Stories

The Potential of the Public Library

Topeka Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), Topeka, Kansas 

topeka.jpgThe Topeka Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) in Topeka, Kansas incorporated elements from the Rising to the Challenge vision report in a series of community conversations in the spring and summer of 2015. The conversations were co-convened with Heartland Visioning, a multi-year initiative that provides a community-wide forum to give voice to resident’s concerns and aspirations, verify community priorities, convene public and private partnerships and communicate with the public. The library used these community engagement events to seek community input as part of the library’s strategic planning process.

Senior staff of the library consulted worked with Dialogue advisors to create a program and presentation drawing on the vision report as well as other resources, and used a SOAR analysis as the primary facilitation technique (see Section 8 of the Action Guide for more information on SOAR analysis). The library created a handout for facilitators to use with each group attending the meetings. From May through August 2015, six 90-minute community engagement meetings were held throughout different regions of Topeka and Shawnee County (East/Central, Southwest, North, South/East, South, East/Central and All Areas). In addition to the geographic diversity, each location selected provided an unique opportunity to engage a different audience in the community.

The first meeting was held at the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library building in late May with invitations targeted to community leaders and elected officials. Subsequent events were held at a civic center, a community center, a bar and bistro, a church, the YMCA and a ministry facility serving immigrant communities. The meetings provided an opportunity for the TSCPL to help people understand better the potential of the public library in their lives and the life of the community. Perhaps more importantly, they offered an opportunity for the library staff to learn what residents of Topeka Shawnee County like about their community, what they would like to change, and what their aspirations are for the future.

Gina Millsap
Chief Executive Officer
Topeka Shawnee County Public Library
gmillsap@tscpl.org 


A Better Understanding of Our Role in the 21st Century

Middlebury Public Library, Middlebury, CT

The Middlebury Public Library is located in a small to medium size suburban town in Middlebury, CT.  Our population is 7,575 and our budget consists of 1.4% of tax allocation and is shrinking. The Middlebury Public Library is staffed by four full-time and four part-time employees and volunteers. We are a stand-alone library that relies on our State Library for additional support.

Our participation in the 10-week pilot program for the Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library resulted in a better understanding of our role as the Middlebury Public Library in the 21st century and how we can better serve our community. When we gathered to share and discuss the 2014 Report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, it opened lines of communication with our town officials and community leaders. Upon completion of the Action Guide, we discovered the library’s current areas of strength and weaknesses. As a result, we are evaluating our current programs and services to define new goals and to pinpoint areas of need and sustainability. This will aide us in strengthening our engagement with the Middlebury community. A patron survey is being conducted to expand on this evaluation and provide a better understanding of the community’s aspirations. Patron feedback and updated demographics based on a new way of thinking will ensure future relevancy.

In addition, we are actively re-evaluating current policies with the Library Board of Trustees. By using the people, place, and platform concepts provided, we negotiated budgetary needs to the Board of Finance and reached out to the Superintendent of Schools/Board of Education.

Jo-Ann LoRusso, MLS
Library Director
Middlebury Public Library
jlorusso@middlebury-ct.org


The Quintessential Third Space: The Library as An Anchor in the Community

Columbus Public Library, Columbus, WI

The Columbus Public Library in Wisconsin is a small city of about 5,000 people. The library serves an additional 10,000 people from rural areas around our small city. We have deep historical roots in agriculture and manufacturing. We are quickly becoming a bedroom town for neighboring Madison, home of the State Capitol and University of Wisconsin- Madison and need to serve the needs of this more modern, innovative population, as well.

The Aspen Insitute’s Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library is a useful tool both for looking inward with library stakeholders and outward toward the communities we serve. The Columbus Public Library used a similar tool, the ALA Libraries Transforming Communities program to assess the aspirations of our community as we created our latest strategic plan. Without the Community Conversation tool, much like the Public Dialogue tool of the Action Guide, we would never have arrived at our current strategic vision: pursuing becoming an anchor tenant in a new downtown development that will, in part, house a community center and new library with shared spaces for the whole community and multiple city departments. The library is currently heading the movement to help municipal leaders see the benefits of a new public/private development located in our flagship downtown. It will help revitalize our business community and offer options to residents for shopping and playing close to home. Without our many community conversations, we would have simply expanded the library, not realizing that the community was clamoring for so much more: a place to gather socially, to learn together, to maintain mental and physical health, to cross political, religious and cultural silos; the quintessential third space.

The Columbus Public Library is currently employing the Action Guide as a tool in the formation of a new library Program Team. Together, our team will do a number of the exercises to help us realize together the needs and wants of our community, especially as they relate to library and community programming. The Guide will help lessen the learning curve for staff new to library programming in Columbus and will help provide the whole Programming Team a shared vision and mission for our programming efforts.

