March 17, 2018

Asking for More: Four New Approaches to Community Engagement | Editorial

Ask not what you can do but what your community members can—when they’re effectively engaged. That was one of the messages I heard at the recent Next Library conference in Aarhus, Denmark. This small and intense global convening brought me many new ideas, among them the insight that we may be selling short the people our libraries serve by not asking enough of them. Think of it as volunteerism, flipped and multiplied.

The concept was offered by Peter MacLeod, a principal at MASS LBP, an advisory firm based in Toronto. His keynote presented a case for a new approach to community engagement that puts the public in the center of problem-solving, calling on a deeper personal contribution from those who want to step up to bring about an as-yet-unknown solution.

Basically, MacLeod’s challenge is to trust members of the public more, involve them more deeply, and figure out ways to help them to help address pressing issues for the community as a whole. We need it like never before, he claimed, because democracy is under extreme pressure. Where inequality is on the rise, he argued, so are health and social problems and stress for people living in compromised conditions. MacLeod framed what he referred to as a disinvestment in social infrastructure in stark terms. “We have been kicking the legs out from under society for years,” he said.

Now we face accelerating climate change and a highly polarized political dynamic that emphasizes competition over practical resolutions, he added. The challenges are massive and need a new strategy to navigate successfully. His answer: trust the public, which he believes has been demonized, caricatured as an unstable “risky force.” Democracy, he contended, when “done right,” is a process wherein one takes on responsibility to speak to the needs of others through representation. “We need the public as a source in our society because it’s the only thing that can make our society cohesive,” he said.

Libraries have a special, even radical role in this effort, MacLeod stated, because they exist in a commons and place a high and equal priority on everyone they serve. Of course, engaging everyone equally presents a concern when constituents don’t have equal time and support to invest in unpaid labor. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. “It’s a radical thing that when everyone talks austerity, you illustrate abundance,” he said, noting the sharing ethos and the embrace of an equitable society as a goal. Libraries are well suited to help because their work is “not just about organizing knowledge, it’s about organizing communities.”

To that end, he offered four ideas. The first is to ask “What should everyone know?” and respond with a Civic Curriculum. This information tool would put civic literacy on a new plane, helping people to be more informed about and able to engage with public services—and then measure and track the impact of the tool.

The second: “host a civic observatory” to identify and track a community’s “vital signs”—such as leadership, transportation, income inequality, workforce, and more—to see what is working and what is not and address the gaps.

Which leads to the third idea: “launch annual civic challenges” that “partner people with government” to focus on a defined problem. Here he cited the project Canada undertook to pair groups of volunteers with refugee families for mentoring and financial support. We need to scale up “our expectations for civic engagement around challenges” for the people, he said. “They’ll have the opportunity to live out a different expression of citizenship that is more about barn raising.”

The fourth idea asks, “What decisions can we make together?” It flips the top-down dynamic of the town hall to “practice democracy between elections” through “a civic interface with government.” Referring to a lottery used in Canada to invite people to serve on a task force, MacLeod set a high bar for ongoing, effective involvement designed to let people bring their skills to bear on real problems.

“People want a say, but they’re also willing to serve,” MacLeod said. “The problem isn’t that we’ve been asking too much of people but too little.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. Maxine Bleiweis says:

    I also had the opportunity to attend Next Library and saw the results of the philosophy Rebecca writes about. One Aarhus branch library set aside funds in their budget for the express purpose of creating a community-created improvement. After receiving many suggestions, the branch selected a project to create teen space and worked with neighborhood teens. It was inspiring and produced results in higher participation and feelings of ownership.

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