April 22, 2017

Inside the Harwood Institute’s Innovators Lab for Libraries

Since the American Library Association (ALA) announced its collaboration with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation for ALA’s The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities, in 2012, the organizations have provided a variety of venues for libraries to engage deeply with the question of how they can and should enable change in their communities. At the upcoming ALA Midwinter Meeting, the Institute will lead a series of four hands-on workshops on Turning Outward To Lead Change in Your Community. However, Harwood is also leading this change beyond the conference circuit, holding longer, more intensive Innovators Labs for libraries. The first took place Oct. 8–10, 2014, at the Loudermilk Convention Center in Atlanta. Michael Casey, Division Director, Information Technology at Gwinnett County Public Library, GA, and an LJ Mover & Shaker, attended the lab and reports below, giving Midwinter attendees a hint of what they might find in the sessions.

To a world driven by big data, where online surveys and demographic data dives result in pages of analytics, comes a strategy that involves stories, conversations, and actual face-to-face discussions. It all starts with one simple question, “What kind of community do you want to live in?”

This was the first question presented to participants at the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s three-day Public Innovators Lab for Libraries held in downtown Atlanta. It saw more than 60 librarians and library administrators convened to learn from Harwood coaches Cheryl Gorman, Bill Booth, and David Moore about how libraries can engage their communities in conversations that can position the library to be at the front of local issue discussions.

Participants, mostly from public and academic libraries, ranged from frontline librarians to teen librarians and all the way up to the director level. The mix of administrators and direct customer service librarians resulted in many energetic and productive conversations.

Many libraries chose to send a group of staff to the Lab, which was a sizeable investment considering the cost: $1,495 for the first attendee and $995 for each subsequent attendee, not including travel and lodging. Some participants came from as far away as Seattle, Nantucket, and Ontario, Canada.

The process of turning outward

Each day was evenly divided between plenary sessions with all participants, learning groups comprised of around 20 participants, and small group sessions of two to four participants each.

At the first plenary session Moore launched into the theme of the conference: the library needs to turn outward, instead of inward, and be in a relationship with the community. This idea drives much of the Harwood process. One of the main goals is to create a shared vision between the library and the community.

The idea of asking people about their aspirations (“what kind of community do you want to live in?”) consumed much of the first day of training. Students participated in exercises designed to help them better understand the powerful responses that result from simply asking somebody about their dreams for the community. These conversations help the library focus outward and better understand the rhythms of the local community, gaining a wealth of public knowledge for the library.

In one of the first exercises, students broke off into small groups to examine the “stages of community life,” seeking to identify what stage of change each local community is in at the moment. This would influence the library’s course of action, as some stages are more amenable than others to major efforts for change. Librarians can then tailor their actions appropriately. Interestingly, determining this is not done through surveying but via conversations. A lot of discussion resulted from this community self-examination, and students frequently determined that different parts of their communities were in different stages of “community life.”

Reaching outside the comfort zone

Probably the most exciting exercise, and one that pushed the boundaries for some of the more introverted participants, was the “ask exercise.” Students paired up into groups of two and cold-called two people each, asking a series of questions, beginning with “What kind of community do you want to live in?” Students called their partner’s parent, co-worker, or friend.

The idea was to begin by introducing a positive spin to the conversations, asking about aspirations and steering people away from simply complaining. It was obvious from the expressions and comments from those around me that there was an initial reticence to call someone they had never met. However, the surprising result was that many students ended up having rather lengthy and revealing conversations with people who really did have a lot to say about their aspirations for their local community. Despite the fact that they did not know the people they were calling, the openness and positive nature of the question allowed them to come away with heartfelt feedback, public knowledge, and a positive and rewarding experience.

By engaging in conversations like this and bringing back this “public knowledge”, the idea is that the library can begin to shape a narrative to direct discussions with the whole community. The library, as an outward participant in this conversation, can help bring people back into the public space—connecting people with public life.

