Suffolk (Va.) Public Library: Turning Outward to Chuckatuck

Suffolk (Va.) Public Library is one of 10 libraries that took part in an intensive 18-month training in the Turning Outward approach as part of ALA's Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) initiative. Here, Assistant Director Sarah Townsend shares how and why her library took on new community engagement strategies and how they're changing the library's culture.

Sarah Townsend

American Library Association: What was your library doing before its involvement with Libraries Transforming Communities?

Sarah Townsend: Before the training, our library was really good at serving the people who already visited the library. But we weren’t actively trying to find people who weren’t coming through our doors.

At the time of training, we had just started an outreach department, which consisted of me and one other person. We were developing pop-up libraries, meeting people in the community and reintroducing them to the library.  But in terms of  having a long-term framework — something that could help us integrate what we now call the Turning Outward mentality into our work culture and philosophy — we needed some help. 

ALA: What made you interested in the LTC initiative? 

ST: When the LTC information popped up in my inbox, our library was talking about building a new downtown library. (That project is now on hold, after some recent political changes.) We were interested in getting some help creating a building that wasn’t necessarily just filled with books, but would be responsive to community needs. We had a blank slate – did we need a learning kitchen? Did we need a gardening space? We wanted to know our community’s needs without coming to the discussion with a certain angle or agenda, and LTC sounded like it would give us the tools to do that.

ALA: You mentioned that before LTC, your library needed help Turning Outward. What does Turning Outward mean to you?

ST: Turning Outward is how we approach our work. When we make a decision, our first point of reference is the community. We’re listening to what the community wants, rather than assuming we know what they want, or justifying what we want.

Turning Outward means building relationships, having real conversations with people, putting in the legwork and getting to know people outside the decision-makers and regular patrons.

ALA: How has the Turning Outward approach changed how your library makes decisions?

A Suffolk resident holds up a sign that she wrote, stating "I want to live in a community that is youthful and crime free!! Our youth need love!!"

ST: We’re still working on integrating the process into our decision-making. But informally, it’s changed how we approach our executive team. When we get together to talk about new, internal policies or issues, we actively try to get community’s perspective and bring community members to the table. Our challenge now is how to make that approach carry through to our front-line supervisors, our librarians, the rest of our staff. We’re starting by plugging all of our librarians into community groups, like civic organization or businesswomen’s meet-up groups, so some component of their job is just to interact in the community, to get to know people, look for ways to connect, without an agenda.

ALA: What has your library done so far with the LTC training you received?

ST: We focused a lot of our work in the Chuckatuck community, a small village surrounded by rural areas in Suffolk. We held a series of community conversations in Chuckatuck, and we learned three main things: residents want to know their neighbors, they want to feel more of a connection, and they want more access to information. Some of this is complicated because, historically, there are some divisions in the community.

Right now we’re working on creating outdoor space at a library in Chuckatuck because currently there are no playgrounds or places for families to hang out. We also want to do a volunteer match — a day of service where it’s neighbors helping neighbors.

Showing up to civic meetings, getting to know people, listening and trying to find ways that we can connect people – that’s what it’s been about so far. We hope, as we start to put some energy back into that now, that we can then replicate what we did and adapt it to additional neighborhoods later.

ALA: Which of the Harwood tools did you find most useful?

ST: We used the Ask exercise a lot. We integrated it into our pop-up libraries. We adapted one question – what do you hope for your community? – into a speech bubble and took pictures of people with their responses. It was a quick way to gather new perspectives. The community conversation tool was great, but we found it difficult to draw in new audiences. Our goal this year is to hold more community conversations and be more diligent about getting diverse voices involved. That’s another benefit of the Ask exercise – since it’s so short, people don’t need to commit to a 90-minute conversation.

ALA: What advice would you give to a library that is thinking about starting this work?

ST: There were times we were going through this process when we felt a little overwhelmed. You’re really opening yourself up to what the community wants and needs, and sometimes that can be a lot to take in. My advice is to remember that you don’t have to solve all of your community’s problems, but to actively try and listen to them. That’s what this approach is about: being at the table, listening to the community, and finding the place where you can connect and make a difference.

Don’t worry if it’s not big and flashy. Try something. Maybe in your management team meetings, before you make a decision, say, “Hey, how about we get some community perspective on this?” That’s huge.