Listening to Your Community

How to create a “structure of belonging”

November 1, 2019

Mary Ghikas, ALA executive director

At ALA’s 2012 Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, then–ALA President Molly Raphael sponsored a conversation about the evolving needs of communities and how libraries and librarianship could transform to meet them.

At the event, R. David Lankes, now director of University of South Carolina’s iSchool, facilitated discussions on the topic. Participants from all types of libraries were asked to take an imaginary walk around their community: observing, listening, seeking to understand the aspirations of the community for itself.

During the discussion that followed, participants talked about how their library might help the community achieve its goals. At my table, the initial response was about how to more effectively market existing services, such as literacy programs. We gleaned lessons about the difficulty of stepping back from our expertise and experiences to listen to our community.

Over the next few years, starting with ALA President Maureen Sullivan (2012–2013) and continuing through subsequent presidencies, the Association worked with many groups to develop resources for library staff and apply those lessons to ALA as a community—of members, staff, exhibitors, and external allies. The results provided the groundwork for ALA’s current Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness.

The November/December issue of American Libraries includes a ­special report on community engagement, an area to which the Association and its members have committed significant resources, with thousands participating in trainings, discussions, and outreach. But what does community engagement mean, and how does it relate to ALA’s ongoing work?

In attempting to answer these questions, I turned to a concept promulgated by Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute—a “turning outward” mindset. As he writes in his book Stepping Forward: “To be turned outward is to make your community the reference point for all you do. To know that there is something larger that must inform and drive, even supersede, whatever programs, processes, initiatives, and data that consume our attention.”

Author Peter Block also addresses this mindset in his discussion of citizenship. He writes in The Answer to How Is Yes: “Citizenship means that I act as if this larger place were mine to create, while the conventional wisdom is that I cannot have responsibility without authority…. I am responsible for the health of the institution and the community, even though I do not control it. I can participate in creating something I do not control.”

But how? In a 2004 College & Research Libraries News article, “Civic Engagement in Academic Libraries,” authors Nancy Kranich, Michele Reid, and Taylor Willingham describe what happens when citizens deliberate together: “They surface assumptions, learn about the costs and consequences of public policy alternatives, move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ language, and define their shared interests and values.” They listen to each other. They uncover new possibilities.

As Block writes in another book, ­Community: “The challenge for every community is not so much to have a vision of what it wants to become, or a plan, or specific timetables. The real challenge is to discover and create the means for engaging citizens that brings a new possibility into being…. This is an organic and relational process. This is what creates a structure of belonging.”

I invite each one of you to join in the ongoing work of cocreation, the work essential to our shared and critical mission.


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2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting – Maureen Sullivan and Richard Harwood about Transforming Communities

ALA, Harwood Institute partner to help libraries transform communities

A Q&A with Midwinter Speaker Peter Block

The bestselling author talks about how libraries are connecting communities