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With funding from the American Library Association's Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries initiative, Montour Falls Library in New York planned a series of book discussions around social justice topics.
Kelly Povero is the assistant library director for Montour Falls Library. Montour Falls is a village of around 1700 people in rural Schuyler County, New York. Povero described the library as a “central hub in Montour” which already hosts book clubs, art and music events, and donation drives for the local community. However, the library had never hosted discussions on potentially controversial topics. To do effective community engagement work, Povero says she has learned the importance of becoming comfortable with uncomfortable topics (especially when others voice viewpoints contrary to your own), having patience, and embracing a willingness to learn.
Povero selected 9 books on a wide range of social issues for a once-monthly Community Reads program. Using the LTC grant funding, she bought copies for the Montour Falls Library and three nearby libraries in the Southern Tier Library System, as well as e-book and audiobook editions which could be borrowed online. At the time of our interview, she had already hosted five events, with the series scheduled to continue through November 2021. Out of these, four were held virtually through Zoom and one in a hybrid format with both virtual and in-person attendees.
Attendance thus far has been low, despite advertising with printed flyers, in local newspapers, and on Facebook. The first two discussions focused on topics of anti-racism and indigenous peoples, and the fifth, on health and wellness, were attended only by other library staff. The third discussion, for the book "Men Who Hate Women" by Laura Bates, had one community member attend. The most-attended discussion was on a local history topic and had 10 participants split between Zoom and in-person. However, despite low attendance at the events themselves, the books are being read – Povero counted 77 checkouts between March and July, which she indicated was a significant number for this community. She explained that “They're either thinking about [the topic] or they may be talking about it and sharing what they're reading with somebody else. And I think that's just as important as having 20 people show up to your book club.”
Success is not measured in attendance
The discussion on "Men Who Hate Women" provided evidence to support this – even though only one person attended, the participant was very engaged with the topic, and described how they had carried the book around, exposing others to the topic and potentially sparking discussion among people who did not attend the library event. She points to a truth often repeated by libraries engaged in the work of LTC: “The work is hard and long.” This can be especially true for libraries serving small and rural communities, where it can take a long time to establish a new initiative, where “success” may not be best measured in terms of attendance rates. “A lot of the programs we do in rural libraries...they don't always have people show up. They don't always take off right away. I mean, we've had programs that you see very little interest in for almost a year, and then all of a sudden, people start realizing it's there. And they come around.” Povero encourages other library workers in a similar position not to get discouraged if they are still in the early stages of their community engagement efforts. Read more about redefining program success.
“People are uncomfortable. People don't like to talk about these things.”
Povero identified several potential reasons that the events were less popular than she had hoped. The books for discussion were presented with the social issue each book focused on, which may have been off-putting to some. Regardless of the topic, programs in rural libraries “don’t always take off right away,” sometimes taking close to a year to reach consistent attendance. Social media advertising was done through a separate Facebook group, rather than Facebook events on the library’s page (this has already been changed for the September event). She plans to continue the planned events and has secured community partners for the next three discussions. (To date, the only discussion for which an external partner agreed to co-host was the local history topic, in partnership with the Schuyler County Historical Society.) Povero noted that as she herself was not an expert in any of these topic areas, the role that community partners can play becomes that much more important. This aspect is one of the most important parts of her community engagement efforts through the grant.
Povero found ALA’s eCourse and Facilitation Guide valuable in preparing to host community discussions. While she had some experience leading casual book clubs on Facebook, she described leading discussion as intimidating, and said that being able to refer back to the Guide was a source of comfort. She also spoke positively about the eCourse, particularly the activities provided at the end of each module to reinforce learning. While Povero was not a participant in ALA’s coaching calls, she found the ALA Connect forums helpful for gaining perspective on other libraries’ experiences. As someone who wants to bring more explicit attention to DEI and social justice issues in her community, Povero noted that it could be helpful to have access to others with expertise in these areas while planning conversation events. “I do think it would be nice to have maybe a network of people who…may be specialized in DEI that were willing to take questions or have one-on-one meetings with some grant members…Just having people you can reach out to, to help guide a little bit…answer questions and help you reflect.”
Explore the facilitation resources that Montour Falls Library used as part of this work.
Written by Knology. Knology is a nonprofit research organization that produces practical social science for a better world. The organization pursues this goal to help professionals in a variety of sectors build inclusive, informed, and cooperative societies that can thrive together with the natural systems on which we all depend. As a transdisciplinary collective of over 30 social scientists, writers, and educators, the organization's work process is built on equity, transparency, and deliberation.