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.


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.


ALA Midwinter Conference: Informal Learning (in Conference Hallways)

January 28, 2014

Most of the learning at conferences takes place in the hallways, I learned from American Library Association (ALA)  Strategy Guide Jenny Levine during a conversation we were having in an enormous hallway here at the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting in Philadelphia before she delivered the obvious punch line: “And ALA conferences have a very large number of hallways.”

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoAnyone involved in training-teaching-learning knows that Levine’s observation about hallways (and, by extension, other spaces such as the conference Networking Uncommons and exhibits areas) parallels conclusions firmly grounded in research done on informal learning in our workplaces. And anyone who habitually participates in conferences arranged by the organizations serving specific professions (ALA for libraries, ASTD for trainer-teacher-learners, and many others) know that those hallways are increasingly blended to combine onsite and online interactions via Twitter and a variety of other tools to respond to those who might otherwise feel left behind.

Informal learning in the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting Networking Uncommons

Informal learning in the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting Networking Uncommons

My own informal learning at the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting began on Friday—the first full day of the conference—when I decided to visit the Networking Uncommons before the exhibits area opened. The fact that I never made it to the exhibits area—one of my favorite informal learning spaces—that evening is a testament to what ALA Strategy Guide Jenny Levine has created: Finding a group of colleagues engaged in an impromptu conversation about technology in libraries, I realized I didn’t have to cruise the aisles of the exhibits hall to meet those colleagues—the group of people I needed and wanted to be seeing were gathered right there in the Uncommons.

The same thing happened the following morning when I walked over to the cavernous area housing the ALA onsite bookstore, the conference registration desk, and an area being used for demonstrations of Google Glass. On assignment for the American Libraries blog, I was hoping to photograph a few people trying that wearable technology, interview them, and learn more about how Google Glass might be a useful tool in the work my colleagues and I do. With my usual good luck, I arrived just a few minutes before former ALA President Barbara Ford did, so I was able to photograph her trying the device and then conducted a follow-up interview that was included in that blog article providing readers with projections of how the voice-activated device might work its way into libraries and other learning environments dedicated to facilitating training-teaching-learning.

My informal learning continued over lunch that day with Peggy Barber, a cherished colleague who always manages to bring me up to date on something I wasn’t smart enough to be exploring on my own. She had recently published an article on “contagious marketing” in American Libraries, so I asked her about one of the sources she had quoted (Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On) and told her about a similar book I had read a few years before (Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die). What we learned informally from each other over lunch will deepen as each of us reads the book recommended by the other.

Libraries_Transforming_Communities--LogoThe sort of expanded onsite-online hallways I’ve noticed at earlier conferences reappeared while I was attending an onsite session Sunday morning on ALA’s “Libraries Transforming Communities” initiative. Presenters Maureen Sullivan and Cheryl Gorman. As they were discussing the positive impact the initiative has had in fostering collaborations and partnerships between libraries, library staff, and members of the communities they serve, I tweeted out summaries of some of the highlights. Some of those tweets were immediately retweeted by other conference attendees so that the information reached a larger audience than might otherwise have been possible, and at one point a tweet attracted a response from a novelist who objected to a comment made by one of the presenters. Seizing the opportunity to further expand the conversation, I read the comment to Sullivan and Gorman during a question-and-answer period, took notes on their response, and condensed it into a tweet to briefly extend the conversation with the novelist. The informal learning that morning traveled down some very long and intriguing ALA hallways that eventually drew responses from colleagues who aren’t even formally affiliated with ALA.

Similar exchanges continued throughout the days I’ve been here in Philadelphia, and the expanding hallways continue to take some intriguingly unexpected turns. Conversations in a wonderful session this morning on libraries as catalysts of change began within the formal setting of the session itself, expanded a bit through tweets and retweets, then unexpectedly continued briefly when the presenter—Lisa Bunker—and I ran into each other in the Networking Uncommons, and really deepened when the two of us decided to continue our informal conversation over lunch, which provided the most wonderful learning nugget I acquired during this Midwinter conference: “We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to show up.”

As long as those hallways that Levine and many others help create are available, I will be exploring them. And reporting informally on what I learn.


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