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.
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.
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.
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.