Community Engagement: Redefining the Library as Town Square

Pam Sandlian Smith /

Originally published May 7, 2019 in OCLC's Next blog, written by Pam Sandlian Smith, Director, Anythink Libraries.

Libraries are evolving, leaning outside of our walls, connecting with our communities in new and powerful ways. Defining our “why” requires understanding how to shift our focus from books to people. Our purpose is to support people and their quality of life. While there may be many definitions, community engagement isn’t just about awareness, marketing, and sending staff out into the community. Community is at the center of everything. At Anythink, the public library system for Adams County, Colorado, it is at the heart of everything we do.

Like many libraries, our recent strategic planning research included a purposeful listening tour. We found that our community sees the library as its center, its connector. They asked for the library to become even more focused on creating community. As a result, we have adopted the concept of library as town square.

For me, this brings to mind an Italian piazza—a place where everyone gathers on their own terms. Sometimes people simply want to sit quietly watching the comings and goings. Sometimes they want to be with a friend or family members, learning together or listening to music or a book talk. Sometimes they want to engage in a conversation with a stranger or learn from an expert or share their expertise.

As we continue to develop this concept of town square, below are a few examples of how it is working for our team.

Hire happy people

At Anythink, we employ a hospitality model. We define hospitality as knowing someone is on your side. We hire our team carefully with an eye toward people who are happy, generous, and kind. To be successful in libraries today, you must love people, and be open to developing relationships and being a member of a team. You must be curious and someone who is always learning. An intuitive awareness of how people are feeling translates to a sense of empathy. Of course, you must also love ideas, but you must love people more. Our work is about connecting people with ideas—and staff are our catalysts and connectors.

Ask the right questions

It isn’t about the library. It is about the citizens and their community. When we worked on our strategic plan, we asked people to design their dream neighborhood. It inevitably looked like a Disney main street, complete with a central space for gathering, a coffee shop, a park, cafes and wine bars, a library, a bank, a school, a town hall, a garden. People seek the center, the gathering spaces where they can connect. They want their children to have opportunity, to be successful, have a good education and career. Seniors want continuing education and culture.

Asking the right questions leads us to a deeper understanding of the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the community. We asked what they loved about our community and what is missing. We asked how the library could support the success of their family and their community. The results of these rich conversations are distilled into the 2018–2022 Anythink Strategic Plan. Our vision is to contribute to our community being healthy, happy, safe, and smart.

Be the place where connections happen

Our community asked for the library to be the connector. Anythink is trusted to provide opportunities for people to gather, to have honest communication on tough topics. Anythink is trusted because we listen and design programs that reflect the community’s needs. For example, a digital photography project has turned into a local digital photography club that has hosted exhibits at the library. The participant becomes the expert.

Recently, we hosted Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. Parker focuses on gatherings that make it safe for people to be authentic and vulnerable. Attendees felt safe enough to discuss personal information with strangers, and we all began to bond as people who cared for each other.

Another program launched last year is Breaking Bread, which connects people and cultures through food. The evening was quite simple: bread/bakers/hosts from five different cultures. Each presenter talked about the bread of their culture, how it developed, what it meant to their families, the importance of sharing bread, etc. Maria Mayo, our adult guide, described it as “cultural speed-dating.” Participants shared their own stories and memories, connecting with strangers around something as simple as a meal.

Reading and books are the historical cornerstones of libraries. Through reading, people become literate about our world and develop a sense of empathy and connection with people who have different life experiences. Community engagement is a visceral extension of this literacy. Creating connections and empathy, creating that space where people are safe to connect with ideas and their neighbors, is at the heart of the library’s mission.

If you’re interested in learning more about the library as town square from Pam, please join us for our “Community Engagement as a Mindset” panel discussion at ALA Annual on Saturday, June 22. Sign up to attend at our registration site. Pam is also a featured speaker at OCLC’s 2019 Americas Regional Conference on Wednesday, October 2. More information about the conference agenda and speakers is available at the conference website.