Cindy Fesemyer
Director
Columbus Public Library
Cindy@columbuspubliclibrary.info


No Shortage of Ideas or People to Express Them: Starting Conversations

Sutter County Library, Yuba City, CA

The Action Guide really helped to get the conversation started as the Sutter County Library is just beginning plans to expand services to a community that relies heavily on an agricultural based economy. The community has often struggled with higher than average unemployment but enjoys a rich cultural heritage and a naturally beautiful environment. Many immigrants from Mexico, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan use the library’s Literacy Services classes as a resource for learning English, gaining citizenship, computer proficiency and accessing information. These classes have become a platform for adult learners and new citizens to form friendships that cross many national and cultural boundaries. Countless residents have been bringing their children to the library for generations. Students and job seekers are also regular users of services. Locally, the library has a fine reputation but there is still work to be done.

The main library branch is located in Yuba City, California with three rural branches in the farming communities of Live Oak, Sutter and Rio Oso. While working through the Action Guide, several groups were asked for input – Book Club members, library staff, Friends of the Library, as well as individual adult patrons and teens. The guide helped focus the conversations and produced an unexpected enthusiasm about the future of the library. It revealed that there is no shortage of ideas or people to express them. The Action Plan and its resources for planning and convening a public dialogue will play a major role in the near future, as Sutter County Library begins working with the city of Yuba City to improve and expand services in the coming year.

James Ochsner
Director of Services
Sutter County Library
JOchsner@co.sutter.ca.us


Improving and Expanding Conversations in the Community for Youth

Pine River Public Library, Pine River, CO

The Pine River Public Library is located in rural, Southwest Colorado, 20 miles east of Durango. The library district serves over 1,800 people in the small town of Bayfield plus an additional 6,500 in the surrounding areas.

The Action Guide arrived at our library at the same time we were asked to hold a community forum on civic engagement for youth by the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement. The goal of the organization is to improve youth civic health and offer opportunities for civic life for young people. My first thoughts for using the Action Guide were for upcoming strategic planning, but I found it was a perfect guide for smaller, more focused projects as well.

The Action Guide helped us plan a meeting that engaged over 30 community leaders, teachers, students and citizens in a discussion about how to inspire our youth to become more involved in civic affairs. This event gave us the opportunity to serve the public and showcase the library’s assets – its people, place and platform. Instead of talking about what libraries can do – we actually did it!

The Action Guide provided direction on how to instigate philosophical discussions about re-envisioning libraries, but it also provided practical steps on how to plan and convene a public dialogue. From invitations and talking points to promotion and sample news releases, the guide assists libraries in aligning its services to support the goals of our community.

The community forum was a great success bringing together ideas on how to engage our youth. With the Mayor and School Superintendent present, we actually took several steps forward with plans to work with our youth. The guide was both an inspiration and a practical resource.

Shelley Walchak
Director
Pine River Library
shelley@prlibrary.org


Developing Relationships with Partners Across the City

Cedar Rapids Public Library, Cedar Rapids, IA

The Cedar Rapids Public Library serves a population of around 128,000, the second largest city in Iowa. We began the pilot project with the Action Guide as we embarked on putting a tax levy before our voters for library support. The Action Guide helped us identify our stakeholders and develop relationships with partners across the city. As the tax levy was defeated, we were able to use the SOAR exercise to help staff and trustees focus on the future of the library. The community conversation was a wonderful event where we had conversations with patrons, agency representatives, and active partners across our city. The Action Guide helped us stay focused and provided an easy-to-follow map. It was a tremendously useful tool for the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

Dara Schmidt
Director
Cedar Rapids Public Library
schmidtd@crlibrary.org


Making Strides to Reach Our Collective Aspirations

Skokie Public Library, Skokie, IL

Skokie, IL is a vibrant urban/suburban community on Chicago’s north side with a uniquely diverse population hovering around 65,000.  Approximately 43% of the population was born outside of the United States, and over 90 different languages are spoken throughout the community.

As a springboard for personal growth and community development, Skokie Public Library promotes discovery, enrichment, and the exchange of ideas through a broad spectrum of materials, technologies, and experiences. In order to accomplish this mission, we embark on a strategic planning process every three years. This year, we used the Aspen Institute’s Action Guide as a precursor to our strategic planning, to help our staff adopt a proper mindset to evaluate what we’ve done recently and look ahead to the future.

To accomplish this goal, we spent 10 weeks with the activities in the Action Guide. A large number of staff, including our management team and most of our FT professional staff from various departments, met in small groups. Our Board of Trustees also set aside time specifically to use the SOAR assessment. Many of the staff benefited from stepping outside of their daily work to engage in strategic thinking.

