February 24, 2018

Rich Harwood on Libraries as Change Agents, Turning Outward, and the Need for Qualitative Data

Rich_Harwood_headshotRich Harwood is an author, public speaker, and the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to change in the public sphere. Since its establishment in 1998, the institute has worked with such partners as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, and the United Way Worldwide, as well as civic groups across the country, to help them develop innovation strategies guided by community engagement.

Harwood has always viewed libraries as strong agents of social and civic change. In 2001 he met Nancy Kranich, then president of the American Library Association (ALA), and the two began an ongoing conversation about specific ways in which the institute’s tools could help libraries. In 2013 he joined forces with ALA to launch the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities project, a yearlong initiative to help libraries focus on civic engagement as a way to move their message forward.

The result is the Public Innovators Lab for Libraries, an intensive three-day training session for librarians and library stakeholders on how to utilize Harwood’s “turning outward” approach, and to better align themselves with the communities they serve, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The first session was held in Washington, DC, in 2013. A report on one held in Atlanta in October 2014 can be found here. LJ recently caught up with Harwood himself to discuss his work with libraries:

How did you move from your own community engagement to running these workshops with ALA?

My interest in libraries is that they’re essential to the civic life of communities, and as you know they’re gateways for immigrants, for nontraditional learners, for people learning financial literacy skills, for all of us in terms of deepening our knowledge. And unlike a lot of groups that we work with, libraries still have a great reservoir of trust in communities that a lot of community and public institutions no longer have. I think they’re essential right now to helping us rebuild our sense of connection to one another, and the ability of communities to come together and solve problems together.

How are libraries different from the other nonprofits you work with?

With some groups there often is a kind of skepticism about community. With librarians and other library staff I’ve found none of that resistance. Actually I’ve found a keen desire to engage with communities. There’s much more “let’s go, I want to learn.”

How is your approach different from standard library outreach? One of your ALA worksheet checklists defines “outreach” as “inward facing,” which is different from the way I understand it.

What we keep finding is that the more relevant organizations want to be, the more inward they turn. They think, “If I just do another strategic plan, here in my conference room, I will be more effective. If I do another reorg I’ll be more effective.” The problem is in each of these instances, they tend to do these activities disconnected from the very communities they’re trying to serve.

The other thing that we’ve found is that the more pressure an organization feels under, the more they hunker down and do what they’re comfortable doing and know how to do. At these very points we need to be turning outward toward the community—to make the community the reference point for what we do, not our conference room. And what we have found is that libraries tend to be no different from other organizations that we’ve worked with. There’s a turning inward.

Outreach activities, whether in public broadcasting or libraries or any other group that we’ve worked with, tend to be around something the organization has created that they want to promote. A lot of times the things they’ve created don’t necessarily reflect the aspirations and concerns of the community itself; they reflect what that organization wanted to create or thought they should create.

Libraries, like other community institutions, need to be aligned with the things that actually matter to people in their community if they want to be relevant and have impact. The good news is that when I talk to librarians and people who work in libraries they get visibly excited about these possibilities, because intuitively this is where they know they should be, and this is why they went into working in libraries in the first place.

Do you feel this community approach is scalable to neighborhoods in urban areas, where the community’s needs might be bigger than libraries alone can address?

What we’re teaching libraries will enable them to better understand the variation of aspirations across a community, so that we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Our work is about more than conversations, it’s about figuring out the strategies that feed your local context, how you develop enabling environments that actually can support the initiatives you’re developing.

Nancy Kranich has shown how your approach can work for academic libraries, and you speak to public librarians—have you looked at ways that K-12 librarians can use your tools?

We haven’t yet, but we’re interested in it. The head of the New York State Library Association [NYLA] is from K-12, and the reason she asked me to speak [Harwood was the keynote speaker at the 2014 NYLA Annual Conference and Trade Show] is that she’s so excited about the application of this to schools. We live in highly acrimonious and seemingly divisive times, and I think kids and schools hold the possibility for communities to come together and figure out how they want to move forward.

You ask public innovators to focus on the community’s wants and needs, which translates into qualitative rather than quantitative data. How can library leaders reconcile this with the need for numbers in assessment?

It’s true that most professionals are trained to value expert knowledge—data, evidence-based decision making, best practices—and I would say they’re all really important. Public knowledge, those things only a community can generate—our shared aspirations, the way we define common challenges, things of that nature—those things can only come from engaging the community. With librarians, what I’ve experienced is that…they want to know both. I’ve experienced very little resistance [in libraries]. The desire to be connected, to support the community, is incredible.

Do you have any favorite success stories from libraries that have worked with your tools?

There was a librarian who took over the Youngstown Mahoning (OH) Public Library system maybe 15 years ago. His budget was cut in half right after he was appointed—this is when the mills had closed down, the auto industry had been hit hard. Unbeknownst to us—this is long before I ever met him—he started using some of our work. He started going out to engage the community; he learned about its financial literacy concerns, and he also learned about divisions within the community. As they started to convene the community they began to regain its trust, and lo and behold over time that money was restored through public levy. Not only was it restored—they actually got money to rebuild a lot of branch libraries, and they used our approach to figure out where those libraries should be situated.

In one of the stories he tells, he decided to place a library across the boundary of two different neighborhoods because the neighborhoods weren’t coming together, there was no social cohesion. He put the library on the border, he built community meeting spaces, and that library has flourished in bringing the different communities together. They then built a collective action around financial literacy, which has been successful, and have brought people together on education issues.

What would you say to a librarian who wants to be an innovator—what can someone do right now, tomorrow, without waiting for funding?

We’re holding workshops at ALA conferences, and there are some being held at other statewide conferences, where we have tools called Harwood in a Half Hour—they’re free, you can download them off our website, and they’re on ALA’s website.

When we looked at our evaluations of how people in local communities were spreading our work without us, we started to hear the same lessons and stories, and that’s what we turned into these half hour tools. We found that people were using them in other groups and on boards without any training—they brought them to a board meeting, to a conference, to a church basement, and just started to apply them. Those are all available to libraries and I’d say pick up those tools and start using them tomorrow. We know they work because we learned from the field what was working.

What in this work with libraries has resonated for you?

For me what becomes really important is that…for most folks who use our work, it has helped them rediscover their own sense of personal mission, why they believe deeply in community, why they believe that one person can make a difference and [that] collections of people can truly make a difference. It helps restore their faith that, as divisive and acrimonious as our public life can be, we can actually get on a better path. I think as people use our work they regain their confidence that that’s the case, and that there’s a practical way for them to start taking steps forward.

There are a lot of bad things happening, but there’s an innate goodness in all of us, and part of our work is about tapping into that, and helping each of us fulfill our potential.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.