Community Building

Libraries must innovate and engage

March 13, 2013

Maureen Sullivan

All around us, libraries of all types are discovering that as they look outward, they can make a dramatic difference in their communities. Long recognized as trusted educational and cultural institutions, libraries that more actively engage with their communities discover innovative services, increase their relevance, and build deeper community support.

Last September, ALA announced the launch of a new national initiative called “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.” This groundbreaking program signals a new partnership between ALA and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Initially supported through a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the goal of this multiphase Presidential initiative is to provide thousands of libraries of all types with the tools and training needed to help their communities find innovative solutions through library-led community engagement.

Supporting the transformation of libraries is a strategic priority of the Association, and the transformation of the relationship of libraries to their communities is key to this.

A major step forward occurred just before Midwinter as 24 ALA member leaders participated in a Harwood Advanced Leaders Training session in Chicago. Other participants included public, academic, and school librarians who are now able to use community engagement practices in their own library settings and who will help develop resources and training materials for use by other libraries of all types and sizes.

Our six-month goal is to create and share programs, webinars, tools, and other resources that will allow every library to begin engaging its community. Our longer-term goal: to see thousands of libraries using tested tools and techniques to increase their relevance and impact.

The Seattle Midwinter Meeting hosted a series of programs in support of this initiative:

  • Peter Block, bestselling author of Community: The Structure of Belonging, facilitated an interactive discussion about the nature of transformation and the kind of leadership required to achieve it. He focused on how to create workplaces and communities that work for everyone in them, with the goal of making change through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force.
  • I moderated a panel of public innovators including Rich Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute; Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County (Wash.) United Way; and Carlton Sears, past director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County in Ohio and certified coach with the Harwood Institute. They identified aspirations and anticipated results of the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities Initiative and described their own transformation experiences.
  • Author and consultant Peggy Holman, a recognized leader in deploying group processes that directly involve hundreds of people in organizations or communities to achieve breakthroughs, led two interactive programs. Holman’s work has explored a nascent field of social technologies that engage “whole systems” of people in creating change. In the first program she introduced appreciative inquiry. In the second she used the Open Space approach to look at change in the community and change in ALA.

We are planning for a series of programs and training opportunities at the ALA Annual Conference, along with online webinars and webcasts for those unable to attend in person.

ALA has already begun to use the Harwood practices to transform the Association. The goal will be the transformation of how we relate to each other as an Association.

MAUREEN SULLIVAN is an organization development consultant to libraries and interim dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. Email:



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