Throughout the process, we discovered a lot about ourselves, including strengths and areas where we can do more. The process affirmed that we have made great strides in turning outward to work with our community to reach our collective aspirations. It also reinforced the value in many of our recent efforts to create more learning experiences and to improve access to resources for people of all ages. However, we were also reminded that we can do more to serve certain groups in our community, including new immigrant families. After the 10 weeks, we analyzed the notes from the various discussions to identify some key themes that we can explore further during our strategic planning process. These themes include the following:

  • Collective impact
  • Equality, equity, and opportunity
  • Experience and usability
  • Organizational culture
  • Sense of community
  • Stories, outcomes, and data

Richard Kong
Deputy Director
Skokie Public Library
rkong@skokielibrary.info


Developing a Broad Foundation of Community Engagement

Fletcher Free Library, Burlington, VT

FFL_Burlington_-_north_entrance_east_wing_view.jpg

Fletcher Free Library (FFL) serves the small city of Burlington, Vermont located on eastern shore of Lake Champlain an hour of the Canadian border. Burlington is Vermont’s most populous city and the state’s economic center. Burlington’s population remains relatively stable at approximately 45,000, however our demographics are ever-changing.

Descendants of indigenous communities and early settlers (arriving 400 years ago) still live in the region. In the late nineteen century, immigrants from Eastern Europe, Lebanon and Italy arrived. More recently, as a refugee resettlement site, Burlington is home to immigrants from Congo, Ghana, Somalia, Iraq, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Burma – among others – further enriching cultural origins. Burlington has two museums, two colleges, a university, a medical school and teaching hospital. Burlington is unlike any other city in Vermont or the US.

In October 2014, the Fletcher Free Library embarked on a journey that continues today – the development of our strategic plan for 2016-2019. Under the guidance of a national library consultant, it rapidly became apparent to Fletcher Free that our plan would need to be developed on a broad foundation of community engagement. Fletcher Free dedicated the next year to establishing community dialogues – organizing forums and focus groups, and administering a survey to the community. During this community engagement period, we engaged in the pilot phase of the Action Guide.

Our use of the Action Guide validated the community engagement process underway when it was published in August 2015. Additionally, the Action Guide has helped us organize and analyze the feedback and input obtained from forums and focus groups completed previously – specifically Action Steps for Library Leaders and Strategies for Success. We have plans for additional community dialogue with Burlington teens and newcomers to Burlington for which we will be using Jobs and Economic Development, The Library as a Civic Resource, The Library as Literacy Champion, as well the Planning and Convening Public Dialogue guides.

Additionally, integral to our strategic plan implementation is a commitment to public engagement, adaptive management, and accountability. The Action Guide, along with a City-wide community engagement handbook, will be instrumental in the development of the mechanisms to ensure continued understanding of changing community needs.

Rubi O Simon
Library Director
Fletcher Free Library
klaing@burlingtonvt.gov


A One Stop Reference Point for Those Who Are In Need Of Local Resources

New Braunfels Public Library, New Braunfels, TX

NBLibrary.jpgWorking through the exercises in the Action Guide was so much more beneficial than we originally believed possible. We identified several new issues in two main areas - services to patrons groups that had not previously been identified, i.e. - the resource challenged patrons and services to patron groups that we had identified and addressed but through change were no longer being served as well, i.e. - employment seekers.

We learned from working through the exercise in Section 1 that we were experiencing an increase in patrons who are resource challenged - whether that be homeless, hungry, mentally ill, disabled, ex-convicts, etc., and we had not really been working on developing programming for them since they mostly "just come in to use the computers". This is a mindset shift for us as well - that those who come in for the computers are actually some of our most active and engaged patrons, who just don't always use the traditional library services. We also saw from Section 1 that a key component of “library as platform” is to organize the disorganized information streams from the community and the state for all patrons, but the resource challenged patrons would especially benefit. So the light bulb went on - we are not just about being a voting location or distributing the pamphlets for all the local non-profit agencies, but we could be a one stop reference point for those who are in need of local resources. We had made a few tentative steps in this direction already, but have gained a new appreciation for the importance of this aspect of "civic" resource

We have identified several key areas that we used to do well that have slipped. We believe that strengthening these areas could be an easy win for the library and will help to position us better in the community before and after the dialogue. Our employment seekers used to benefit from a strong partnership with the local employment center, but due to personnel changes in our staff and a new provider for state services, we had lost most of the programming for these patrons. We will make rebuilding these partnerships and services a priority for 2016.

Gretchen Pruett
Library Director
New Braunfels Public Library
gpruett@nbtexas.org