Libraries create condition where people come together

photo of Rich Harwood at ILA pre-conference

At one of today’s three Idaho Library Association pre-conferences, “Out of Stacks and Into the Streets: Libraries Building Community,” Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute ( shared ideas on how libraries can be the heart of the community and build on the good work they have already been doing in Idaho. He began by saying we need libraries more today than at any other time in his life and, at the same time libraries, face new challenges they’ve never faced before such as changes in demographics, ways to gather information, diminishing resources.

Some conditions we face
As he travelled across the country, people told Harwood that it feels as if we live in a "Tower of Babble": people not speaking the same language, pointing fingers, following own agenda, worried about own survival, and enamored with instant gratification. If something isn’t working perfectly—such as public schools—sometimes we tend to opt out, leave, and leave everyone else behind.

Many people feel like they are on their own, going it alone, or like they are in a "hall of mirrors" and no longer believe there is a way out. In his travels, Harwood heard three values to embrace to find a way out:

1. Ignite a deeper sense of compassion (and not just after a disaster): See and hear people who are different from ourselves, understand different paths.
2. More openness and humility: In public discourse we are so sure of ourselves and that everyone else is wrong. To move forward as a community we need each other. Listen to other points of view and other paths forward.
3. Concern for the common good: We’re sometimes more about our own good and not the common good.

Move in certain directions
We need to turn outward toward our communities. The more we want to fulfill our mission the more we tend to turn inward toward our own organizations. Turning outward is a posture, orientation, mindset, attitude. All the techniques in the world will not make us more relevant if we’re not turned outward.
1.  Engage our communities more fully to be heart of community. Don't just talk about problems, which leads to finger-pointing and blame. Ask people about their aspirations for their community. People express aspirations that start where their reality is. Find shared aspirations: a sense of what you want to work toward.  We must know community deeply, or how do we know what we should do for our community and be relevant.
2. Pay attention to conditions we need to move our communities forward (change): Invite people from different sides of issues to talk civilly. Have community conversation out in the community: Generate conversations with a different tone and create a place to continue afterward. 
3. Focus more on belief in ourselves and one another. We’re obsessed with impact and measuring. Take action together, get together and figure out what needs to be done. Succeed and celebrate what we’ve done. Rebuild our trust in one another, rebuild our relationships. When we’ve faced a challenge in this country we’ve gotten together and built something together.
4. Pay more attention to the narratives of our community. Stories we tell ourselves are the great hidden factor whether communities move forward or remain stuck. Narratives can hold us back and libraries are in a unique position to help communities change their narratives. Tell each other “civic parables”. Good parables always indicate to listeners that “this could be you taking this action.” Authentic parables about ourselves: not our libraries, but our communities. People need to see themselves in our public discourse.

Libraries create the space/condition where people can come together.

Harwood suggested that we recommit ourselves to engage our communities and make a decision to move forward as best we can, however imperfectly.

The ILA pre-conferences were made possible by the Idaho Commission for Libraries and a grant from the US. Institute of Museum and Library Services.