The “Kitchen Table” Conversations and ALA

Community engagement works for libraries—and the Association

January 8, 2014

Keith Michael Fiels

Over the next several years, ALA will be leading a major initiative to help libraries of all types utilize proven community engagement tools and techniques to better understand their communities and to encourage community-based innovations in library service.

This effort, which is part of the Association’s strategic goal of assisting in the ongoing transformation of libraries, involves working with the D.C.-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. ALA and Harwood will create training modules and tools that libraries can use to engage more deeply with their communities and to become more central to the communities they serve.

At the same time, the Association will be using these same community engagement practices to better understand our “communities”: members, libraries, and the public.

At the 2013 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition, we began a series of “kitchen table” conversations, focusing on ALA as a community. In those initial conversations, members talked about their aspirations for their professional community, as well as their concerns.

Following the conversations, we analyzed what members said in order to identify common themes. Ultimately, we put together the following summary of those 12 kitchen table conversations:

People want a welcoming, inclusive, engaged, supportive organization. But they’re concerned that ALA’s complexity makes it difficult to navigate and that ALA needs to be more welcoming to new members and new ideas. As people talk more about those concerns, they talk about silos, about having too many choices and too much “noise,” and about bureaucracy. They say we need to concentrate on building relationships and on developing a sense of community; we need more focus; and we need to continue the conversations. If weALA leadership, division leadership, round table leadership, staffworked on this together, they would be more likely to trust the effort and step forward to help.

Gaining a deeper understanding of our aspirations may be informative, but it needs to translate into action, and this is where the innovation part comes in. Over the course of the coming year, ALA staff, elected leadership, the divisions, and round tables will be working together to identify specific ideas and steps that will make ALA more welcoming to new members and easier to navigate. The goal here, as with community engagement in libraries, is to show community members tangible results, that their concerns have been heard and that positive changes and progress can occur. (Stay tuned for progress reports as we move along.)

The kitchen table conversations at Annual are just the start. Overwhelmingly, participants asked that we continue these conversations. We intend to do so, with each series building on prior discussions.  In every case, results will be posted publiclyand will also become part of ongoing discussions of changes within ALA. (Click for more information about participating in Midwinter kitchen table conversations.)

We will also hold these conversations and forums at chapter, regional, and affiliate conferences, at which participants will have an opportunity to talk about their own aspirations and shape the future of ALA and of libraries. These forums, and kitchen table conversations will help us to better understand the kind of community we want to create and will help serve as a fundamental building block of our next strategic plan and all our ongoing planning efforts going forward.

Community engagement is not just an abstract concept. It is a series of tools and techniques that can help us—whether we’re a library or an Association—do a better job.

KEITH MICHAEL FIELS is executive director of the American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago.



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