Blogger Alexa Newman

Engaging Your Community : What Does That Mean?

A definition

Community engagement is an important emerging trend in public libraries.  What, exactly, is community engagement, you ask?

Well, according to Dr. Crispin Butteriss of Bangthetable.com, it can be described as both a process and an outcome.  In other, words it is both a noun and a verb.  Butteriss further describes it as “the process of getting people better connected into the community and for ensuring that the services they were designing me[e]t the specific needs of the people they are working with.”

Applying the principles of community engagement specifically to libraries has been the focus of ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities initiative.  The LTC initiative “seeks to strengthen librarians’ roles as core community leaders and change-agents.”

On a regional level, RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library System) has formed a community engagement networking group.

I am my library’s youth liaison to the community.   I do outreach with several different agencies, and continue to search out and forge new connections.  The formation of the RAILS community engagement network has been incredibly helpful to both me and my counterpart from our Adult Services department.

I have lots of “scathingly brilliant” ideas (to quote Hayley Mills’ character Mary Clancy in The Trouble With Angels) in various stages of development. And, I’m incredibly fortunate that my library’s administration and board support and encourage my community programming efforts.

At the same time, I need to consciously take a step back and assess what my community actually needs/wants.  Because as brilliant as an idea may be, if it is unneeded and/or unwanted by the very people we’re trying to serve, it will be a waste of resources.  In a nutshell,  instead of telling the patrons what we can do for them,  we should be asking them what they need from us.

Testing the waters

Recently I decided to dip my toe into the waters of community engagement.  For my first exercise in assessing my community’s needs, this week I sent out a call on social media asking people to tell me what they want / need from their libraries. I was looking for feedback from both educators and parents.

I conducted a simple poll, asking “what you want/need from your public library?” “There were two choices: more materials and more programs.   60% of respondents voted for more materials, while the other 40% chose more programs.

In the comments section I asked them to elaborate on their answers.  Some answers were quite straightforward. For example:  we need more night and weekend programs for all the working families.

Elementary teacher Dana Iaccino suggested curriculum support materials. “[I’d like to see] books bags of mentor texts for teaching a specific reading skill. For example I am teaching author’s perspective, and I just checked out several picture books that are written from a surprising perspective ( Spoon, Diary of a Worm etc) As you know, it takes a lot of time to search for great examples that support your curriculum… other skills may be cause and effect, similes, symbolism.”

Dana Wolf, an aspiring author, noted a lack of programming available for college aged patrons.  “Personally, I use the library mostly for the materials. Yes, the programs are awesome, but they are rarely at a time I can attend or for my age… So I guess I’d like some programs more for college-aged kids.”

Working mother of three Jenni Storm, an early literacy educator expressed a desire for the library to be a center for parenting resources and speakers.  “I feel that libraries can continue to be a safe space for families to come to receive parenting support.  I would love to see speakers from the community share their expertise with our families.  Topics could touch on a variety of  ideas:  creating healthy sleep habits in children, speech pathologists or occupational therapists sharing information regarding developmental milestones and ways to help develop specific skills at home, helping stay at home moms prepare to enter the work force after being at home with young children, or how to support children/families working with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, etc.”

Conclusions

I gathered more information from the poll than I had anticipated.  I have compiled the results and hope to use them going forward in my community engagement plans. I learned that my community wants programming, and that not all needs are being met.  We need to explore offering more opportunities for working families, and new adults.  And I need to investigate adding thematic book bags for teachers to out parent-teacher collection.

Has your library have a community outreach or engagement program in place?  What have been your successes or stumbling blocks?   Do you have any recommendations for libraries that are interested in looking to starting their own program?   Please share your insights with us!

If you want to learn more about the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative, there is an abundance of support materials available at http://www.ala.org/tools/librariestransform/libraries-transforming-communities

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