Becoming Catalysts in a Changing World

Informed outreach and strategies for defining the library’s role in community

June 24, 2017

Kathryn Matthew, director of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, speaks at the American Library Association’s 2017 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 24, 2017.Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries
Kathryn Matthew, director of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, speaks at the American Library Association’s 2017 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 24, 2017.Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

In the midst of funding uncertainty, it can be difficult and even risky for libraries to take on complex community projects, particularly those with outcomes that won’t be realized for many years. However, it is these types of programs that are key to making the case for library funding, argued Kathryn K. Matthew, director of the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

In “Be a Catalyst: Harnessing Your Portfolio of Resources to Create Catalytic Change in Communities,” sponsored by the ALA Washington Office, Matthew provided advice on how libraries can learn about their communities in order to strengthen their connections to them, while Rip Rapson and Barbara Bartle provided context from national and regional funder points of view.

IMLS’s Community Catalyst program—and the related Community Salute program, which focuses on veterans—provides funding to help libraries and museums gain a better understanding of their individual communities’ needs and contexts. Being a catalyst doesn’t mean that you are the source of the entire reaction, Matthew explained, it means being the thing that gives that reaction a boost so it happens more easily. “You’re not doing it all when it comes to community work,” she said, but are a part of a network. Partnerships and collaboration outside the library, as well as an organizational understanding within the library and ongoing support and development for staff, are essential for sustaining effective community work.

Community outreach is necessarily a long-term project. “Your community work cannot just be based on grant funding. You cannot projectize your community work,” Matthew said. “Pick a few things that you will commit to for 8–10 years because that’s the pace of change.” Roles can evolve over time, she noted, and libraries need to be prepared for and accepting of those changes. She also urged institutions to devote resources to the community at a high level—one designated community outreach position is not enough to affect significant change.

Matthew offered a number of actionable strategies for libraries as they focus their outreach programs. Libraries need to:

  • Listen, share, adapt, and iterate.
  • Show commitment.
  • Find momentum and engage stakeholders.
  • Position their work within the community’s assets, as one part of the larger community.
  • Not be afraid to borrow new ideas from partners.
  • Monitor progress in engaging and meaningful ways, and avoid focusing on easy measures.
  • Make a case and ask for a seat at the table.

Barbara Bartle, president of the Lincoln Community Foundation, provided a real-world example of the timeline and scope of collaborative community engagement. Prosper Lincoln began in 2014 as an effort to counteract increasing concentrations of poverty in Lincoln, Nebraska. It took a full year to bring a team of community stakeholders together, and another year of community outreach to generate over 2,100 ideas and suggestions for areas of concern. The ideas were organized into major themes and then narrowed to three ideas that would be the focus of the project. The city’s library director was an early and frequent member of the committees, and when the library updated its strategic goals, many were adapted to align with Prosper Lincoln goals. The project is scheduled to continue until at least 2020 and while the impact is not yet fully quantifiable, Bartle noted individual success stories directly related to the library’s outreach.

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, a national-level funder of community benefit programs, focused on the potential and adaptability of libraries within their communities. He served for a time as deputy mayor of Minneapolis and noted that, during his time in the mayor’s office, “when we needed someone who could turn on a dime we almost always looked to the libraries.”

Providing a list of three essential roles that libraries fill, he proposed them as an antidote to the fragmented and polarized political climate. They facilitate the search for community by reflecting the history, culture, and identity of a place. They encourage civility by “embodying the pluralism of American society.” And they endorse democracy by valorizing freedom of expression.

Still, despite his focus on wider issues, he emphasized that the most effective funding argument for libraries is local. “The conversation that begins with national first principles doesn’t work. It’s about getting into representatives’ offices with local examples. It’s the ability to actually connect to local experiences where people live.”


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