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.


ALA Midwinter 2013: Learning to Transform Communities One Panel Discussion at a Time

January 30, 2013

“The conversation starts out in Seattle” turns out to have been far more than an ephemeral marketing slogan for those of us lucky enough to attend even part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting that ran from Friday, January 25 – Tuesday, January 29; it was an inspiring call to action that extends far beyond the conference site and the libraries represented there.

ALA_Midwinter_2013We had plenty of opportunities to catch up with colleagues, reflect upon how easy it is to explore and act upon the big ideas that we so rarely take the time to ponder, and be present at numerous activities focused on an effort to promote positive change through collaboration in our extended onsite-online world: ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s presidential initiative, “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.”

The interactive presentations began Saturday morning with a panel discussion that Sullivan moderated. Panelists included Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation; Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County United Way; and Carlton Sears, past director at Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County and certified coach with the Harwood Institute—and it only took a few minutes for Harwood to get us going by reminding us that to move our country forward, we need to find ways in communities to get things done.

Furthermore, he suggested, we need to restore a sense of belief in ourselves and forge the sort of meaningful relationships that foster positive change at the local, regional, and national level. Libraries, he continued, are uniquely positioned to support community development—an idea we’ve seen repeatedly in reports ranging from the Urban Libraries Council study “Making Cities Stronger” (2007) and the “benefit study” published by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library that same year to the resources compiled online by Iowa Library Services, to cite just a few of the resources available to us. Libraries across the country are already doing great work, he acknowledged, and there’s room to do even more.

Sears was equally direct in praising libraries for what they are accomplishing, and stressed the need for “authentic” engagement within the communities they serve. Involvement, he said, begins with a simple question: “What kind of community do you want?” Because work done by community activists tends to spread, he said he thinks of is “as a virus—but a good one!”—and he seemed committed to nurturing the spread of that particular virus.

In the end, Harwood agreed, we’re all in this because we believe in communities, and it’s clear that attendees at that initial session were ready to return home after the conference concluded so they could use the tools and resources provided during the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities sessions.

Harwood--Work_of_HopeSullivan, Harwood, and the other panelists left us with plenty of great resources; those interested in exploring his work can access a free online version of his book The Work of Hope: How Individuals Can Authentically Do Good from the Harwood website. There is also additional coverage of the panel discussion available in American Libraries online. Three other onsite programs continued the discussion: “Community Engagement Conversation: The Work of Hope”; “Community Engagement Conversation: Appreciative Inquiry—The Library in the Community”; and “Community Engagement Conversation: Change in the Community, Change in ALA.”

Abundant Community advocate Peter Block was also onsite for a program drawing upon Community: The Structure of Belonging, the book he co-wrote with John McKnight.

The groundwork has been laid, the challenge issued. Now it’s up to those of us inspired by Sullivan, Harwood, Block, and the others to spread the word, dive in as advocates, and help nurture the promise that libraries and other community-based organizations and initiatives offer.


The Big Ideas Connecting People, Conferences, and Conversations

January 27, 2013

Developing and acting upon big ideas sometimes requires big leaps, so it’s no surprise to me that the leap from San Francisco to Austin to Seattle over the past several days has left my head spinning.

ALA_Midwinter_2013Three days of participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas followed by a few days with colleagues attending the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting here in Seattle created the sort of Intersection discussed by Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect, a book about “breakthrough insights at the Intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures.”

That NMC summit fulfilled its implied promise of creating an Intersection:–in this case, a gathering of what NMC Founder/CEO Larry Johnson has called “100 thought leaders” to discuss wicked problems and plans of action to address those challenging problems that require entirely new ways of thinking and that help redefine the way we view our world. We were there to try to make a difference.

nmc.logo.cmykHaving already written about the first and second days of the NMC summit and reflected on subtle and not-so-subtle interweavings of themes between that summit and what I’ve been discussing and experiencing with friends and colleagues at the ALA conference, I continue finding the connections to tremendously strong. It’s as if both conferences have melded into one nearly week-long immersion in a profound, intensely deep well of ideas that challenge us to rethink much of what we take for granted in our work and personal lives.

At the NMC retreat, we were looking for ways to address the challenges of redefining roles and identities for students, faculty members, and administrators; fostering an ecosystem for experiential learning; and defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in learning, among other things. Here in Seattle, some of us are looking for ways to address the challenges of redefining roles and identities for library staff and library users in a world requiring intensive lifelong learning efforts; fostering an ecosystem for information literacy, digital literacy, and open access to information resources; and defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in strengthening the communities we serve.
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But it all comes down to people. That’s what was at the heart of the future of education summit and the ALA Midwinter meeting. Sitting with my colleague Buffy Hamiltonthe Unquiet Librarian—at an ALA conference session on “the promise of libraries: transforming communities” this morning, I quickly realized that this was yet another opportunity to engage in metalearning—learning about learning—by observing how all of us in the room were learning from the presentation.

The obvious primary focus was the content of that panel discussion—something so deeply inspiring, challenging, and rewarding that I’m going to return to it in a separate article. Equally important was the way content was being offered, consumed, and disseminated. It wasn’t just about how the presenters engaged us. It was equally about how Buffy and I, along with several other audience members in the room, were recording and commenting on that content via the conference Twitter backchannel—and how that content was reaching and being further disseminated outside the room by others retweeting what we were documenting. There were even times that Buffy and I, even though we were sitting side by side, interacted by retweeting each other’s notes when one of us had missed something that the other had captured.

Because I work with and help others learn to use social media tools in ways that open up opportunities for them by providing access to people and resources that might otherwise not be available to them, I know we still have plenty of people who see Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and many other tools as frivolous distractions. But what continues to become clearer to me day by day is that those tools can equally serve as means to foster the dissemination of information that helps us tackle those wicked problems that are at the heart of so many challenges we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. And whether we use them to augment our daily face-to-face interactions, the Intersection moments that are created at events along the lines of the future of education summit and the ALA Midwinter meeting, or backchannel exchanges, we miss something essential if we don’t acknowledge the seeds we plant each time we gather, talk with, listen to, and build upon the conversations that turn big ideas and dreams into even bigger solutions that sustain healthy communities. It’s learning as a step toward action, and each of us helps build the world of our dreams when we embrace these offerings.


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