November 19, 2017

Civic Engagement at LJ’s Directors’ Summit 2017

It may not always be sunny in Philadelphia, but Library Journal’s 2017 Directors’ Summit, held November 2–3 at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), saw blue skies and warm days—all the better to tour FLP’s revamped spaces, network on the Parkway Central Library’s rooftop terrace, and learn from a dynamic collection of directors, librarians, and library partners who offered up their knowledge and experience. The theme of this year’s summit, the library’s role in civic reinvention and the new face of public engagement, was expanded upon through keynotes, talks, panels, tours, and hands-on demonstrations that kept the audience of more than 100 enthusiastic throughout.

Before the Summit kicked off on Thursday, a morning tour brought attendees to FLP’s Logan Library and Lillian Marrero Library, which had so recently undergone extensive renovation and expansion that Logan wasn’t even reopened yet, and the Lillian Marrero had had a soft launch but not its full grand reopening ceremony. The afternoon ended with a tour of ongoing renovation taking place at FLP’s Parkway Central Library. Directors reconvened at the Central Library’s Skyline Room for lunch and a welcome from LJ editorial director Rebecca T. Miller and FLP president and director Siobhan Reardon, LJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year.

FLP's Central Library; Siobhan Reardon and Rebecca T. Miller; attendees network on the rooftop terrace

Sunny in Philadelphia (clockwise from left): FLP’s Central Library; Siobhan Reardon and Rebecca T. Miller; attendees network on the rooftop terrace

PUBLIC LIBRARIANS, PUBLIC LIFE

The day’s events continued on a high note, with the opening keynote presented by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Already a hero to many in the room, Hayden won the crowd over completely with the admission that she still sees herself as a public librarian in her new role—just on a larger scale than before. She compared her mission to democratize access to the extensive holdings of the Library of Congress (LC) to what the assembled directors do every day, describing how she overcame trepidation at LC about plans to invite the public in—and bring some of LC’s treasures out—for events coordinated with Comic Con, DC Pride, or Halloween, or organizing a youth center for LC. “Don’t we want to grow scholars?” Hayden asked. “Because we have all this wonderful stuff and what if you don’t grow them and nobody will use it?”

 Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden delivers the opening keynote

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden delivers the opening keynote to a rapt crowd

Hayden also mentioned that LC has become a nonpartisan “safe zone” for discussion for members of Congress—similar to the work of convening conversations being done in libraries across the country. “You are really the boots on the ground,” she told the assembled room. “This is where it happens.”

"Making Room for Public Life" panelists (l-r): Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of the Gehl Institute; Jamie Gauthier, executive director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy; and Matt A.V. Chaban, policy director of the Center for an Urban Future

“Making Room for Public Life” panelists (l-r): Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of the Gehl Institute; Jamie Gauthier, executive director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy; and Matt A.V. Chaban, policy director of the Center for an Urban Future

The discussion that followed, “Making Room for Public Life,” took a look at civic organizations working to reinvent public spaces. Moderator Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the DC Public Library, invited the panel of speakers from outside the library sphere—Matt Chaban, policy director of the Center for an Urban Future; Jamie Gauthier, executive director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy; and Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of the Gehl Institute—to talk about their projects, processes, and challenges and the trends they see.

All championed programs that encourage a seamless approach to public life across the silos of the agencies tasked with administering its individual pieces and that build social capital—less sprawl and more engagement mean that shared spaces such as public parks and pedestrian malls become wins for the entire community, helping to boost prosperity, sustainability, and a sense of common experience. Panelists also touched on data gathering, getting civic projects on the radar of elected officials, and finding common ground with partners.

Partnerships were also top of mind in the next panel, led by LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz, “What the City Needs from the Library or ‘Ask Not What the City Can Do For You.…’” Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker; Mike DiBerardinis, managing director of the City of Philadelphia; and Andrea Blackman, division manager for the Special Collections Division and director of the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library (NPL), the 2017 Gale/LJ Library of the Year, offered three very different, yet complementary, approaches to helping create equitable communities.

“What the City Needs from the Library..." panelists (l-r): Andrea Blackman, division manager for the Special Collections Division and director of the Civil Rights Room at Nashville PL; Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago PL; and Mike DiBerardinis, managing director of the City of Philadelphia

“What the City Needs from the Library…” panelists (l-r): Andrea Blackman, division manager for the Special Collections Division and director of the Civil Rights Room at Nashville PL; Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago PL; and Mike DiBerardinis, managing director of the City of Philadelphia

DiBerardinis, whose office oversees all city departments, maintains an overarching focus on poverty reduction, social value, and sustainability, which he described as the key goals for all of Philadelphia’s city administration. The “sweet spot” for all departments, he noted—including the library—is to find out how each can support those overall values while meeting its historic mission. Bannon discussed his criteria for creative partnerships and surfaced a few of CPL’s collaborations with other city and civic agencies, including Learning Circles, which support distance learners at the library, and On the Table discussions, hosted by the Chicago Community Trust, which bring together community members to engage in civic conversation. Blackman offered a history of NPL’s Civil Rights and a Civil Society initiative, which brings Nashville’s law enforcement recruits to library’s Civil Rights Room to learn from local history. The program, which started out two years ago as a “social experiment,” said Blackman, now brings in law officers throughout Tennessee as well as civilians, from K–12 students to leaders of corporations.

