Have you thought about using the Turning Outward to Your Community step-by-step guide to better understand and connect with your library’s community? In this month’s MLS Community Engagement Blog interview, Jean Canosa Albano, Assistant Director for Public Services at the Springfield City Library, shares her experience and insights from participating in the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative.
How did your library “turn outward to your community” using the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s process?
Jean Canosa Albano: We are part of the Libraries Transforming Communities cohort, having received a grant from the American Library Association to learn about the Harwood Institute’s philosophy and methods of community engagement. My team of five staff members traveled to Denver, Chicago, and San Francisco for intensive training, and we learned about reframing the community narrative away from the negative (“we’ve tried that before,” “in the old days it worked better like this,” and “nothing ever works”) to a more positive, aspirational narrative (“we should have more opportunities to be outside in the community,” “a better mentorship network will help our community,” and “more discussion and conversation will lead to better coordination between neighbors and community agencies”). We learned how to turn outward, and base our policy and programmatic decisions on what we know about the community, rather than sitting around a board room, drawing on statistics, census data, and what other libraries are doing.
What did you learn about your community through the process?
Imagine a beloved park or a community center that you’ve visited for years or that symbolizes neighborhood pride. Suddenly, you find that park padlocked, or the community center boarded up. What would that feel like? For our neighborhood residents, that spot was a small park adjacent to the Mason Square Branch Library that commemorates the location of the first game of basketball. When it first opened, it was a source of pride for neighborhood residents. But for over a year, its lighted glass panels had been boarded up. Through a series of Community Conversations, we heard about how unhappy people were with the delay in repair, and their belief that the panels were boarded up because of a fear of vandalism, not actual vandalism. This lack of trust between residents and institutions came across in many other ways, too, including participants telling us how hard it can be to mail a letter when the corner mailboxes have been removed from their streets. We carried this information forward, and other neighbors took action as well, and soon, the panels were uncovered, and the community took pride in the restoration of this space that connects the sport’s past to today. When basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton recently visited Springfield, he came to the Mason Square Branch for a read-aloud, then toured the basketball park with dozens of Head Start students. It was a great day!
How is your library staff using what you learned?
We have used the Innovation Space technique to think about what we have been learning. It’s a way to pause and reflect and make sure that what we are doing matches what we are hearing from the community. For example, we used the practice to look at our Hi!Tech computer classes, revising the format and focusing on outcomes. Our monthly reports now include a section headed What Are We Hearing from the Community? We are not simply looking for comments on the library schedule or collections. We want to know what our community members’ aspirations and challenges are. Once, a librarian happened to mention the difficulty patrons have expressed getting jobs due to their CORI status. This is what we should be listening for. It lets us know that when a community group wants to hold a session on seeking employment post-incarceration, or if we have an opportunity to offer a program on closing a criminal record after paying your dues, that those are programs that will be of interest to members of our community. Continue reading