Harwood: Libraries Must Do Better Job in Addressing Community Needs
“We live in serious times,” Richard C. Harwood, president and founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, told the audience at the start of his presentation at the ALA President’s Program on Sunday about the condition of the United States. The head of the catalytic nonprofit dedicated to helping people imagine and act for the public good, Harwood focused his talk on why libraries are needed today more than any other time in his lifetime, and discussed what it will take for libraries to become even more relevant and significant in the lives of communities.
He told the audience about an emotional visit with his 21-year-old daughter to the Nazi death camp in Dachau, Germany, and his return there alone the next day, filled with unresolved feelings that drew him back. “Sometimes indifference in our society does exist,” Harwood said. “Sometimes we turn our backs on each other when we need each other the most. Sometimes we even hide from one another.”
“As I walked through that death camp, I realized that sometimes when each of us decides to step forward, we can make a difference—that there is indeed evil in our society, but there is goodness in each of us ready to be tapped; that there is something called redemption and it actually exists.” Harwood continued, “Although we don’t face a holocaust in this country, thank God, we do face enormous challenges right now, and the question is what kind of choices will we make.”
“We face a recession that is the greatest recession since the Great Depression, with people scared of losing their homes, losing their jobs, or trying to figure out how to make their last paycheck work, and they are worried,” he noted. “We have a politics that is so divisive that people are afraid to come back into the public square and a news media that seems to take great pride in creating conflict, when in fact, what people are looking for is someone to relate the issues that we need to deal with as a society.”
Harwood said there are few leaders in this country that people trust and when asked who they do trust, they say Oprah Winfrey. “It seems to me if we’re going to move this country forward, we’re going to need more than Oprah as a leader in this country,” he maintained.
“We have organizations that seem to be more concerned about their own survival than serving the common good, and yet as I travel this country, I hear the same message: People want to reengage and connect with one another.” He went on to note, “They want to come back into the public square. They want to join with each other to make a difference, not only in their own lives, but in our common lives.”
Harwood said that if librarians want to move their communities forward, they need to answer a basic question that Americans are asking themselves today: Who can I trust? “Who can I trust to create safe places in my community for me to come back into the public square without worrying that every space will be taken over by divisiveness and finger-pointing. Who can I trust to put issues on the public agenda that matter in my life, in the lives of the neighborhood, and the community: not the issues that my board tells me to put out there and not the issues that my funders tell me to focus on.”
To answer those questions, Harwood said librarians need to turn outward into their communities. “Too many of us are turned inward, worried about our next strategic plan, our logo, reorganization, and moving the boxes around in the organizational charts; focusing more on process than progress, inputs rather than impact,” Harwood explained. “We’ve become so activity-happy in our country that we’re action-deprived, not measuring how we’re making a difference to people in the community.”
He offered three basic ways to test whether you are turning outward. First, he advised librarians to look into the eyes of their communities and ask individuals about their aspirations—what they hope to achieve individually, for their children, and for their neighborhoods. “If we want to turn outward and make libraries more relevant in our communities, you’ve got to be able to ask people about what their aspirations are, their concerns, their heritage, their background, their culture, because it is at that point we know our communities.”
Secondly, Harwood said librarians need to ask themselves if they are fulfilling the pledges and promises they made to their communities. “In our communities now there is so much mistrust. They believe that we’re wrong and we’re lying until we prove we are trustworthy. You must be trustworthy to be relevant, for people to support your efforts.”
Finally, Harwood said librarians must ask themselves if they are staying true to “the urge within us as to why you became a librarian in the first place, why you’re studying to be a librarian, why you believe in a future for libraries, and why you decided to step forth and do this profession instead of working on Wall Street making more money. The urge within us is the most important thing that you can protect. It is one of the most important things that you can claim. When it gets ignited in you and you touch someone else, it ignites it in them and when we do that, we begin to move our communities forward.”
He also talked about two basic values librarians must possess—courage and humility.
“If we’re going to hear all the voices and transform libraries for the future, we need real courage within ourselves and among ourselves to put a stake in the ground; to say that this is what we’re doing at our library, this is where we stand, this is what we value, this is what we’re betting the future on, and to not wait for permission from anyone.” Harwood continued, “Too many people have been left behind, too many people have been disenfranchised, too many people have received lip service from too many of us. We’re going to feel uncomfortable at times with people who may look different than us, be a different color than us, or come from a different country. We must not let our fears overcome and overwhelm us.”
“We need the courage to get rid of some of the legacy partners that we have,” he explained. “Too many partners are holding us down and holding us back. We don’t need all of them, only those who will help. We need the courage to take the piece that we can do and make that our contribution to the whole, requiring us to get out of our conferences into the community to really understand what’s happening there—although there may be people who will tell you they’re not going to support you if you move in the direction you want to or people who speak poorly or badly of you. You need the courage to let that go.”
Courage by itself is often dangerous and leads to arrogance, Harwood continued, adding that the other side of the same coin is humility. “We need the humility to know that that stake in the ground will have to be moved, maybe because the conditions in our community changed or that it was put in the wrong place.”
“We need to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. We need other people and we need to set our egos aside and allow others to come to the table and work with us,” he said. “When we do good deeds in the community, we can’t take all the credit. Sometimes we may even have to take a back seat and let others be in front. If we’re going to hear people we have to be open in spite of hearing pain. We may have to go hear how the library is failing in our community. We need the humility to recognize that we simply can’t be all things to all people.”
“This work is a fight,” Harwood concluded. “Sometimes it can sound academic, but there’s nothing academic about it. Sometimes we think if we follow the right process and just check off the list, that somehow we have fulfilled all we need do. Sometimes we believe if we find a better funding mechanism and our institution or organization can survive, somehow we’ve met the test of our times. But have we really met the test of the community? Everyone deserves a place at the table. It’s a fight that we deal with issues that people care about.”