Listening to the Community: Thinking in Different Ways

Posted by Alice Knapp on October 26, 2017 at 11:59 AM

The Ferguson Library was undergoing leadership transition when the Aspen Institute report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Your Public Library, came out in October 2014. I had been president of the library for just two months. The report motivated me to work with the Connecticut State Library on hosting a public dialogue on the future of public libraries, which was held in March, 2015.


Library:  Multi-branch | Location: Stamford, CT  |  Population:  126,000+ | White: 53% | Hispanic: 24% Black: 13% | Visitors:  Nearly 1 million annually | Budget:  $8.5 million 

Shortly thereafter, in 2015, we were approached by the Aspen Institute to be a member of the pilot group who would review, implement and provide feedback on its soon-to-be-released Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library. The Action Guide is phenomenal and gave us a tool to see how we could bring about rapid change in our organization. The Guide meshes so well with the tool set that came out of the Harwood Institute.

It got us thinking in different ways. Just by going through the process as a team (maintenance and security were included in the discussions as well as the public services staff), we began to function differently.  Our hierarchical structure began to break down.  As a team, we began to focus on the outcomes that we wanted. We set goals and developed processes that would enable us to realize those outcomes. This resulted in a strong sense of pride for all involved, and my staff at all levels were enjoying the process. We discovered that we were part of the solution to myriad problems in our city.

By working through the Action Guide, we did a thorough review of what we were doing and programs we were offering. We explored changes we needed to make to our physical space to better meet the needs of library users, and we were able to determine how well we were aligned with community needs.

With knowledge about what we do well and what we could do better, we used the Action Guide as the foundation for hosting a series of community dialogues and in reviewing our strategic plan. These dialogues were in addition to our Community Catalyst Conversations.

Community Catalyst Conversations

We hold monthly conversations in partnership with the University of Connecticut and the Interfaith Council on various topics that pertain to issues going on in Stamford. One month, we may talk about homelessness and the next month transportation. We’ve also learned from attendees that spending one session on a topic is not enough time. We are planning to have each topic span a three-month period with the following structure:

  1. An academic overview of the issue
  2. More narrative storytelling around the issue
  3. In-depth discussion that results in a white paper to give to city officials

While we are making modifications to our monthly discussions, we’ve learned a great deal – some of which is being incorporated into our strategic planning. Just as important, we just received a grant from the CT Humanities Council to work with Every Day Democracy. By fall 2017, we will be hosting Community Conversations around race and equity. We have over 10 partnering organizations and the conversations will be held across Stamford.

Public Dialogues on the Future

In April 2016, we began a series of Public Dialogues on the future of The Ferguson Library. To have a constant thread through each of the conversations, I developed a five-minute PowerPoint presentation on information in the Aspen report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, and I talk about the library as People, Place and Platform and then either the branch supervisor or another staff member talks about the services that we provide. We then break up into small group discussions.

We discuss community issues, and we learn from attendees what’s important to them in terms of library programming. We get really good feedback mainly around platform and people.

In March 2017, the supervisors, Board of Trustees and Citizen Advisers, held a retreat where we discussed the feedback that we received from the Public Dialogues. This feedback will be our guide as we develop the next reiteration of our strategic plan 2017-2020.

Strategic Planning and Aligning Priorities

We are still using our current strategic plan, but last year, we asked ourselves if the strategic plan was the right plan. Are we headed in the right direction? What do we need to tweak mid-target to move forward?

What we found in going through the Action Guide was reaffirming and confirmed that we are moving in the right direction. The goals that we set for ourselves back in 2013 were still relevant. Some of the ways we are achieving those goals have changed dramatically; part of that is timing.

A great example of this is our goal to be an innovation hub and to develop a maker space. We had hired Jason as a maker space librarian and had already receive a grant from a local bank to put in the maker space, but as Jason worked through the Action Guide he began to think differently and held a focus group to see if his hunch was right.

Instead of being a straight-up maker space, we ended up putting in a recording studio based on the feedback he was receiving from the arts community. So, we used the community’s feedback to change direction.

We made another major shift in the Spring of 2016. Our library has been very involved with the Business Council of Fairfield County and the entrepreneurial small business world. The focus has been on attracting i-talent to come to Stamford. Through my involvement with this effort, I was approached by a gentleman who said, “What do you think if my company installed a virtual reality lab into the library? I would own all of the material, but I would train all of your librarians, and we’d hold workshops on virtual reality. Then, if it’s a fit, you can go and get your own equipment.”

This is the first time we’ve partnered with a for-profit company where we gave them the space at no cost. He trained all of our librarians, and in May we hosted our first Virtual Reality Hackathon.  It was a big success with three viable projects that came from a weekend of work. We’re now looking for grants to install a permanent and expanded virtual reality lab.

It all goes back to Aspen and aligning our priorities with the community’s priorities.

Alice Knapp
The Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT

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