Always Be Listening: How Public Libraries are Approaching Community Engagement as a Mindset

Erin M. Schadt, OCLC Senior Communications Manager, Membership and Research /
Photo of panel presenters
Panelists Mary Lou Carolan, Cordelia Anderson and Pam Sandlian Smith

ALA Annual is always overflowing with sessions to help library staff take a step back and think about their libraries, services, and approach to their communities. This year was no exception, and there were many stand-out sessions dedicated to rethinking the library and its role in the community. One to highlight was the panel “Community Engagement as a Mindset” emceed by Ty Pierce, OCLC Product Manager, with panelists Pam Sandlian Smith, Director, Anythink Libraries (CO); Mary Lou Carolan, Assistant Director, Newburgh Free Library (NY); and Cordelia Anderson, former Director of Marketing and Communications for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (NC).

Setting the Table

Panelists began by discussing how they define community engagement. Sandlian Smith said this means refocusing the role of public libraries from collections to community as the center of services; Carolan that every decision should start with the needs of the community you serve—that all decisions are about starting from the outside in; and Anderson emphasized that its critical to immerse ourselves in the community’s needs.

“Community is the heart of the library, not the other way around,” commented Carolan. Sandlian Smith added to this saying Anythink Libraries are “evolving from the place where the focus is the collection. The most important part is the ‘heart part’—how do we support people and their hopes and dreams to help them succeed?”

Carolan emphasized that it’s critical to take a seat at the table, not to wait to be asked, but to find out what is out there, getting out of your comfort zone and going to school board meetings, and the like. Sandlian Smith went further, saying that it’s important to actually set the table. She described a recent initiative partnering with The Aspen Institute to bring 100 community leaders to convene around defining what a 21st century library looks like.

Collaborating with Partners

Conversation turned to how the panelists are reaching out and engaging individuals and partner organizations to do this work. Sandlian Smith said that community engagement is changing from a mode of finding a funder to sitting at the table with potential partners. She emphasized that collaborating with partners means bringing together both the library’s and the partner’s resources in an effort “not about how we can make the library great, but how we can make the community great.”

Carolan said the change is listening, we can “start to be part of the solution because we’re part of the conversation.” Anderson gave an example of what listening can look like by encouraging libraries to understand the strategic plan the city has for the community and then how the library can help with that. She emphasized that talking about what you’re doing with community leaders is important, “don’t be humble, we have to talk about what we’re doing and why it’s important.”

“That’s not something that happens overnight,” added Sandlian Smith, “it’s a relationship that develops over years like a good friendship.”

All panelists agreed that community engagement is everyone’s job, and Anderson said she always made sure to convey that every time library staff interacts with a person, they are doing community engagement. The idea of community engagement doesn’t live in a separate category, but is intertwined in all the library’s work with patrons and community members.

Take pride in your stories and share them

A question asked of the panelists was how they evaluate efforts in community engagement and how they use this information.

All agreed that the answer to this question is evolving. Anderson said at Charlotte Mecklenburg they looked at leading indicators, i.e., circulation, door count, etc., and lagging indicators, which she explained were trends tied more to their partners and county government how they measure success and how to piggyback on that.

Sandlian Smith said Anythink Libraries are currently trying to find the answer to how to evaluate this aspect of their work. They are incorporating more qualitative measures, affirming that telling stories is an important way to show impact. Numbers just don’t tell the entire story. Carolan agreed, saying it’s important to “take real pride in our stories and share them.” She gave the example of a gentleman in their community coming into the library who wanted to give $100 donation because he was so thankful that he got a job through a job fair that the library hosted. She knew that was a stretch for him, but he insisted on giving the donation. That’s the type of impact that pure statistics just can’t convey. “That connection is where our power lies,” said Carolan. Anderson commented that it’s important when talking to patrons and stakeholders that instead of listing all of the things we do, asking folks what they think and telling a story about how the library has impacted someone is far more powerful.

Lastly Pierce asked if they had one piece of advice to share, what that would be. They replied:

  • Take risks
  • Be brave and step outside the library
  • Keep the conversation going and always be listening

The group covered even more than what’s written here, and you can watch the session in this recording on YouTube.

So, you may be thinking, this all sounds great—I really want to start doing this work at my library, but … how do I actually start?

Here are some resources that will help you kick off engagement in your community: