Alan Ehrenhalt, Inversions, and Developing Our Communities

June 2, 2014

There’s something viscerally appealing about a dynamic, creative community, regardless of whether it is onsite or online.

If we walk on a city street, through a public plaza or park, or in a library or museum where people are engaged with each other, we often feel the urge to be part of what it offers. If we participate in and contribute to a civil, active, well-facilitated, and creative online community of learning, community of practice, or community of interest, we frequently feel well-rewarded and stimulated by the positive interactions we have. Conversely, if we stumble upon or through communities that feel uninviting or in any way unsafe, we’re not going to remain there very long.

Ehrenhalt--Great_Inversion--CoverReading Alan Ehrenhalt’s book The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City tells us plenty about the state of some of our most interesting physical communities; it also, I believe, offers us opportunities to draw productive parallels about what makes online communities attractive.

The settings for his onsite explorations include urban and suburban neighborhoods in or near Chicago, Cleveland, Gwinnett County (Georgia), Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and several other American cities, and he also draws upon several European cities (including the Paris of George-Eugène Haussmann’s time and Vienna as the Ringstrasse was opening in the latter half of the 19th century). He reminds us that a great European street served—and continues to serve—as “a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation….To talk about a crowded city thoroughfare of the nineteenth century as ‘mixed use’ urbanism in the modern sense is to miss the point altogether. This was essentially ‘all use’ urbanism” (p. 23) He then explores various American cities to document ebbs and flows of population into and out of areas in an attempt to help us understand what makes contemporary cities appealing or lacking in appeal.

As we share Ehrenhalt’s journey through our physical sites, we consider the impact immigrants, the availability of public transportation, the presence of street life, street furniture, parks, residents’ commitments (or lack of commitment) to their communities, and even levels of housing available in downtown areas have on making or breaking communities.

And that’s where I believe we can draw parallels between what we see in The Great Inversion and what we see in equally dynamic or challenged online communities. The diverse points of view that can result from interactions between immigrants and well-established residents of a community also provide the advantages and challenges of welcoming various points of view in our online communities. The presence of engaging levels of onsite street life has its online equivalent in communities where friends and colleagues can drop into an online community with the assurance that their “neighbors” will be there to interact synchronously as well as asynchronously in rewarding and stimulating ways. The elements that contribute to a sense of safety and engagement in our onsite settings also have their online parallels: just as broken windows and large amounts of graffiti can quickly chase us away from onsite settings, the presence of spammers and haters in an online community can quickly inspire the departure of previously-engaged members of an online community.

Street life in our physical settings is returning in various forms, Ehrenhalt contends, and I see—and benefit from—a parallel level of street life in the best of the online communities to which I’m drawn. Although Ehrenhalt’s own conclusion is that “The more that people are enabled by technology to communicate with one another while remaining physically solitary, the more they crave a physical form of social life to balance out all the electronics” (p. 236), I believe that an equally compelling interaction is occurring as those of us who are lucky enough to meet in dynamic onsite communities continue some of our interactions online. The result is that for those of us who comfortably move back and forth within our blended onsite-online communities, the opportunities to engage and benefit from interactions from dynamically diverse communities has never been better.


Opportunity, Imagination, and Joy: Learning with Allan Jacobs, the Good City, and Street Parks

May 13, 2014
Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Walking up and down the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps and adjacent garden in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District on a daily basis brings at least three words to mind: opportunity, imagination, and joy. There is that daily reminder of the opportunity provided by a volunteer-driven community-based coalition that was strongly supported by colleagues in the Street Parks Program, a wonderfully supportive collaboration between the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. There is the tremendous manifestation of imagination displayed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher through the mosaic they created for the site. And there is the sheer joy of seeing a long-ignored space brought back to life not only through the work of Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee members, but also by the numerous volunteers and donors who supported—and continue to support—the project, and the presence of people who increasingly are arriving from places all over the world to visit and enjoy the serenity as well as the camaraderie that comes when people meet, talk, dream, and share a space they treasure.

Good_City--Allan JacobsIt isn’t all that much different than what I find in the best communities of learning to which I’m drawn. We are united by a common (learning) goal and benefit from each other’s company over long periods of time. So when I read the sentence “Cities should provide and people should have access to opportunity, imagination, and joy” in Allan Jacobs’ The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations recently, I felt as if the world of city planning, park (particularly street-park and parklet) development, and learning had all come together on the pages of an inspiring and engaging book.

Jacobs, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department and a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus, covers a lot of ground in a book comprised of essays and short stories. Beginning with a description of two years he spent in India as an urban planner working under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he leads us through a series of vignettes that ultimately are connected through the theme of how community and collaboration does or does not develop in a variety of settings including Cleveland, Curitiba, Pudong, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and, in the final sections of the book, San Francisco.

His work is firmly rooted in what many of us fascinated by cities and community development have found in books by Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction; The Timeless Way of Building; and just about everything he has written since then), William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Center), Peter Harnik (Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities), and many others who have written thoughtfully and in depth on what makes our cities work.

When he turns his attention to San Francisco, he obviously delights in exploring the themes of opportunity, imagination, and joy. There are his recollections of how he and his City Planning colleagues engaged community at a grass-roots level: “we called well-advertised meetings, often by delivering notices to all individual mail-boxes, to get people together for an effort or to confront an issue” (p. 143) just as Hidden Garden Steps volunteers began the project with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations with neighbors close to the proposed project site, and followed those efforts up with numerous postings of flyers in neighborhood businesses and bulletin boards in addition to online contact using social media platforms. Jacobs acknowledges seeing “our role as the professional staff as partners of people more than as facilitators” (p. 145)—something that increasing numbers of training-teaching-learning colleagues are embracing in the work we do, and something that is at the heart of all the positive experiences Hidden Garden Steps volunteers had (and continue to have) with our San Francisco Parks Alliance, Department of Public Works, and other City/County colleagues. As I’ve noted many times, our successful partnerships never descended into us-and-them disputes; we were unified by a common goal and that’s what held and holds us together.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverJacobs notes the dramatic results achieved through various partnerships: “The most positive, dramatic change to San Francisco over the last 30-plus years is the northern and northeastern waterfront, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the kids’ mini-baseball diamond-park at McCovey Cove, a distance of about seven miles. Crissy Field, a gem of a restoration area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has rightfully become a huge draw for walkers, cyclists, skaters, picnickers, fishermen, beachgoers, naturalists, people of all ages, and dogs….” (p. 160). He could have just as easily been talking about the smaller-scale Tactical Urbanism efforts that fuel San Francisco’s Street Parks projects when he discusses the changes that make our—and any—city great.

He weaves the various and varied themes together as he nears the end of The Good City when he describes what that city would include: “there would be opportunities to learn and to work, to earn one’s livelihood; and places to get to with ease, places for social interaction or just to see other people, or places to be alone; and opportunities to participate in local decisions; and places for fun” (p. 176)…“People should feel that some part of the urban environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, irrespective of whether they own it. The city environment should be one that encourages participation….The public environment, by definition, should be open to all members of the community. It is where people of different kinds meet. No one should be excluded unless they threaten the balance of that life” (p. 178)—all of which, to me, just as accurately describes what is foundational to great communities of learning.

Perhaps this is why so many of us are drawn to learning; to great cities; to parks and open spaces; and to libraries, museums, and so many other community resources: they share an all-important link—the magic that happens when opportunity, imagination, and joy bring us together to form, interact in, and sustain great communities that bring rewards far beyond any others we can imagine. They connect us to our past, through our present, and into a future we may not be around to see, but know will be much better for the contributions that we make to it.

N.B.: Previous articles about the Hidden Garden Steps remain available on this blog.


R. David Lankes, Learning, and Working Overtime

April 29, 2014

Listening to a recording of R. David Lankes’s “The Faithful and the Radicals” over the weekend felt like going to church. It’s inspirational. Transformative. And steeped in a sense of the divine. It is the sort of plea for community, collaboration, and action that runs consistently from the earliest seminal public presentations of our history through a continuum that includes more recent efforts including Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity in October 2010.

Lankes--Faithful_RadicalAlthough “Faithful and Radicals” is ostensibly about school librarians, libraries, and the society-shaping roles they play and need to play in the extended communities they serve, it’s really far much more than that. If we are at all interested in the present and future of our communities—and who among us can afford not to be?—Lankes’s thoughts can’t help but touch and move us.

He is, as always, funny. (Who else would jokingly threaten to slash the tires on our cars if we spend more time creating booklists and pages full of links to online resources that soon will be broken than fulfilling our potential to contribute to the success of our communities?) Engaging. (The positive reactions to what he says are audible throughout the recording.) Radical (in the complex, multifaceted way that the word “radical” in its varying definitions implies: foundational, rooted, fundamental, and cool as well as extreme). Visionary. (His proposed mission statement for librarians—“The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities”—flows right off the pages of The Atlas of New Librarianship into “The Faithful and the Radical.”) Poignant. And humble. (He actually pokes fun at his own title for the presentation, commenting on how it could serve equally well as the name of a PBS production or a soap opera.) Above all, he’s obviously an incredibly talented teacher-trainer-learner—as I learned while participating in his New Librarianship Master Class (a massive open online course) and writing extensively about it last year. And all of those attributes combine to make him the sort of mover and shaker who keeps the world alive, vibrant, dynamic, thinking, and smiling—which is, in itself, a point worth lingering over momentarily, for it wasn’t at all clear a year ago that he would still be with us. He has openly, painfully, and beautifully, via his blog, chronicled his experiences with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he begins “Faithful and Radicals” by noting that it’s his first major public presentation since undergoing stem cell transplants.

Altas_New_Librarianship--CoverBut that’s just the backdrop to much of what he accomplishes with “Faithful and Radicals.” His starting point is something every one of us needs to remember: that all of us—regardless of profession, interests, values, and experiences—has moments in which our faith is severely tested and doubts can become overwhelming. With that in mind, he recalls a recent, personal crisis of faith in which he asked himself why he continues to remain part of the group fighting to assure that libraries—and, more importantly—librarians (which, as I’ve written many times before, are our close allies in training-teaching-learning, and vice versa) are supported and that they are active participants in shaping their communities.

When all is said and done, the answer was quite simple. He decided that the strong role librarians play in serving communities—similar to the role I see any great trainer-teacher-learner playing—is so overwhelming powerful that he was “unwilling to be part of those who stood by and destroyed something I loved. Ultimately, the decision was, ‘I have a limited time on this Earth, and I’m going to use it to build up and be part of what I believe in because I have faith…that this stuff works. I have faith that we improve people’s lives. I have faith in you.”

It’s far more than the oft-quoted mission to support reading, he noted, adding that he actually hates the pervasive libraries-support-reading promotions because libraries and librarians promote so much more that is essential to learning, community-building, and creativity.

“Working with kids on an interest of theirs to develop an interest of theirs…this gets a big big big happy smiley face,” he reminds us as he moves us into a deeper, richer exploration of what it means to play leadership roles in our communities through libraries or any other significant learning organization. “It’s about using resources to learn, to improve, to build knowledge,” and to help prepare learners for their roles as “stewards of this world.”

The current movement to support the creation and growth of makerspaces within libraries, he suggests, is only part of the story—far from rooted in questions about whether to purchase a 3D printer or any other form of technology to create that makerspace: “If your library is not already a makerspace, you’re doing it wrong.”

Nearing the end of his presentation, he doubles back to overtly address his decision to undergo all the brutally awful treatment he has endured. Reflects on what it means to choose between giving up or fighting against a life-threatening disease through potentially lethal treatments. And acknowledge that surrender would have deprived him of the opportunity to be with us long enough to share “The Faithful and the Radical” with us.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

“I have been at the edge of certain death. When I got my stem cell transplant…I had to go through terrible chemo, chemo that ripped sores in my tongue, chemo that tore out all my intestinal tract, chemo that took my hair, took my energy, took my ability to walk up a flight of stairs, and it even killed the very marrow in my bones. I voluntarily took a lethal injection. Why? Because I had faith. I had faith in my doctors. I had faith in my nurses, and I had faith in my caretaker and my wife and my family and myself that I was going to get there, that I was going to face down certain death and that I was going to move ahead, and I’m here without a hair in my head to show for it. But I’m here…

“Faith can be hard. Radical can be hard. Moving out of your comfort zone and seeing yourself as larger than you think you are can be hard. But it is essential. I have been through my crisis of faith, You have seen your crisis of faith. We will live through it, and we will use it to become even stronger radicals. We will use it to take that faith message to those who don’t really have it…”

Reaching the end of that recording, I was left rethinking long-held beliefs about what decision I might make if/when faced with the sort of life-threatening situation Lankes has struggled; I have to admit that what he says and what he does has, in the most significant of ways, served the purpose of great learning facilitation: he made me do some serious rethinking about personal comfort and preferences as opposed to the greater responsibilities each of us has.

Lankes could have opted to forego the fight. In a sense, however, he decided to work beyond the shift life had apparently decided to assign him and do some overtime by staying with us. It’s the sort of overtime for which there can be no adequate payment. But perhaps we can do our part in rewarding him by listening. Taking action. Thinking about the need to transcend our own comfort zones to take actions for the greater good of the people, the communities, and the societies that support us. And continuing to stand with those we love and admire through the best and worst of times in the hope that the best remains ahead of us.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear

April 25, 2014

That awful moment has again arrived: a cherished friend within one of the communities of learning that sustains me has lost a loved one.

I_Watched_You_DisappearIt was not an easy passing. My friend’s mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer during Easter weekend after all the usual pain, struggles with a health-care system that just doesn’t seem mature enough to adequately support those who are ill and those who love them, and numerous literal and figurative dark nights that never quite produced an obvious dawn.

But among the most stunning elements of this entire passage was the consistent reminder of what it means to be part of an extended onsite-online blended community in which friends stand with friends.

My friend—a fabulously gifted writer in addition to being an inspiring trainer-teacher-learner—was never at a loss for words, nor was she at any point reticent about sharing the most intimate details about what she, her mother, and others within her inner circle were feeling and experiencing. The moments of rage at health-care providers who seemed remarkably insensitive to basic needs. The moments of gratitude expressed toward health-care providers who were the onsite guardian angels. The emails and phone calls and social media postings. And the sharing of information that might be helpful to others in similar situations. All of these interwoven elements combined to produce one of the most moving invitations to celebrate a life well lived and mourn a loss I can imagine accepting.

The results produced amazing reminders of how interconnected we all remain in spite of all the ridiculous assertions we encounter that tech tools and other changes in our rapidly-changing world are somehow stopping people from communicating with each other at a meaningful level. Each time I read a Facebook post from my friend and then followed the dozens of responses from people I knew and from people I had not previously encountered (but came know through these exchanges), I felt my world broadening a bit and also understood that our ever-extending community was gaining the additional strength it would need to adequately support our friend, her mother and father, and others close to them. Every time I followed a link to read something my friend had read and from which she had taken solace, I found my own emotional connections to her experiences and her impending loss growing.

An afternoon during which she mentioned Anya Krugovoy Silver’s latest collection of poetry—I Watched You Disappear—was one of many turning points. A few lines from the title poem (“That fucking doctor killed you. Killed you./But I keep sending e-mails to your account.”) sent me racing to my local bookstore eager to obtain and devour a copy of what includes some of the most beautifully moving poetry I have read in years. Those lines opened a door to conversations my friend and I might not otherwise have had.

My friend’s post written on the evening of her mother’s departure (“Go rest high on that mountain, sweet Mama—your work here is done but will live on…She looked up at me, took her last breath, and was gone…”) put me right there with them in ways I would have never have expected to experience.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

And a from-the-heart set of reflections (“Stand for Those We Miss and Love”) from one of my friend’s colleagues (R. David Lankes) posted earlier this week included passages so searingly poignant that I feel as if our collaborative endeavors over the past several months should once and for all silence anyone who disparages the gifts provided through effective use of social media tools: “I stand as someone who has fought with cancer and as someone who will remember you. Someone who says your life was important. I stand to remind those who remain that life can be hard. I stand to remind everyone that cancer takes and takes and takes. I stand to remind everyone that no matter how much we are loved, or how much good we seek to do, we all can be taken too soon.”

This evening, as I write these words I have been trying to compose for nearly a week, I find cause to celebrate even while consumed by the sense of loss I keenly feel. I celebrate the members of my various communities of learning who help me understand and appreciative what I have. I celebrate the depth of experience those friends reveal and to which they lead me. And I celebrate the importance of remembering we can never be too busy to take the time required to stand with our friends.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 1 of 2): Communities of Learning

April 25, 2014

In learning, there is often the obvious lesson—which is rewarding—and then there is that difficult-to-anticipate moment that transcends anything we expected to experience—which makes it all the more potentially valuable and transformative. And that moment of transcendence is exactly what occurred again last Friday when I joined Maurice Coleman and other colleagues for an episode of his wonderful T is for Training podcast online.

Atlantic_LogoGoing into the latest hour-long biweekly opportunity to share ideas with those training-teaching-learning colleagues, I had no other expectation than that I would learn something useful from members of one of the best communities of learning to which I belong. And the conversation captured in the recording which now exists as an archived podcast (Episode #138) certainly delivers an interesting graze through a field with plenty of different topics.

What the audio recording doesn’t reveal, however, is the much more disturbingly moving exchange that began when a colleague used the program backchannel to post a link to “I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway,” written for The Atlantic by Doug Glanville, “a retired Major League Baseball player [who] explains how he’s trying to turn an upsetting encounter with the police into an opportunity for dialogue.”

It wasn’t the sort of topic we generally explore on T is for Training—or in many other venues I frequent—so we kept our exchanges to a set of backchannel comments through the typed chat window available as the podcast was being recorded. When the recording ended, a few of us briefly continued to explore the ugly, painful, gaping wound highlighted by Glanville’s beautifully written article; to ignore the opportunity to do so within a community of learning that has strong roots in confronting rather than ignoring our most difficult challenges would have been to further contribute to the turn-your-head-and-pretend-it-isn’t-there proclivity that plagues us through the mistaken and debilitating belief that we inhabit a “post-racial” society. And when it was time for us to virtually part and return to our other obligations, I wasn’t quite ready to set this aside, for I sensed I was far from finished with the learning opportunity my colleagues had extended through the posted link and the follow-up conversation.

There has never been a time in my life when I have not been conscious of the presence and effects of discrimination and inequality. I grew up in a Central California Valley town with geographic boundaries that mirrored the racial and economic divisions existing between the various groups which formed that still troubled community. I felt the relatively minor stings Italian-Americans felt through taunts that were nothing compared to what African-American, Latino, and the all-too-rare Jewish friends and colleagues experienced daily. I was occasionally the butt of not-so-funny jokes and racial epithets—but not in any significant way at the level those friends and colleagues were. My sense of what this meant grew during a three-year stay in Japan, where regardless of how much respect I was accorded as a teacher, I knew I would always be an outsider. Fair enough; I always had the option to return “home” when I grew tired of living in a place where I wouldn’t be accepted.

But here in our imaginary post-racial society, colleagues and close friends don’t have the luxury of going home in the way I envisioned going home. They are home, and it’s a home that never really offers the benefits of ownership that others can routinely enjoy.

T is for Training Logo

T is for Training Logo

A lovely friend was kind enough to draw me viscerally into that world again a couple of months ago through a series of moving online reflections during Black History Month. As The Month came to a chronological end, I decided to ask a simple question of this friend who has indisputably been on the receiving end of terrible–yet often subtle–acts of discrimination–but refuses to succumb to bitterness: “If I had been there, what is one concrete thing I could have done to reverse what you experienced?” The response: “If/when you see subtle racism against others, call people on it. Let folks know that you see it and you do not condone, agree, or approve…It would not have changed the world, but you would have made a stand.” That’s why, I wrote at the time, this person is my friend: I ask a straightforward question, and I’m offered a positive, actionable reminder that we don’t need special days, weeks, or months to confirm that each of us can make positive action a way of life that contributes to the creation of the sort of world we want to inhabit. Now. And for the rest of our lives.

It was a thought that remained with me as the T is for Training group dispersed after the conversation last Friday, so I quickly sent an email asking what I can be doing at a simple, personal, level to prevent others from experiencing what Doug Glanville describes in that article.

The answer produced that moment of transcendence I mentioned at the beginning of this article: “My answer is to continue being you. That means being welcoming and supportive. And be willing to stand with someone who is not being treated well.”

What struck me most was not the encouragement that I was somehow, in spite of myself, managing to be somewhat on the right path to being where I want to be. What struck me was that particular, thoughtful, and emotionally jolting choice of words: “…to stand with someone…”

I find it all too easy to stand up for someone when I see something I dislike; standing up for someone (or something) requires action, produces an expectation of results, and is empowering to the person doing the standing—it’s as much about the stander as the one for whom we are attempting to stand. Standing with someone is a much more intimate, risky endeavor: it places us quite vulnerably next to someone with the understanding that the person is in control and gains more from our presence than from the mistaken belief that some sort of representation from another person is wanted or required.

Standing with someone is a life lesson well (but not yet completely) learned. It makes me a better facilitator of learning to know that I stand with rather than for other learners. It makes me a better friend to those who think I’m better than I am intellectually, emotionally, and socially. And it reinforces the oft-forgotten lesson that learning, collaboration, and community-building are based on our ability to be empathetic, set our egos aside, and value the critically important difference between standing for someone and standing with someone.

Next: Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear


The State of America’s Libraries 2014: Libraries, Social Networking, and Learning

April 16, 2014

“‘Social’ has come to mean more than sending a tweet or posting to Facebook,” trainer-teacher-learners and others perusing the 2014 edition of the American Library Association (ALA) State of America’s Libraries are reminded near the end of the “Social Networking” section.

State_of_Americas_Libraries_2014It’s an idea we understand viscerally when we serve ourselves and others by actively engaging in virtual office hours via Facebook or Google+ Hangouts; learning from and serving as active members of online communities of learning via live, facilitated tweetchats like #lrnchat or extended asynchronous explorations along the lines of the New Media Consortium’s recent Wiki-Thon; or creating content while using social media tools that make connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses) like #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC) or #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC) sustainable communities learning.

This is a huge leap from social-media-as-bulletin-board-for-ephemera to social-media-as-workplace-tool, and it’s one that more and more colleagues and their learners are embracing. While we still have plenty of learners who need help in making the transition from seeing the use of online social networking tools as irrelevant to their workplace and personal activities to integrating those tools into their various activities, we increasingly are seeing beginners quickly make the leap from skepticism to creative endeavors including the use of Twitter as a way of conducting virtual new-staff orientations, as school librarian Betty Turpin is doing with a group of library school students who will be completing a project at the International School of Stuttgart next month.

The writers of the State of America’s Libraries 2014 offer us a helpful view of social networking within the library context: “‘The social librarian is enmeshed in the fabric of the Internet of Things as curator, educator, filter, and beacon,’ says a post on Stephen’s Lighthouse. ‘In this complex, dynamic, and demanding environment, librarians are extending themselves and empowering library users’”—just as their colleagues working in other training-teaching-learning environments are doing.

Graphic from "Social Networking" section of the report

Graphic from “Social Networking” section of the report

They then lead us through a series of examples demonstrating how libraries are using social networking to foster innovations in social networking. There is the Pinal County (Arizona) Library District “compilation of articles and links on how libraries are using Facebook, Twitter, and blogs as tools to reach out to users”—a set of resources curated on a Pinterest board. There’s the LibraryScienceList rankings of the “100 Most Social Media Friendly College and University Libraries for 2013”; even the most cursory skim of the rankings reveals creative use of social media tools in many settings, including the University of California San Francisco Library, where efforts extend to connecting leaners to sessions on building online courses with Moodle 2, becoming a better presenter, and learning about digital video editing.

And at the end of the section, we come to an extension of the “Libraries and Community Engagement” theme explored elsewhere in the report: a mention of how academic libraries are using social media to foster community-building—which, for me, is one of the most natural, brilliant, yet frequently-overlooked use of social media tools available to library staff members and others engaged in training-teaching-learning.

I continually find myself returning to the experiences I’ve had in the development of sustainable online communities of learning through MOOCs and groups including #lrnchat, and feel that there is still plenty that many of us involved in libraries could be doing to better serve and engage members of our onsite and online communities. I see what colleagues in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and, to a lesser extent, the American Library Association do to extend the learning that occurs in conferences, and remain a strong advocate of doing all we can to promote the blending of onsite and online communities in every way possible when it makes sense to do so. The confirmation that “public libraries’ use of social media is up sharply, especially among large libraries” is, therefore, encouraging news—and a reminder that we’re moving in the right direction to serve our blended 21st-century onsite-online constituency.

N.B.: Reflections on the Academic Libraries and Ebooks and Copyright Issues sections of the report have been posted by Jill Hurst-Wahl, director of the library and information science and LIS with school media specialization programs at Syracuse University, on her Digitization 101 blog.


The State of America’s Libraries 2014: Libraries, Community Engagement, and Learning

April 15, 2014

Having been tremendously inspired by interactions with librarians who are community leaders in Northeast Kansas, closer to home (in Mendocino County) and elsewhere over the past few months, I’m not at all surprised to see that the 2014 edition of the American Library Association (ALA) State of America’s Libraries has a wonderful new section: “Libraries and Community Engagement.”

State_of_Americas_Libraries_2014“America’s libraries continue to transform themselves, keeping pace with the changing economic, social, and technological aspects of American society,” those contributing to the report write at the beginning of the community engagement section. “Libraries’ deepening engagement with their communities takes many forms, from technology to education to social services, and serves many segments of the population.”

It’s not at all difficult to find plenty of documentation of the positive transformations underway in libraries and the communities in which they are increasingly integral collaborators in exploring and addressing a variety of educational and other needs: libraries as learning/social learning centers; libraries as advocates of literacy at a time when concepts of literacy themselves are evolving to reflect our needs; libraries as places where technology is explored; libraries as catalysts for change; and libraries as places where something as simple as a book discussion group can serve as a forum about community challenges.

What is at the heart of the community engagement section of the ALA report, however, are the stories.

