Politicking the Delicate Balance between Tradition and Change

Columbus (Wis.) Public Library is one of 10 libraries taking part in an intensive 18-month training in the “turning outward” approach. Here, Library Director Cindy Fesemyer talks about how her library is getting communication flowing between different factions of her changing town.

As a recipient of the ALA Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) grant, the team from Columbus, Wis., had a fantastic reason to engage with our community. The Harwood Institute trained us to “turn outward” and collect the aspirations of the community so the library can better reflect its needs and wants. So, obviously we did what we were told and tried all of the engagement tools we were taught, along with a couple of our own. And, wow, are we glad we did!

Cindy FesemyerI want to tell you a really big part of what we learned; it’s something that probably applies to you and your library, as well. But first, a little bit about Columbus. We’re a small community of about 5,000 people with a deep history rooted in agriculture and manufacturing. We’re located about 25 miles from Madison, a very progressive city that houses both the state capital and largest university in the state. 35 percent of the Columbus workforce commutes to the Madison area. To my mind, that doesn’t make us a bedroom community … yet. But more and more young families are moving to Columbus, where they get lots more house and yard for their real estate dollar over the Madison market. They’re also moving here because they want to raise their kids in an established, safe place with an historical small town feel. In short, we’re a community in transition.

Some folks here are excited by the influx of new ideas, creativity, dollars and opinions. Others really aren’t. This is the root of the matter for us here in Columbus. We are a community made up of the families that have been here for a few generations and the families that have been here for a few months. And let me tell you, political sparks fly when these two communities come together. That’s political with a little ‘p,’ mind you. Don’t even get me started on big ‘P’ politics. ;-)   

Along with this tension go all the usual reasons people disagree: age, education, political leanings, religious beliefs, skin color, economic level, language and probably lots of other things that haven’t occurred to me. So, that’s Columbus.

Now, back to what the LTC experience has helped us learn about our community. Here’s the BIG REVEAL. Dunt, duh, dah. There is tension in our community. (Duh!) Most folks who shared their aspirations with us named this problem within the first minute or two of the conversation. Specifically, the old-timers want the newbies to slow their roll on making changes to the town and show more respect for the history and tradition of the community. The transplants want the natives to jump into the 21st century and bend a little to accommodate inevitable change. In short, tradition vs. change.

This mean our job as the Harwood-trained Columbus Public Library crew is to help these disparate populations find a balance and co-exist in a complementary way. Per our training, we’ve chosen the role we will play in this balancing act. We think there’s power in simply getting people together. Put ‘em in the same room, feed them, give them a common theme for discussion and an outline for taking action steps on their ideas, and let the magic happen. 

For us, the magic takes the form of the “Root for Columbus” idea. Starting with a few small group projects that will be completed over the short months of Wisconsin summer, we’ll have visible proof that we can work together. Local artists will transform park benches into works of art, and we will all see that civic pride each time we visit the pool or the library or the coffee shop. And that’s cool. At this point though, the specific community projects that take place aren’t the point. The real point is that we did it together. 

The library is happy to leverage its position as a trusted public institution and throw a potluck. We’re happy to connect citizens with the materials and experts that will help them achieve their common vision. And we’re happy to report successes along the way. That’s the library’s commitment to our community via our Harwood training. Knowing that we all want what’s best for the Columbus area, we believe that simply hearing each other’s’ ideas and working together toward a common, achievable goal is creating the fulcrum upon which tradition and change can balance in our community.

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