic Life sponsored a webinar series on Hosting Public Forums @ Your Library based on the National Issues Forums tactics and adapted to the library perspective. The webinar archives will help you convene and moderate community forums, and facilitate deliberative dialog to help the public define the public’s interest.

4. The Community Collaborative Toolbox, created by the White House Council for Community Solutions, is the result of extensive investigation into how long-term, cross-sector community collaboration results in "needle-moving change" to address complex challenges. The "tools" include the life cycle of a community collaborative, a diagnostic of success readiness, critical success factors, and how to generate "meaningful" community participation.

Taking the Engaged Lead

Examples of libraries taking a proactive lead to engage the community in action are increasing. While programs that contribute to civic engagement awareness are all for the good, deep community engagement is about more than providing information and resources to a diverse community. It’s about taking bold strides to assume a high level leadership role and collaborate with other community stakeholders to engage the public in tackling difficult community issues.

A. The Choose Civility campaign led by Howard County Library System (MD) is a stellar example of community engagement with real and sustained impact. The goal “to position Howard County as a model of civility” has been “actively and passionately” supported by nearly 100 businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, educational institutions, and private citizens.  The website offers a wealth of activities, tools and marketing materials. The library even created a Choose Civility Resource Guide to share their wisdom and experience with anyone else who wants to take leadership. Learn more in the WebJunction webinar, Civility Goes Viral: A New Approach for a New Era.

It makes perfect sense for a public library to be lead organization for two reasons. The first is that our customer base encompasses the entire community—people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life—including all Choose Civility partners, who include government entities, nonprofits, businesses, and private citizens. The second is that the initiative fits squarely within our mission of delivering high-quality public education for all ages.
Choose Civility: Public Libraries Take Center Stage, Public Libraries, July/August 2011

B. The ULC report on Civic Engagement has a number of striking examples of library leadership. Here are two that stand out:

  • "The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County (OH) carried out a strategic planning process to broaden its vision and increase its community-building skills using the Harwood Institute innovation framework. The process strengthened the staff’s skills and shifted the library’s focus from traditional services to leading efforts to address persistent community problems."
  • "Pima County Public Library (AZ) regularly brings citizens and state and local elected officials together to discuss community issues, build civic relationships, and maintain connections between citizens and elected leaders."

C. An ICMA (International City/County Management Association) project about Public Libraries Daring to Be Different illuminates the local government perspective on the power of collaborating with the public library. "Local governments, forced to do more with less, have discovered that public libraries are an untapped resource and can assist in both the economic recovery and other strategic initiatives." The final report Maximize the Potential of Your Public Library is an excellent summary of the outcomes and lessons learned in the process, as well as effective leadership and partnership strategies.

Of the nine projects that emerged from a partnership between ICMA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, here are two that stand out in terms of significant impact on the community:

  • Fayetteville, Arkansas: Solar Test Bed Project: In June 2010, the Fayetteville Public Library, in partnership with the University of Arkansas, installed 60 solar panels on the library roof, thus leading the community in a demonstration of the potential of environmental sustainability. The panels are effectively reducing the library’s carbon footprint while creating a perfect opportunity to educate the public about renewable energy.
  • Santa Ana, California: Connect!/Conectate!: Connecting Yourself with Your Future—Conectate Con Tu Futuro: Faced with serious poverty, unemployment, and low educational attainment, the Santa Ana Public Library, the City Manager’s Office and the Parks, Recreation and Community Services agency teamed up to open up opportunities to the youth in the community. Building on the success of the teen library club, the youth engaged in community services working with adults on language and computer skills and working with children on math and literacy skills. “This resulted in 100 percent of teen club members graduating from high school and 90 percent going on to higher education despite the city’s discouraging educational success statistics.”

D. Douglas County Libraries (CO) has approached community engagement from a different angle by Making Libraries Indispensable in a New Way. Library director Jamie LaRue, who is known for pushing the envelope, asked his staff, "How can we truly demonstrate our value to our communities beyond our physical/virtual space, programming, outreach, and materials?" One answer came in the form of embedding reference librarians in local organizations, that is, sending them out into the community rather than waiting for the community to come to them. They are now embedded in schools, councils, metro districts, economic development councils, and nonprofits, where they do more than attend meetings and answer reference questions. "Librarians often also assist with the leadership of the organization; report on the group’s activities, goals, and direction; and in general become an integrated part of the group." See also the WebJunction self-paced course, Leaving Fort Ref - Reaching Out with Reference.

E. The St. Paul Public Library and the St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium took the lead in the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment project, a 2-year process to define digital literacy standards and provide consistent assessments for the entire community. Bringing community colleges, community based organizations, workforce development staff, and adult basic education programs on board, they developed basic digital literacy standards in six modules and all agreed to teach to these standards. The group was motivated to address the needs of citizens who lacked sufficient digital literacy to even use library resources or other career and employment resources. Now users who complete the assessments at a sponsored Minnesota site can receive a certificate of achievement to demonstrate their skill level.