From January through March 2022, the American Library Association hosted a virtual book club around its new publication Ask, Listen, Empower: Grounding Your Library Work in Community Engagement, edited by Mary Davis Fournier and Sarah Ostman (ALA Editions, 2021). Library workers across the country applied, and 100 were selected, to participate in a series of three virtual book club sessions. Each session focused on a different chapter from the book and offered a live conversation with the chapter's author(s) and smaller breakout discussions.
Several librarians from Rhode Island participated in the monthly book discussion. The following is a summary of the sessions by three of those participants.
Session 1: Partnering for Greater Impact
written by Lori DeCesare, Assistant Director at Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library
The first session of the series, held on January 12th, focused on the chapter titled “Partnering for Greater Impact,” written by Cindy Fesemyer. The session began with a conversation with Ms. Fesemyer moderated by Flo Trujillo.
Libraries are renowned for developing, sustaining, and leveraging community partnerships. The collaboration between the library and other community entities benefits all involved - offering expanded opportunities to provide programs, enhance services, and support the library’s mission. This collaboration is powerful - yielding collective achievements greater than those that could be achieved by an individual organization on its own, as a result of shared goal setting, pooled responsibilities, and combined efforts.
Fesemeyer noted that, before establishing a partnership, it is important to focus on your organization first. The Aspen Institute’s Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library, Version 2.0 offers a SOAR assessment to explore the strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results of your library.
An effective tool examined during the session was a Community Map, shown below, which aids in examining potential community partners. Identify the individuals and groups in your community that fall into each of these categories. Another suggestion was to take a walk and look around the community. Introduce yourself, and identify common goals and explore the possibility of a partnership over coffee. If you are both agreeable, move forward with an easy project to start (often an extension of something the library already does well). If successful, extend the partnership, ensuring that it continues to be beneficial to your library, but be willing to end the collaboration when it is time.
(Fournier and Ostman 39)
During the breakout session, participants were asked to discuss their community maps. The highlight of the discussion in my breakout group was a rural Vermont library who partnered with their local conservation group to offer a very successful workshop on chainsaw safety at the library!
This first of three sessions in the Ask, Listen, Empower Virtual Book Club encouraged us to explore beyond our traditional partnerships and become more innovative, allowing us to expand our reach of community-specific targeted programs and services and achieve more than we could alone.
Session 2: Ethical and Inclusive Community Engagement
written by Deb Estrella, Adult Services Librarian at Tiverton Public Library
The second session held on February 16th featured Ellen Knutson and Quanetta Batts, who wrote a chapter in Ask, Listen, Empower titled “Ethical and Inclusive Community Engagement.” The session was moderated by Miguel Ruiz.
The chapter describes a public involvement continuum developed by Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia, which ranges from simply giving information (where the library is centered and decides what the community needs and how best to meet those needs) to truly partnering and collaborating with another organization (where the community is centered and leads the planning). During the live conversation, Knutson reminded us that “the world is bigger than you” and that you can do more with others than you can alone. Batts highlighted the importance of approaching potential community partners without an agenda - to come to the table with only the intention to listen rather than to fix what you perceive as a problem. She described how she would go on a “listening tour” of the stakeholders in her area. Knutson also pointed out that these conversations should be happening all the time, not just when you have a project in mind - build the relationship before you need the relationship.
Throughout the chapter, the authors stress centering inclusion in libraries’ community engagement work. This requires an understanding of your own or your institution’s privilege and intersectionality and meeting community members - literally - where they are. The authors found the most success meeting potential partners in their homes and places of business, learning, or worship. The authors also reminded us to recognize our biases and make sure we are not approaching certain patrons as “problems” to be fixed, but rather people with unique perspectives and experience that can make our services stronger, more relevant, and more accessible to the population we’re trying to reach.
During the breakout session, each breakout group was presented with a hypothetical community need and challenged to brainstorm ideas for how to work with the community to meet that need. The activity illustrated for all of us how many minds can create greater opportunities than we could have imagined on our own.
Session 3: Community-Centered Programming - Tools and Techniques
written by Insley Julier, Adult Services Librarian at Rogers Free Library
Led by the chapter’s author Audrey Barbakoff and moderator Veronica Casnova, the third session of the ALA Ask, Listen, Empower book club on March 16th was grounded in the principle that library programs and service should be planned “by and with, rather than for or at, your community” (Fournier and Ostman 47). Barbaroff noted that libraries have the tendency to look at what they already have the capability to do and focus on solving people’s problems. But that lens puts too much emphasis on needs, with librarians acting as “saviors.” She argued that we need to move from a deficit-based approach to an asset-based model, where we approach programming and services with cultural humility and leverage the strength of community assets (organizations and individuals), who already have knowledge about the community served.
In her chapter, Barbakoff outlines a path to develop community-centered programming. Steps include developing specific goals about what the library intends to do; environmental scanning (doing background research, so as to not waste the time of the community assets during later interviews); asset mapping (creating visual maps or diagrams representing key players, relationships, and resources within a defined geographic area); and key stakeholder interviews. These interviews are used to identify partners/community experts and to pinpoint the areas in which the library should expand programs or resources. In addition, the interviews can ascertain the challenges or barriers to access for underrepresented or marginalized groups. Barbaroff noted that efforts should be made to maximize the benefit to these groups and minimize the burden placed upon them. For instance, if a program is aimed at single mothers, can childcare be provided to allow them to attend? Her primary thesis was that libraries should not aim to save, but instead focus on working with outside groups and individuals as partners and friends, while honoring their expertise.
The book club was a valuable experience, allowing participants to connect to other professionals across the country to learn more about how they are promoting community engagement in their libraries large and small.