Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change

Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change. Because our divided nation needs conversation more than ever. A free learning series from ALA and the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.

As trusted, neutral, safe spaces, libraries are ideal institutions to lead dialogue and deliberation efforts in communities.

But with numerous approaches to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to start. The American Library Association (ALA) and the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) have compiled this collection of resources to help libraries with their community engagement efforts. Whether you are just getting started or looking to expand your current efforts, we hope you will find this information valuable.

Interested in connecting with other like-minded library professionals? Join our Community Engagement Forum.

Questions? Contact ALA's Public Programs Office.

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Conversation Cafe

Conversation Cafés are open, hosted conversations in cafés as well as conferences and classrooms — anywhere people gather to make sense of our world. At a Conversation Café there is nothing to join, no homework, no agenda, just a simple process that helps to shift us from small talk to BIG talk, conversations that matter. It is a 90-minute hosted conversation, held in a public setting like a café, where anyone is welcome to join. A simple format helps people feel at ease and gives everyone who wants it a chance to speak — it’s also fine for people to simply listen.

Use Conversation Café when: You want participants to learn more about themselves, their community or an issue, and/or discover innovative solutions to problems. 

Topics suited for this model: Nearly anything! It is particularly suited for exploring topics (e.g. community, love, death), or for processing events or issues, like instances of violence or other crises in a community. 

Why we chose this model: This is an open-source, simple method, which allows for it to be adapted to whichever issue or topic is timely or desired. With training, libraries can run this kind of dialogue using minimal resources — which makes it particularly ideal for the smaller and rural libraries.

Explore our free Conversation Café learning sessions and resources

Essential Partners: Bold Explorations in CommunityEssential Partners’ method, called Reflective Structured Dialogue, helps people with fundamental disagreements over divisive issues develop the mutual understanding and trust essential for strong communities and positive action. It draws on strategies developed by family therapists to promote effective communication in the midst of painful differences. The method also incorporates insights and tools from mediation, interpersonal communications, appreciative inquiry, organization development, and psychology and neurobiology.

The model is characterized by a careful preparatory phase in which all stakeholders/sides are interviewed and prepared for the dialogue process. This approach enables participants to share experiences and explore questions that both clarify their own perspectives and help them become more comfortable around, and curious about, those with whom they are in conflict.

Use Essential Partners’ Reflective Structured Dialogue method when: There is a need to resolve conflicts, encourage community healing after a crisis or trauma, or improve relations among groups in your community. 

Topics suited for this process: Political polarization, Jewish-Muslim relations, race relations, and other value-based conflicts.

Why we chose this model: This method offers an approach to conflict resolution that seeks to restore trust, gain understanding and move toward collaborative action. This allows a campus community to engage deeply with one another on issues where there is great tension, and also could serve as a tool for thorough exploration of diverse perspectives on an issue.

Explore our free Essential Partners learning sessions and resources

Everyday DemocracyEveryday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process encourages diverse groups of people to come together, engage in inclusive and respectful dialogue, and find common solutions to community problems. Everyday Democracy’s process is suited for communities that want to build trust, relationships, and collaboration among residents and that want to examine issues of institutional racism and socioeconomic and other disparities.

The dialogues consist of groups of 8 to 10 people from different backgrounds and viewpoints who meet several times to talk about an issue. These community dialogues create spaces in which everyone has an equal voice and people try to understand each other’s views. They do not have to always agree with each other. The idea is to share concerns and look for ways to make things better. In its Dialogue to Change process, Everyday Democracy places a great deal of importance to using a “racial equity lens” at every stage of the process to ensure inclusiveness and that outcomes do not perpetuate or create new, but rather remove existing, disparities.

A trained facilitator drawn from the community helps the group focus on different views and makes sure the discussion goes well and that participants contribute action ideas. In a large-scale (or community-wide) dialogue program, people all over a neighborhood, city, county, school district or region participate in such dialogues over the same period of time. At the end of the dialogue rounds, participants come together in a large community meeting to work together on the action ideas that emerged from the dialogues.

Use Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process when: There is a need or desire to empower community members to solve complicated problems and take responsibility for the solutions.

Topics suited for this model: Community issues such as racism, violence, regional sprawl, and more. Any issue where community members need to be part of crafting a solution.

Why we chose this model: This approach brings together people both in smaller study circles, as well as in larger community gatherings. It's well suited for larger communities who need both the in-depth conversations in a smaller group and the larger community engagement to talk about ideas emerging from the smaller groups. It aims to result in action and change efforts

Explore our free Everyday Democracy learning sessions and resources

Future SearchUsed by communities and organizations, Future Search is a unique planning method that enables large, diverse groups to validate a common mission, take responsibility for action, and develop commitment to implementation. The meeting is task-focused. It brings together people from all walks of life into the same conversation — those with resources, expertise, formal authority and need. People tell stories about their past, present and desired future. Through dialogue they discover their common ground, and then they make concrete action plans.

The meeting design comes from theories and principles tested in many cultures for the past 50 years. It relies on mutual learning among stakeholders as a catalyst for voluntary action and follow-up. People devise new forms of cooperation that continue for months or years.

Use Future Search when: The method is especially useful in uncertain, fast-changing situations when it is important that everyone have the same large picture in order to act responsibly.

Topics suited for this model: Housing, employment, transportation, education, and more!

Why we chose this model: This is a method for strategic planning, which helps communities develop cooperative plans. Particularly for a smaller-sized community, libraries could serve as a facilitative leader for conversations in the community where plans need to be developed, as they are a key resource and gathering place.

Explore our free Future Search learning sessions and resources

Harwood InstituteThe Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s practice of Turning Outward is a step-by-step process intended to encourage leaders to use the community, rather than your conference room, as the reference point for your choices and judgments. Turning Outward entails taking steps to better understand communities; changing processes and thinking to make conversations more community-focused; being proactive to community issues; and putting community aspirations first.

The Turning Outward approach involves asking the right questions to find out what your community really wants, and bringing together the right teams to help make those dreams a reality. 

Use Turning Outward when: There is a desire to identify and learn more about your community’s needs and desires. Libraries around the country are using the approach to better understand their communities and to bring about positive change.

Topics suited for this model: Any conversation where community members are being tasked with exploring their aspirations, concerns, and what steps it might take to achieve those aspirations. This can apply to a variety of topics.  

Why we chose this model: This model has been crafted to help libraries strengthen their role as community leaders. It empowers libraries to lead the way in helping their communities identify the changes they would like to see, and further empowering the community to take action toward those changes. 

Explore our free Harwood Institute learning sessions and resources

National Issues ForumsNational Issues Forums offer citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues and to work toward creating reasoned public judgment. National Issues Forums is known for its careful issue framing and quality issue guides, which outline three or four different viewpoints.

Forums are neutrally moderated in a way that encourages positive interaction between people who are not expected to agree, but are encouraged to find a shared direction. For two or three hours, participants are led by a neutral moderator who encourages exploration and evaluation of several possible solutions to the issue at hand. Every solution comes with a set of costs and consequences that must be thoroughly measured. Only then do you know which costs participants are willing to bear. 

Use National Issues Forums when: You want to encourage exploration of tough public problems in increase public knowledge of the issue, and/or you wish to influence public decisions and policy. 

Topics suited for this model: Health care, immigration, policing, substance abuse, energy, climate change and more! National Issues Forums has materials in a variety of topics, including historical frameworks for reflecting on big issues in history.

Why we chose this model: This approach to deliberating the tough issues of today is already used in academic settings across the country to engage students and the broader campus community. It allows for deep exploration and evaluation of the options available to address specific issues, which gets participants thinking more deeply about the issue and what is at stake.

Explore our free National Issues Forums learning sessions and resources

The World CafeWorld Cafés enable groups of people to participate together in evolving rounds of dialogue while at the same time remaining part of a single, larger, connected conversation. Small, intimate conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas and discover new insights into questions or issues that really matter in their life, work or community. World Café-style conversations are a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes.

In a World Café, participants sit four or five to a table and have a series of conversational rounds about a question that is personally meaningful to them. After several rounds, each table reports out their themes, insights and learning to the whole group, where it is captured on flip charts or other means for making it visible, allowing everyone to reflect on what is emerging in the room.

Use World Café when: You want to encourage exploration of a topic, exploration of participants’ own views and experiences as well as the experiences of others, and/or to explore and develop innovative ideas and solutions.

Topics suited for this model: A whole range of topics can be adapted to a World Café process. You can explore topics important to your community, such as immigration and community building, religion, as well as planning issues, land use and more.

Why we chose this model: This collaborative dialogue method brings together smaller and larger groups of people in a series of small, conversational rounds. This allows for a larger community to engage at once together, but also in-depth among community members. It can be used for a variety of inquiries, topics or issues.

Explore our free World Café learning sessions and resources


These resources are offered as part of Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC): Models for Change, an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) and National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) that seeks to strengthen libraries' roles as core community leaders and agents of change. LTC: Models for Change is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). 

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Get started with the free e-course, "Libraries Transforming Communities: Facilitation Skills for Small and Rural Libraries."

LTC: Accessible Small and Rural Communities will offer more than $7 million in grants to better serve people with disabilities.

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Learn basic facilitation skills with ALA's free guide, "Leading Conversations in Small and Rural Libraries."