We read about the Chattanooga Public Library’s efforts to provide “3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, and spaces for conducting business meetings…all things that an individual might find too expensive.” We learn about libraries across the country engaging children, through collaborations with the organization Family Place Libraries™, at critically important moments in children’s earliest educational endeavors. We see my local library system and former employer—the San Francisco Public Library—receive well-deserved kudos for its “pioneering outreach program to homeless users…staffed by a  full-time psychiatric social worker” and including “the services of five peer counselors, all of whom were once homeless themselves”—an effort increasingly emulated elsewhere. And we learn about libraries offering musical instruments and even plots of land for checkout in addition to examples we find elsewhere with just a small bit of effort: tool libraries, seed libraries, and much more.

For those of us who have eagerly followed and supported ALA’s “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities” initiative—fostered by former ALA President Maureen Sullivan and many others—and the ever-evolving ALA Libraries Transforming Communities website with its numerous useful resources, the ALA report is an update, a confirmation, and a source of encouragement.

It also is a strong reminder that we all have roles to play in strengthening collaborations between libraries and other key members of our communities—and that includes calling our non-library colleagues’ attention to reports like the State of America’s Libraries report and encouraging them to see how the content can expand and enrich their own community collaborations.

nmc.logo.cmykMy most progressive and far-reaching colleagues in workplace learning and performance in libraries, the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), and the New Media Consortium recognize that we need to look beyond our usual training-teaching-learning environments to see ourselves in the larger context of all learning organizations—including museums and other arts organizations—that play overlapping roles in the average lifelong learner’s experiences. Media Specialist/School Librarian Buffy Hamilton, for example, consistently takes her learners on virtual trips far beyond the physical libraries she has served. ASTD CEO Tony Bingham consistently dazzles and inspires us with visionary training-teaching-learning presentations at the annual ASTD Chapter Leaders Conference and elsewhere. New Media Consortium Chief Executive Officer Larry Johnson consistently encourages staff and colleagues to take the large-picture view of how various learning organizations adapt new technology and address trends and challenges in learning worldwide.

ALonline346[1]When we bring all of this back to the content of the ALA report and read about what libraries and library staff members do to support and promote learning within their communities, we realize that those of us involved in adult learning need to see what tomorrow’s adults are doing as today’s children and teens. When we see what today’s community college, technical school, and university learners are doing, we need to be preparing to provide learning landscapes that help meet the needs they will continue to have in the years and decades we will have them in our workplaces.

And most importantly, we need to recognize that taking the time in our own workplaces—during our workdays—to read, ponder, react to, discuss, and implement what we encounter in well-written and thoughtfully produced report along the lines of The State of American’s Libraries 2014 is not a luxury. It’s an essential part of our own lifelong learning endeavors that make us contributors and partners in the development and maintenance of our own onsite and online communities.

Next: Libraries and Social Networking; reflections on the Academic Libraries and Ebooks and Copyright Issues sections of the report have been posted by Jill Hurst-Wahl, director of the library and information science and LIS with school media specialization programs at Syracuse University, on her Digitization 101 blog.


Tactical Urbanism: Community, Collaboration, Innovation, and Learning

April 10, 2014

Sometime, in an effort to accomplish something in our communities, we move so quickly that we don’t even take the time to slap a label onto what we’re doing—until we come across a lovely term like “tactical urbanism” and wonder why we didn’t coin it first.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverNate Berg, writing for the Atlantic Cities website, describes the term concisely: “Guerrilla gardening. Pavement-to-parks. Open streets. These are all urban interventions of a sort—quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable.” And when we begin to dive into all the loveliness behind tactical urbanism, we find something that serves us well in a variety of settings: the reminder that great accomplishments don’t have to address problems and challenges at a macro level; sometimes we help change our world through small, incremental steps rooted in community, collaboration, innovation, and learning.

The learning element, for me, was obvious from the initial moment I learned about tactical urbanism (yesterday morning, while skimming a Twitter feed): a couple of training-teaching-learning colleagues—Heather Braum and Jill Hurst-Wahl—were attending a conference presentation on the topic, and both saw connections between what keynote speaker Mike Lydon was describing and what they had heard from me about the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. After skimming notes prepared and posted by Jill and Heather, I immediately downloaded the wonderful Tactical Urban2 online manual produced by Lydon and his fellow tactical urbanists; devoured the descriptions of tactical urbanism projects documented within that manual; relished the idea that several of these projects are in place here in San Francisco or under consideration; thought about how they might inspire positive actions within libraries; and even began thinking about how the spirit of tactical urbanism flows through the best of learning projects I have encountered.

And yes, I immediately understood why Heather and Jill would think about a $467,000 project like the Hidden Garden Steps within the context of a philosophy rooted in “quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable”: the Steps, like so many of our training-teaching-learning efforts, appear to be large, complex, and daunting when seen out of context; within context, however, they are organically interwoven segments of a much larger tapestry that builds upon what is already in place and provides additional foundations for further development.

When we look at the broad brushstrokes of urban development within Lydon’s work, we immediately—if we have already encountered these volumes—think of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961); Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written since then; William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988); and Peter Harnik’s Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010). When we think beyond the explicit references to urban development, we think of how libraries increasingly engage in flexible use of their spaces for everything from community meetings addressing needs of libraries and the communities they serve to remodeling of spaces to create everything from an information commons to makerspaces. And when we stretch this even further into learning organizations, we find the sort of on-the-fly quick, often temporary, cheap experimentation some of us pursue in our communities of learning when we attempt something as simple as using Facebook or Google+ Hangouts to conduct online office hours with our learners in the hope that they will establish learning communities that last far beyond the formal end of a course we have facilitated.