Kansas City PL executive director R. Crosby Kemper III

Kansas City PL executive director
R. Crosby Kemper III

The afternoon’s final speaker, Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) executive director R. Crosby Kemper III, asked the (only semi-rhetorical) question, “Dear James Madison, Is This the End of the First Amendment?: Collaboration in Times of Civic Controversy.” He referenced an incident in May 2016, in which Steve Woolfolk, the KCPL director of public programming, was arrested while trying to keep the peace at a library event. Woolfolk was eventually exonerated last September. But during the year and a half over which the case dragged out, Kemper recalled, he had ample opportunity to reflect on freedom of speech as a contestation of ideas, how local knowledge and discussion have the potential to mitigate many situations, the need for libraries as a necessary conduit for civil conversation, and the pitfalls of partnerships with other city and civic entitles that don’t share common values and a common understanding of their role.

PLACE, FOOD, COMPASSION, AND LEADERSHIP

Neeraj Mehta, director of Community Programs at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs

Neeraj Mehta, director of Community Programs at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs

Neeraj Mehta, director of Community Programs at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), led off Friday morning with a thought-provoking and engaging keynote address on “Place in Principle, Policy, and Practice.” Mehta touched on a wide range of subjects—race, income disparity, economic development, neighborhoods, exclusion, personal engagement, fear—all of which contributed to his examination of how to enact equitable community change. Premising his talk on the reality that “fighting for equitable geographies, cities in which everyone, regardless of income, can comfortably live, is complicated,” Mehta ultimately exhorted the room to help their communities move past the temptation to isolate in clumps with those like themselves. Stories have the power to mediate our anxiety, he noted, and libraries are an important part of that. He added, “Don’t be agnostic! Be active, lean in, organize.”

Volunteers contribute to a demonstration of FLP's Culinary Literacy program

Volunteers contribute to a demonstration of FLP’s Culinary Literacy program

The following session showcased FLP’s Culinary Literacy Center (CLC), a groundbreaking department that has spent the last three years advancing community literacy through kitchen-based programs that range from regional cooking classes to Cooking with Confidence, a class for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities; Cookability, for those with visual impairments; and Edible Alphabet classes, which use cooking and recipes as a vehicle for English Language Learners. CLC administrator Elizabeth Fitzgerald (a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker) was joined by CLC librarians Jamie Bowers and Suzanna Urminska in a demonstration. Attendees swapped soup recipes and volunteers chopped vegetables, while the librarians answered questions about the programming. Everyone had a chance to sample the final product, a carrot coriander soup with bruschetta, during the break.

Richard Kong, director of Skokie PL

Richard Kong, director of Skokie PL

Richard Kong, director of the Skokie Public Library, IL, and a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker, spoke on “Developing an Organizational Culture To Support Innovation and Engagement.” Kong addressed the internal work he and his team at Skokie did to build intentionality within the library—developing shared values, attitudes, standards, beliefs, goals, and practices. Taking lessons learned from the Harwood Institute Public Innovators Lab for Libraries (cohosted with the American Library Association), Kong asked, “What would it look like if more leaders demonstrated compassion?” and applied that to the work of the library.

“The Director’s Evolving Role” panelists (l-r): Meridian Library District, ID, director Gretchen Caserotti; San Antonio Public Library director Ramiro Salazar; and FLP’s Siobhan Reardon

“The Director’s Evolving Role” panelists (l-r): Meridian Library District, ID, director Gretchen Caserotti; San Antonio Public Library director Ramiro Salazar; and FLP’s Siobhan Reardon

Capping off the summit, the author, Library Journal Associate News Editor Lisa Peet, moderated a panel on “The Director’s Evolving Role,” featuring FLP’s Reardon, San Antonio Public Library director Ramiro Salazar, and Meridian Library District, ID, director Gretchen Caserotti. The directors, who each stepped in to helm their libraries at times of major change, discussed how they negotiated the shifts in perspective they needed to succeed—and the programs and innovations that arose from those readjustments. Many of these changes came from the growing need for partnerships outside the library, as well as funding issues that forced the leaders to be creative about their collaborations. From getting the library to the table with city officials to convincing staff to take on the necessary work to bringing an entire system up to speed technologically, the three looked at what worked for them—and what didn’t—as well as where to go for inspiration.

Photos by Kevin Henegan

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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