Libraries Continue to Spearhead Change in Their Communities

June 29, 2016


For many initiatives, our research work happens right when a project is gaining momentum. Once in a while, we get the opportunity to revisit early successes and celebrate new achievements with our friends. Last week, we joined our partners, the American Library Association, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, and library leaders to hear about the ambitious and transformative community work of libraries across the US.

Rich Harwood, founder of the Harwood Institute, and three public libraries from ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities initiative spoke on Saturday at the ALA Conference in Orlando about how libraries can engage communities and lead change by “turning outward.” NewKnowledge’s John Fraser and Rebecca Norlander sat in a packed room of attendees for the panel, convened by Mary Davis Fournier, Deputy Director of the ALA Public Programs Office. Panelists talked about how to effectively build partnerships and tackle community challenges. Rich pointed to the unique and powerful role of libraries within their communities. He said, “People want to come to the table when libraries are the convener, because they don’t have an axe to grind…Libraries enjoy an incredibly deep reservoir of trust.” We clearly saw evidence of this trust in our evaluation of the Libraries Transforming Communities project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Three library leaders spoke about their experience using the Harwood approach in their communities. Erica Freudenberger of the Red Hook Public Library spoke about her experience gathering public knowledge, going door-to-door in Red Hook and listening to people’s aspirations for their community. The library played an important role in enabling people to take civic action. In this case they were able to get a central stoplight fixed that had been broken and ignored for decades. Red Hook and the other libraries see their role as giving the community the information it needs to make change. Simply put, “libraries don’t exist in vacuums.”

We are so excited by the work that libraries continue to spearhead as leaders of positive community change.

Photo: Hartford Public Library held a series of conversations bringing together police and residents from Hartford’s North End in June 2015. Rich Harwood spoke about the library’s achievements at the conference. Photo credit: Judy Wyman Kelly