Community Engagement: Connecticut Library Looking Outward

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By Steve Zalusky, @ your library staff

Libraries are looking beyond their walls and working to transform the communities they serve.

It is part of an evolution summed up by Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association (ALA, who) noted that “Libraries are undergoing a transformational shift. They are no longer passive providers of services; they are consensus-builders and a driving force in community change.”

One library following this model is the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn.

Change is nothing new to the Ferguson Library. It began its existence at the end of the 19th century as a gathering place where people could meet and exchange ideas. In 1911, it became a free public library under the guiding principle that knowledge should be available to all, regardless of ability to pay.

The library serves nearly a million visitors annually, not counting those who visit online.

But, as its website states, “(O)ur core values haven’t changed. The commitment to supporting lifelong learning, and providing free and equal access to information is still at the heart of our mission.”

In fulfilling its mission, Stamford reaches out to its community, including its ESL population.

The library offers a variety of ESL and literacy resources, including “Let’s Talk” English conversation groups.

One of the participants, Cheryl, who is from China, wrote, “This program is wonderful. I like to practice English with my teachers. All my teachers are patient and helpful.”

She wrote that, “Now, my two children who just came from China are joining us. They are happy to get (such a) good place that they can learn English here.”

Jack Somer, a freelance writer who moved from Stamford from New York and volunteers in the program, said he has met people from dozens of countries and varying cultures, “who all seek and accept my insight, direction, and gentle critique of their use of language.”

Participants on the Let's Talk programIn addition to the conversation groups, the library offers, through Mango, over 40 foreign languages, and more than 15 ESL courses taught in native languages. People can learn anytime and anywhere with remote access and free mobile apps.

The library also reaches out through its bookmobile, partially funded through a grant, that stops at pre-schools, as well as a couple of community centers and housing complexes. 

Alice Knapp, the library’s interim president, said, “Perhaps the most interesting stop is Neighbors Link, where the bookmobile may be the first introduction of library services to New Americans.”

The library has partnered with outside organizations to offer programs to the community, including the library’s Small Business Resource Center, the result of a partnership with SCORE,  the Stamford Innovation Center, and the Business Council of Fairfield County.

The First County Bank Foundation awarded the library $11,000 to establish the center, which holds an extensive collection of print and digital materials and provides a collaborative space for supporting the informational needs of small businesses.

“We know small businesses are key to a strong economy and a vibrant city, and this grant will help the Library play a vital role in helping to create a climate of success for our region’s small business owners,” said Ernest DiMattia, the library’s late president, who died earlier this year, upon the receipt of the grant.

The library hosts classes, symposiums and workshops on topics related to small business operations and networking. The resources at the center give greater awareness of opportunities available through the library, other local and regional nonprofits and the city of Stamford.

The library’s creativity and ability to leverage funds to promote services to the community was seen in its summer reading initiative involving local camps.

Caroline Ward, the library’s youth services coordinator, said, “For many years we have been aware that the kids and teens who most need to be reading over the summer were not members of our very active summer reading program.  With the recent emphasis on the importance of maintaining reading skills over the summer and thereby avoiding ‘the summer slide,’ especially among children from lower income families, we were looking for ways to reach out to these families who were not regular library users.”

One way would be to target the children attending a variety of community summer camp programs.

In the past staff shortages kept the library from reaching out to these camps, a process that is labor intensive.

In 2013, with $9,000 from a foundation and a local corporation, the library was finally able to hire an outreach librarian to work closely with the community camps to bring the library’s summer reading program to these kids and teens. 

This was made easier by the fact that the library had moved to an on-line summer reading program.  No longer did families have to physically come into the building to register for the program or log in the books that were read. Summer reading registration could be handled from home and also from the camp sites. 

During the summer of 2013, the library reached out to five camps serving over 600 children.  Everyone was registered for the library’s on-line summer reading program and encouraged to reading for various incentive prizes. 

“With the grant funds we also purchased hundreds of books and as a special gift every camper got a chance to select a book of their own,” Ward said. “Our statistics soared with participation in both the teen and children's club increasing 35 percent.  Only 5 percent of the campers were signed up by their families directly for the library summer program so we know that we are reaching a population that would not have had a summer reading experience.”

Class getting on bookmobileThis summer, with continued funding, the library is again reaching out to sign up campers at the five major summer camps.

“We have been supported in our outreach efforts by the library's Bookmobile that received funding for another day on the road to visit the camps which further increases the presence of the library in the community,” Ward said.

The library’s ability to look forward and work for transformational change is reflected in its approach to its strategic plan.

In developing the strategic plan, Knapp said she utilized the “turning outward” approach of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The approach emphasizes making the community the reference point for getting things done.

The Harwood Institute is involved in a partnership based on the idea that libraries, by virtue of their trusted position in their communities, are uniquely suited to help solve challenges of all types, from literacy to drug epidemics to distrust in government.

“We’ve already seen so many libraries use our tools to find new and better ways to bring their communities together to address their challenges. We’re excited that libraries continue to show interest in being change-leaders in their communities,” said Rich Harwood, founder and president of The Harwood Institute,

The Ferguson Library’s strategic plan says that libraries should “provide access to the entire Stamford community, including areas not in close proximity to a physical library. In addition to providing resources, the library intends to be a hub and link to other community resources. The library needs to become more outward looking, actively partnering with other organizations and ensuring our offerings are visible to users and nonusers.”

In a blog post by Sarah Ostman on the ALA’s  “Transforming Libraries” website, Knapp said, “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.”

She said that in developing the plan, “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.”

She said it moved the conversation to a higher level 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.”


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