I better understood the purpose of this exercise later when I had the opportunity to ask Gorman (Vice-President, National Programs and Harwood Mentor Coach, who will be leading the Midwinter sessions) how libraries compare to the other organizations Harwood works with, especially in the area of connecting to their communities. “Libraries are rather similar to other organizations,” she said. “The middle of the pack watches the progress of the top libraries that are leading in their efforts to change and improve.”

Interestingly, she noted: “One difficult area is that library leadership is often introverted.” Clearly, many of these exercises are designed to push leaders to more comfortably engage with their community.

Overall, the three days were all structured in a very collaborative manner. Many of the small group sessions required us to pair up with someone we had never worked with before, allowing us to meet new people and share stories related to our many different libraries and backgrounds.

I attended one session led by Moore and Booth titled CEOs and Leaders Leading the Work. Aimed at organizational heads, it encouraged participants to start conversations with leaders in the community in order to gain momentum and carry the overall project forward. The goal is to gather public knowledge, bring it back to your organization, and show its worth, thereby creating a demand for more public knowledge and growing the value of the overall project. Roadblocks are to be met with more aspirational conversations, and difficult roadblocks create the need and opportunity to utilize others to sell the idea.

Data and the long-term

The question that kept coming up in my small group was the longer-term impact and success rate of this kind of approach. Harwood has only been working with public libraries for about two years, so there is no real data yet on the long-term success for libraries. However, Harwood has been working with nonprofits such as United Way and Public Broadcasting for many years, and in that area its success is far more clearly illustrated. (For more on this topic, see LJ‘s interview with Rich Harwood.)

Interestingly, while most community projects of this size begin with surveys and analytical analysis, the Turning Outward process does not. Many in my small group appreciated that unique approach, but I wondered how the reliance upon qualitative and anecdotal evidence will sit with leaders and funders who have come to rely upon quantitative data in decision making. Many of the questions in some of the breakout sessions revolved around the “sell”—going home to boards and funding agencies and selling this new approach without hard analytical data to put into the inevitable PowerPoint presentation.

When asked how data fit into their conversation-driven approach, Gorman stressed that Harwood is still driven by data. “Our strategy,” she said, “is measurable over time—our long-term success in the area of community engagement and policy changes is clear.”

Gorman pointed to the Institute’s success in several cities, including Battle Creek, MI, where the town started with just a few people working to address early childhood education and after just a few years had six large organizations working on that same issue. “There is,” she said, “a clear relationship between the early qualitative work and the longer term quantitative changes in community impact.”

Positioning libraries to lead

Engaging the community in conversations, and positioning the library as a strong community partner, is something many libraries have long been doing. However, some have failed to do either well, and they would be wise to change. The library needs to be an integral and trusted part of the community, and engaging in these kinds of conversations and outward activities will only serve to strengthen the library.

Solving challenges of all types through the strategic use of its trusted community position would certainly be a strong role for any library. However, while the Harwood Institute has had great success with United Way, Public Broadcasting, and other nonprofits, the idea of the local library serving as this kind of catalyst is definitely stretching the perceived role of many libraries.Taking that extra step beyond community participation, to actually being a leading and driving force in community change, is a step that not all libraries will want, or be able, to embrace. Some libraries may be able to move into that community leadership role easily, while others will meet strong community and political resistance. Success or failure will depend upon knowing just what kind of community your library exists within.

Most participants in the Public Innovators Lab for Libraries seemed positive in their outlook, but there was some concern. “It’s a big shift in focus” was a recurring comment. “Daunting” was also often heard.

However, the tools Harwood provides are powerful. Conversations and stories have significant strength. Positioning your library as an outward facing community participant is a wise and pragmatic course. The steps and knowledge for doing that were given to every participant. Whether they choose to become a catalyst for local change, or just to better identify and match their brand to their community’s needs and wants, is up to each individual library. But I have no doubt that most every participant left feeling encouraged and empowered, and with some plan of action in hand.

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