Tactical urbanism in action: neighbors maintaining the Hidden Garden Steps

Tactical urbanism in action: neighbors maintaining the Hidden Garden Steps

Let’s draw explicit parallels here. Lydon and his colleagues document guerilla street tactics including painting a crosswalk where one doesn’t exist, but is needed, and shows how that simple action leads city officials to acknowledge and act upon the need. Libraries can create book discussion groups that go far beyond the traditional recreational approach to that action: by organizing discussions around a book that addresses a community need, the library can be part of a collaborative effort to substantially and positively address and act upon a community need. Those of us involved in training-teaching learning—which, I believe, includes tactical urbanists who teach by example; library staff, which facilitates learning through much of what staff members offer; and those involved in workplace learning and performance—engage in the spirit of tactical urbanism by exploring easy-to-implement low-cost/no-cost innovations that, when successful, quickly spread throughout our extended learning landscapes. And those of us engaged in projects like the Hidden Garden Steps—that 148-step ceramic-tiled mosaic surrounded by gardens tended formally and informally by neighborhood volunteers—are immersed in the spirit of tactical urbanism by building upon the example of those who came before us and inspiring others to create their own versions of these magnificent community meeting places that serve a worldwide community of visitors.

The punchline remains one I frequently recite: all we have to do is dream.


Community, Collaboration, and Learning on the Road

March 28, 2014

An article on the Guardian website—“How US Libraries Are Becoming Community Problem Solvers”—provides yet another reminder of the numerous ways various learning organizations (e.g., libraries, schools, community colleges, universities, museums, ASTD, the New Media Consortium, and many others) actively collaborate with members of their communities to make a positive difference in those communities.

The article—for those of us deeply immersed in community, collaboration, and learning locally, online, and through travel—inspires far more than the writer may have expected: it makes us see libraries within the larger landscape of learning organizations. It also makes us reflect on the magnificent way libraries are transforming communities by serving as a place to meet, talk, learn, dream, and sometimes even take positive actions through partnerships with other members of our extended communities.

Northeast Kansas, the setting for our conversation and collaboration

Northeast Kansas, the setting for our conversation and collaboration

This has become deeply personal for me in the work I’ve been doing to facilitate learning as well as community conversations with and through libraries and other organizations in a variety of settings. Trips to northeast Kansas and to Mendocino County here in California over the past few months, in fact, created unexpected and searingly emotional experiences far beyond anything I could have expected—the best kind of learning imaginable. I’m grateful to the library representatives who invited me to those areas for the expanded perspective they provided, and I’m grateful to the individuals who provided those unforgettably transformative learning moments that make me see the world differently than I did before our conversations took place.

The Kansas workshop—an opportunity under the auspices of Patti Poe and her colleagues in the Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) to work with library directors interested in the topic of “Community Collaborations: Helping Shape Our Communities”—was designed as a daylong series of interconnected interactions. One of our most important goals was to explore overlooked opportunities for collaboration to strengthen connections between library staff and other members of the communities in that region. There was no expectation that I was arriving with prepackaged solutions to challenges they faced; the workshop was designed to be an exercise in which our own collaborations would serve as models for how they might approach potential community partners to identify and address issues of interest to all of them.

Reflections in Northeast Kansas

Reflections in Northeast Kansas

It didn’t take long for us to begin identifying potential collaborations and create concrete plans for how to pursue those collaborations, but what took place at an emotional level was far more valuable than anything I expected. As I listened to this dynamic, well-connected group of community leaders—for that really is what the best of our library and other learning colleagues are—I was struck by how deeply they cared about their communities. How frequently they shared the joys and successes that occur within their communities. And how much they viscerally felt the pain of their communities when those communities struggle. Talking with one librarian who serves the population of a small town with little in the way of a social gathering place beyond the walls of the public library there, I felt as if I had been dropped into a real-life version of the town in The Last Picture Show—that town that everyone knows is losing its population, its heart, and its soul. We were honest with each other in terms of what she was describing and what I was seeing through her eyes without actually visiting the town: that the town might not survive, and that the loss of the library would be one more nail in a coffin that was aggressively seeking an occupant.

Being in Mendocino County with county librarian Mindy Kittay and her colleagues for an entirely different project less than a week ago—facilitating community meetings for residents interested in documenting what they like and don’t like about their libraries, and how they would like to see their libraries develop over the next few years—I was again quite taken by numerous conversations during those meetings, but was most touched by an unexpected one-on-one conversation that took place outside a meeting room.

Mendocino_Library_Computers--2014-03-21

Mendocino County–Library as facilitator of connections

Arriving a full hour before the first meeting was scheduled to begin, on a Saturday morning, I stood outside, enjoying the pleasant early-spring weather, and relishing the sound of little more than birds in nearby trees. Glancing up, I saw someone approaching—a man who was walking slowly while pulling a suitcase behind him. My immediate assumption was that he might be homeless; since there appeared to be little about him that was threatening, I greeted him as he drew near. He returned the salutation. The ensuing conversation—without either of us knowing anything other than what we could visually observe about the other—quickly turned to his descriptions of his lifelong experiences there in that town. He grew up there. Went to local schools. Joined the military. Eventually returned home. And worked successfully in sales until the recession left him without a job a few years ago. He expressed no bitterness, just amazement that others in town were not willing to make the changes in the community that might attract more businesses. The issue, as he saw it, was that the type of business that could improve the economic situation there would also change the small-town character of the town that had attracted all of them and continued to make them want to live there.

