Breakout #7: Libraries as community change agents

Knight Media Learning Seminar Breakout #7

Facilitator: Siobhan Reardon, President and Director, Free Library of Philadelphia
Scribe: Jenna Buehler, Executive Assistant to the VP/Communications, Knight Foundation

The library’s relationship with its citizens is shifting from a transactional to a transformational one. Rather than coming to the facility for documents and books, libraries nationally have the opportunity to offer citizens much more. The 2013 Media Learning Seminar explored ways to embrace that expectation. 

When the president of Free Library PhiladelphiaSiobhan Reardon, asked how libraries can serve as community change agents, participants of the 2013 Media Learning Seminar said a successful model for change would begin with the following question:

“What problem are we trying to solve?”

Next, the library may serve as a physical space for engagement to take place. Several libraries had already taken steps to begin a public dialogue:

To facilitate conversation on the issue of digital literacy, Thomas Jones, director of Middle Georgia Regional Library, offered the community an age-friendly community initiative. On the issue of digital access, he helped to rally 19 community organizations to come together as partners and discuss potential solutions to community access issues.

Books themselves can also be used to engage communities with issues. Marketing coordinator at Chattahoochee Valley Library, Linda Hyles, said that her library leads an initiative called “Building Common Ground” that brings authors to talk about their books and complex issues. The talks use Knight Foundation funding to bring author experts in politics and even religion into their library. They have also has formed partnerships in open public data. Their library plays a key role in collecting, organizing and analyzing public information.

Representatives from Humboldt said that library professionals look into using a tool called community media archive to help keep record of meetings happening in the area. The goal in using the tool would be to increase public awareness and access as well as offer a resource to local professional and citizen journalists.

Reardon asked panelists what role libraries have beyond facilitating conversation. 

Is it ever necessary or OK for libraries to take a stance on issues? Can libraries serve as active agents of change? Participants had varying opinions.


YES
Libraries agreed that the concept of the front desk was basically extinct due to increasing popularity of self-checkouts. Some library professionals championed this, saying that eliminating “dumb stuff” allows for librarians to take time and do “smart stuff”.

“We changed our job descriptions so that 10 percent of the librarian’s time is spent out in the community,” said  Jamie LaRou, the director of the independent Douglas County library.


He said that encouraging reference librarians, or “embedded librarians”, to survey local leaders and support groups like an economic development committee can add significant value to a community. He said that as a result of the library’s outreach efforts, the mayor has requested Saturday office hours at the library.

NO
Several participants agreed that libraries are centers that offer a unique level of trust and neutrality and that community members do not have this level of trust even in other spaces like government and educational institutions.

Some participants said that trust may be violated once a library takes a stance. Library professionals said that new librarians would likely embrace this model; however,  librarians of the old model prefer the front desk and would rather “visit the moon than walk out the door and interview community members.”

MAYBE
Library professionals are curious about next steps in adaptation. Many questions about boundaries and limits were discussed including capacity issues, overhauling job descriptions, and staff structure. Participants asked whether the concept of a library building is obsolete and what should the new space look like.

The discussion closed with library professionals and citizens excited about opportunities and concerned about capacity and capital constraints. A key takeaway is that the need is higher than ever for communities to partner with local community experts to find solutions together. The transaction is vital to the strength of the community.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.