Libraries Transforming Communities: Origins and Outlook

As ALA and its partners roll out Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change, we thought it would be helpful to share ALA’s goals and the history behind this initiative.

Librarians: Facilitators and Change Leaders

A group of people sitting around a table talking at an ALA conference sessionOver the past 10 years, ALA has led the field by supporting a variety of community and civic engagement models for libraries, including projects such as Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion, and Engage: Teens, Art and Civic Engagement; the ALA Center for Civic Life; training from the Project on Civic Reflection and the National Issues Forum; and most recently, work with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Of course, libraries have been engaged in community and civic engagement for decades. ALA’s efforts built on a plethora of work by numerous state, public, academic, special and school library leaders who reset the boundaries of collaborative community engagement and change.

Now, more than ever, as the library landscape shifts and expands, conversation and community change have become central to the work we do. As R. David Lankes explained in his seminal “Atlas of New Librarianship” (MIT, 2011), librarianship and library practice have been recast “using the fundamental concept that knowledge is created through conversation. New librarians approach their work as facilitators of conversation; they seek to enrich, capture, store and disseminate the conversations of their communities.” This perspective, coupled with the experience of recent years of economic and social crisis, have shaped a need for community-centric skills among library workers.

ALA believe that preparing library leaders for their role in collaborative community change is an essential aspect of 21st-century librarianship. “The role and contribution of libraries in ensuring informed and engaged communities is critical to our society and the future of our democracy,” said Maureen Sullivan, 2015 ALA president. “Now is the time for librarians to assume this important leadership role.” And so in 2014, with renewed focus, we set out to help libraries become more skilled in this arena.

Libraries Transforming Communities (2014-15)

Cheryl Gorman of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation leads a conference sessionTo successfully position libraries to lead a collaborative approach to community engagement, innovation and change, we must support librarians in taking on the role of community facilitator. With funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ALA explored the public library sector’s need and capacity for community engagement resources through Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC).

This first phase of LTC — which included advanced work with a diverse cohort of 10 public libraries, as well as free professional development offerings for the wider field — focused on the Harwood Institute’s “Turning Outward” approach, but what we learned extended beyond this single methodology.

The outcomes from the “Turning Outward” phase of LTC were extremely promising; read our case studies for a sampling of our cohort libraries’ achievements. But beyond the work of any individual library, ALA was encouraged by the enthusiasm we saw across the field for resources that would enable libraries to bring communities together in pursuit of positive change.

Below is an overview of what we learned:

  • The public library sector’s appetite and capacity for community engagement training is significant.
  • Library professionals who pursued even limited learning opportunities (e.g., one-off 90-minute sessions) experienced attitudinal change. Those with more exposure to professional development opportunities gained skills, exhibited increased confidence and saw a shift in attitude.
  • Library professionals wanted training in other effective models for community engagement, including dialogue and deliberation, convening and movement to action.
  • The evaluation reports and summary created by NewKnowledge document significant positive attitudinal shifts from partner organizations, the media and community of the library as a change-making institution in community. 

Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change (2017-18)

These findings gave ALA the confidence to embrace the following premise:

When library professionals better understand and engage with their communities, libraries become stronger, more connected institutions, and librarians become more effective advocates for their patrons and their libraries.

Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change logo

So we set out to reach even more libraries in a second phase of the initiative — this time, both public and academic. The current phase of the initiative provides free training, networking opportunities and our promise to continue to share stories of library innovation in community engagement.

Since announcing Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change in December 2016, response from the library field has far surpassed our expectations — indicating, once again, libraries’ belief in the importance of this work.

To learn more, view our orientation webinar and sign up for our electronic discussion list to connect with your peers in this work and receive opportunity updates. ALA invites you to be a part of growing our field’s capacity for this work!

And as always, please continue to send your questions and stories to publicprograms@ala.org.

 

Mary Davis Fournier is deputy director of ALA's Public Programs Office and project director of Libraries Transforming Communities.