"Turning Outward": How Well Do You Know Your Community?

Editor's Note: Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) — an initiative of the American Library Association — seeks to strengthen librarians’ roles as core community leaders and change-agents by sharing tools to help them "turn outward," an approach developed by the The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. All of these resources are available, free of charge, on the LTC website.

Libraries around the country are already putting the “turning outward” approach to work in their communities. Alice Knapp is director of user services at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn.; in October 2013, she attended a Harwood Public Innovators Lab. Here, Knapp tells ALA about her library’s experience with “turning outward." (Access all the resources Knapp mentions with the links below, or visit Resources for Library Professionals.)

One final note: If you are looking for deeper training, ALA and Harwood are offering a fee-based training, specifically for libraries, in October. Get more information here.

How were you introduced to the Harwood Institute’s approach?

Alice Knapp: In fall 2013, I was developing a strategic plan for my library. Like so many of us, I kept using buzzwords like “community engagement” without really thinking about them or understanding what they mean. Finally, a colleague who reviewed my plan came to me and said, “I think you should check out Harwood’s work.” So I signed up for the three-day training through ALA. It was wonderful. It told me things I already knew but put a new perspective on them and gave me a toolset I could immediately apply.

What struck you most about the approach?

I had been trained as a facilitator for a previous job, so I thought I was pretty skilled at leading conversations. The problem is, you often start the conversation on a positive note but end up with a long list of negative take-aways. People are good at saying what they don’t want; it’s harder for them to say what they do want.

The big difference with Harwood’s method is that you start with aspirations — asking “what do you want for your community?” When you start there, you figure out right away where you want to go; after that, you just have to move the stumbling blocks out of the way. Also, Harwood’s method really emphasizes looking to the community for all your inspiration. “Turning outward” is about orienting yourself toward the community rather than toward your institution. Because any change that is meaningful is going to start with the community, and they are going to have ownership over it.

How did you use that training back at your library?

Before I went to the Harwood training, I had convened a series of staff focus groups. After the Harwood training, I went back and held another. I walked in and asked the first question — “What are your aspirations for our community?” — and everyone stared at me; they had no clue what I was talking about. There was a pause and one person jumped in and said “Alice, you should clarify what you’re looking for.”

I had a realization in that moment: our library was accustomed to providing information to our staff — and with the Harwood Institute tools, we could change that. Instead of me giving them a detailed road map, they had to ask me questions, and vice versa, so we figured out the conversation together. It moved the conversation to a higher level much more quickly, and when we reached the point where we were talking about what we wanted our community to be, it was their ideas that we were hearing, not mine or the leadership’s.

What has come out of those conversations?

Our staff wanted our library to be very friendly and welcoming for our customers, so they created a Customer Service Task Force. One of the task force’s first activities was making a Customer Service Self-Assessment worksheet. It asked things like, How many times are you looking up while you’re working at the desk? Are you making eye contact at 20 feet? Smiling at 10 feet? Greeting customers at five feet?

What’s great is that, from an administrative level, if I had come up with the idea, I would have been run out of town. But because it happened organically and grew out of the staff’s own aspirations, it’s working. It hasn’t happened overnight, but I see real improvement.

Looking forward, how do you plan to keep “turning outward” at your library?

So far, we have largely used the Harwood method internally, for our staff “community.” We held the Aspirations conversations with our staff, as well as the Turn Quiz and Intentionality components. The next step is to take these conversations outside the library. We are working on a long-range plan for the library, and Harwood-style Community Conversations will really inform the direction we take, because we know we will be doing what our community wants us to do.

Homepage Placement: 
Category: