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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