At the end of our conversation, he wandered off, and I joined colleagues inside the building to prepare the room for the meeting. And this being the sort of story that has to have an upbeat ending, it leads to my surprise and delight to find that he had been in the area all along so he could join others in his community in expressing his support and wishes for the local library. It was fascinating to discover that he was far more open than a few others in the room to the sort of changes library administrators and staff are proposing and making to keep their library responsive to community needs. But it was no surprise to find that he was as committed as anyone could be to remaining in that town, contributing to its growth, and helping sustain what gives it a heart.

Living in San Francisco, I have to admit that I’m not blind to the economic challenges so many people face. I see, meet, and talk with people who are homeless nearly every day—sitting on benches in my neighborhood, using local libraries, and enjoying the same public spaces I enjoy. I see and talk with people who find the cost of living prohibitive and who are thinking about leaving the Bay Area—or have already left the area and have just returned for a visit. So it’s not that the conversations in Kansas and Mendocino County were unusual. They were simply emotional and memorable reminders that communities need meeting spaces—the sort that libraries and other learning organizations can and often do provide. They need people who will listen to each other. And they need us to be moved enough to take actions that make our communities better than they already are.


Checking Out Disagreements and Learning by Re-Viewing Our Landscape

March 26, 2014

One of the many inspiring and great learning moments to occur during recent community meetings sponsored by the Mendocino County Library with support from their Friends of the Library groups came during a discussion of recently-installed self-checkout machines at the Ukiah Library.

The issue was superficially clear cut. Some people in the community appreciate the convenience self-checkout machines provide. Others absolutely hate this introduction of technology in a setting they value for its person-to-person interactions.

Ukiah_LibraryThose appreciative of the service specifically mentioned that they like being to locate library materials online, visit the library to pick up those materials, and handle the checkout transactions quickly (without having to ask for staff assistance). Others mentioned that checking out materials without staff involvement might appeal to teens and others who don’t want others seeing what they are borrowing.

Opponents to the recently-installed machines expressed unhappiness with the appearance of the tall, upright machines for a variety of reasons—and it quickly became clear that more than anti-technology feelings were at the foundations of their objections. They said they didn’t like the fact that the machines, placed just inside the entrance (where those about to leave the library could complete their final checkout transactions just before they exit the building), were the first thing they saw; having the devices there made them feel as if staff were being replaced by machines (something that is not happening, particularly since a local ballot initiative to provide additional funding for library services passed in November 2013 and library administrators have been hiring more staff members to support increased hours system-wide). Further exploration of the feelings leading to their opposition revealed a sense that staff was becoming less accessible to them and that they were concerned they were losing what is extremely important to them: the person-to-person interactions that are a valuable part of their library experience.

Fort_Bragg_Library--2014-03-24

Mendocino County Library staff and users continuing conversation after meeting in Fort Bragg branch

The inspiring part of all of this was that although people attending the meeting and two others held in Fort Bragg and Willits—one element in the library’s current strategic planning process—offered a variety of (sometimes conflicting) opinions on several different issues, there was little overt animosity expressed between meeting attendees. By providing forums for discussion about the library’s future and how the library could even more actively be part of an effort to address community issues, library staff and users were able to document what is important to them, see issues from differing perspectives, and almost immediately begin looking for ways to address some of the less difficult challenges they face.

A few of us, in fact, continued the discussion after leaving the Ukiah meeting by using a technique employed by a colleague who helps library staff improve library users’ experiences: each of us walked into the Ukiah Library with the intention of looking at it as if we had never before seen it, and paying attention to what caught our attention.

Whereas I had, during my first visit one day earlier, quickly walked past the self-checkout machines and immediately looked for (and found) staff—easily spotted both at a desk almost directly in front of me (across the room) and at a service counter to my left after I passed the machines—I spent more time after the meeting looking at the self-checkout machines and how they did serve as a visual focal point to anyone entering the building and looking only at what was closest to the doors. (Wonderfully enough, a staff member approached me while I was looking at the machines and initiated a conversation.)

Conversations with library staff members produced at least a few options they plan to quickly explore for those who fear the loss of that person-to-person level of attention library staff strives to provide: rearranging the entrance in a way that makes the self-checkout machines less of a visual presence; incorporating a few visual changes that tone down the bright lights that are part of the machines themselves so they won’t, as one critical library user commented, look like “slot machines”); and determining whether volunteers (who were unhappy to have been moved out of public service areas and placed next to staff in crowded workspaces in the staff area) would be interested in sitting at a desk in the entrance area to greet library visitors and help first-time users familiarize themselves with the self-checkout machines—a nice solution to two different challenges (the introduction of the machines and unhappiness expressed by volunteers in search of more opportunities to support the library while interacting with other members of their communities).

It was impressive to see the library representatives react so quickly to the concerns expressed; even if whatever changes they propose and implement don’t please everyone, the changes will have come from a position of listening and learning by re-viewing familiar situations and settings. It was equally impressive to see how positively members of the community interacted even when there were clear disagreements that they recognized they, in collaboration with library staff, will have to work to resolve together. And it was wonderfully refreshing to contrast the visible and obvious levels of civility, respect, and collaboration with what we so often see elsewhere when people talk at rather than with each other until conversations sink into confrontation and an inability to address what is important within and to a community.


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