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.


Talking When It’s Time to Talk (and Remaining Silent When It’s Not)

March 24, 2014

Facilitating a series of community meetings for the Mendocino County Library system here in Northern California over the past couple of days has reminded me of the importance of talking when it’s time to talk and remaining silent when others are meant to have their moment to be heard.

Willits_Library[1]--2014-03-23Sharing ideas—whether those ideas are complementary or in direct opposition to one another—requires that we commit to levels of civility and respect often abandoned in public settings these days; it also requires that we be cognizant of the fact that we will never have as much time as we would like to express the ideas that we have—and that we willingly sacrifice some of the speaking time to which we feel entitled so that others have an opportunity to also be heard within the limited time available to all of us.

It’s a real pleasure and a source of inspiration to see those interested in helping guide the future of their library system rise to the challenge in ways that will serve the communities here in Mendocino County for months and years to come. And as I think about what library staff and library users will accomplish together because of their commitment to honestly documenting their likes and dislikes, their dreams and their concerns, and the resources and the challenges that will affect their ability to implement those dreams and address those concerns, I’m struck again by how the all-too-brief exchanges completed in a single encounter are simply part of a much larger, longer conversation rooted in what has come before and dependent on what occurs over a much longer period yet to unfold.

The same pleasure comes from recognizing that there’s a time to talk with friends and a time to accept the silences that occur when the myriad challenges in all our lives prevent us from communicating with each other—something that came to mind this morning as a friend apologized, by phone, for having been silent over extended periods during the past few months. Not that she needed to offer any apologies or explanations: I know, from her various postings in social media platforms and through the exquisitely-written blog postings she produces as time allows, that she is serving as caregiver as her mother struggles with pancreatic cancer. I also know that my friend has faced numerous workplace challenges requiring tremendous amounts of attention. So I haven’t been and am not at all surprised that conversations that at times develop and conclude in relatively short periods of time are currently extending over much greater periods.

But what is lovely about all of this as we communicate by phone and email and tweets and Facebook posts and responses to each other’s blogging on issues of importance to us is that the timing is not what matters. It’s the willingness to let those shards of conversation develop and blend together seamlessly in spite of what we might have previously thought of as interruptions. We’ve come to appreciate the idea that bits and pieces of an extended conversation, separated by much longer silences, provide lovely periods of reflection that simply deepen what we already share: commitment to nurturing friendship as meticulously as we tend a garden; a willingness to let conversations develop in their own time frame; and shared membership in a community of support that deepens with each additional exchange we have with each other and then share through the writing we produce privately and publicly. 

It’s what I love about the sharing that occurs with my friends, and it’s what I love as I watch members of the Mendocino County Library community—those who actively use and support the Library system as well as those who don’t yet feel drawn into what it provides—interact. These are signs of healthy, respectful, vibrant communities—the communities that help give life meaning and that provide assurance that we are far from alone in our commitment to building the world of our dreams regardless of the impediments we encounter.


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