In April, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries program hosted in Cape Town, South Africa, the aptly named Peer Learning Meeting (PLM). According to the Gates Foundation, the conference is held roughly every 18 months and is described as “a multiday event where Global Libraries (GL) grantees, staff, and partners meet to exchange ideas and experiences, share success stories and challenges, discuss practical solutions, and build relationships with their fellow professionals in the field.” This year, some 120 librarians from 32 countries gathered to share the challenges they face and the solutions they’ve found.
Among the invited delegates were a past winner and finalist in LJ’s Best Small Library in America award, also sponsored by the Gates Foundation: William Harmer, director of the Chelsea District Library, MI, and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, and Debbie Winlock, director of the Page Public Library, AZ. LJ caught up with both, as well as 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker Stephanie Chase, director of library programs and services at the Seattle Public Library, who also attended and presented at the event, to find out what they learned from their peers halfway across the world.
“I thought it was extremely powerful to see the commonalities of our opportunities and our challenges,” Chase says. “The amazing part was that the conversation was really the same. The person working in rural Ghana, bringing mobile computer labs that run on solar power, and doesn’t have a master’s degree—success in that sphere requires the same traits and skills and focus and strategy as me providing service in a highly urban, very diverse, well-connected community. If libraries could start thinking about how we communicate that kind of commonality, we’ll get somewhere. But if we keep thinking it needs to be different in all those different places, it will be difficult.”
Building a Brand from Far Away
“I wanted to come up with a way to connect and engage people while I am in South Africa,” Harmer told LJ . A friend of mine suggested bringing gifts, so I figured, T-shirts that brand our community.” Harmer put out a call for donations, and the response greatly exceeded his expectations: he got “four or five trash bags’ worth,” of shirts, he said, and had to bring a second suitcase. Community members didn’t stop at shirts, either. Once they heard he was going to South Africa, a surprising number of them came forward with advice from their own visits to the country and even currency!
Tale of two libraries
Everyone LJ spoke to emphasized that the ability to build relationships with other librarians was the highlight of the event.
Not only was there “a great deal of discussion of libraries as engines of economic development, partnership building, and community involvement,” at the conference proper, Harmer says, but his visit to a South African library took this theme to the next level. Harmer visited two libraries: one in the affluent community of Fish Hoek, which he says, “was very like any library you might see in middle America. He also felt that it seemed really familiar, seemed very institutionalized and formal and staid and somewhat impersonal.”
By contrast, as soon as he entered the library in the immediately adjacent shantytown of Masiphumelele, he was “blown away” by its vibrant atmosphere and sense of purpose, it’s heavy use by local students who were focused on their goals, the “real connection between the kids and the staff members,” and, in particular, the head librarian, who invited all of her staff and volunteers to explain to the visiting delegates why the library was meaningful to them. “Instead of spouting some professional jargon, each one of them told a story,” Harmer says. This to me was clearly a library that was responsive to community needs…. I kept thinking, this is what American librarians need to see.”
Meanwhile, Winlock notes that the global awareness element works both ways: the event also allowed her and her colleagues to counter some (sadly untrue) perceptions among her peers. In conversation with librarians from elsewhere, she said, “They thought American libraries were well set up, with no problems. It was a total surprise to some that libraries were closing and programs were being cut.”
To carry the impact of these eye-opening realizations out beyond the confines of the conference, attendees discussed the potential for ongoing collaborations. For example, Harmer invited the head librarian to dinner after the conference, and together they cooked up a plan for a professional exchange program, where one of the Chelsea District Library’s staff members would spend several months working in Masiphumelele, and vice versa. Professional development was also a major focus, Harmer tells LJ, particularly developing skill sets for librarians in working collaboratively to help solve community problems and building private public sponsorships.
Harmer was also very impressed by the presentations on Maker spaces by his fellow attendees. “I’m not interested in doing arts and crafts, I am looking to…help solve community problems,” Harmer says, “and I met with some library leaders who are doing great work in that area. I walked away feeling pretty awesome about our profession, that we are taking a leadership role in innovation…. [T]here is an opportunity for the democratization of the tools of invention, to provide space for local entrepreneurs to connect with the do-it-yourself generation; we can create the shop class of the 21st century, [and] the library can be the center of that.”
In addition to implementing the PLM’s inspirations at Chelsea, Harmer plans to spread the word via the Michigan Library Association, to whose board he was elected while he was in Cape Town. Harmer tells LJ that only his digital publishing concerns, a mainstay of U.S. domestic library conferences, did not get addressed. (“We didn’t get around to it,” he says.)
Design the world over
For Winlock, the trip carried an extra level of excitement, because it would be her first time outside the United States and only her second on an airplane. In addition to attending, she was one of several speakers who delivered a keynote presentation. Beforehand, she told LJ she particularly looked forward to the Gates Foundation’s big tent approach. “It’s not only libraries, which I thought was neat,” she explained. The meeting also included “a bunch of other people: all levels of library stakeholders and partners.”
Winlock was particularly impressed with the design thinking workshop and plans to adapt an example from Denmark into a process of community consultation and brainstorming for her own library. From her own presentation, Winlock says the global audience was particularly struck by Page’s teen after-hours kickoff for its summer reading program, which involves partnering with local business owners who come in and offer services such as nail art and henna tattoos. The advantage, says Winlock, is not only that the services are free and draw in more teens, but the event also exposes the business owners to the library’s offerings, and many who previously did not use the services have begun to as a result.
Winlock said she is looking forward to using an ongoing forum where the attendees can continue the conversation.
Tomorrow’s libraries (and librarians)
Chase helped lead a workshop on Defining Tomorrow’s Library, together with two other Americans (Pam Sandlian Smith, director, Anythink Libraries, CO, and Wendy Knapp, associate director of Statewide Services, Indiana State Library) and two European librarians (Sidsel Bech-Petersen, library transformer, Aarhus Public Libraries, Denmark, and Ramune Petuchovaite, program manager, EIFL-PLIP, Lithuania). Together they led the participants in a brainstorming session in which they looked at images of library spaces and work and gave people a minute to say what is important, then turned the results into a word cloud.
“One audience member noticed that nowhere did librarian or library staff show up, even though there is one in most of the pictures. If we don’t recognize our importance in this work, how can we expect the public to?” Chase asks. Taking advantage of the flexibility of the unconference format, Chase and her copanelists followed up on the insight, doing the same exercise again, except focusing on “Defining Tomorrow’s Librarian.” Traits that stood out very strongly, she says, include learner, connector, flexibility, relationship builder, community builder, customer service.
Chase was also struck by the research presented on how to measure and demonstrate the impact of libraries and especially of technology initiatives. “Here in the United States, we just have to collect that information at the most shallow level, but how do you demonstrate it very deeply?” she says, citing an organization in Eastern Europe that tracked how many job seekers applied for positions, obtained interviews, and were hired by using library computers. The answer was between 8,000 and 9,000.
Chase is no stranger to the domestic library conference circuit, but she tells LJ that the PLM had a deeper impact than most. “I was fortunate enough to be a [Public Library Association] Fellow back in 2010,” she says. “I had a very immersive leadership experience that really changed the way I thought about my work. This was a similar kind of experience, in terms of me really thinking about the challenges ahead for libraries and for me as someone who does leadership work in libraries.”