Friday, January 3, 2014

Public Innovation and the North Philadelphia Neighborhood Libraries

In late October I and one of the library managers were fortunate enough to be able to attend a three-day lab on how libraries can transform communities through public innovation.  These three days were the beginning of a one-year long training program.

ALA received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to advance library-led community engagement.  They have partnered with the Harwood Institute of Public Innovation to forward this mission.  There are links to handouts that explain some of what I'm describing here.

Here are some of the important take-aways I got from the experience.

1. Look outward.  When planning for a program, or event do we assume we know what our community needs, or wants.  Or, do we ask them directly?

2. Public vs. Expert Knowledge.  Expert knowledge is everything we can glean from statistics.  The census, neighborhood demographics, crime data, etc.  It helps to draw a certain picture of the community.  Public knowledge is obtained by getting out on the streets and actually talking to the people.  It can also be gathered at what are called "Kitchen Table Conversations."  Generally speaking the following questions are asked.
                      1. What are your aspirations for your community?
                      2.  The challenges we face in reaching this aspirations are ...
                      3. The changes needed in my community to reach these aspirations are...

3.  Authority.  Could I stand up on a table and talk to people about their community, their aspirations and concerns, and would they believe me?

4.  Authenticity.  Do I reflect the reality of people’s lives and do they believe I have their best interests at heart, even when we disagree? 

5.  Accountability.  Am I living up to the pledges and promises I made?

We have already started asking these and other questions in the community, and will be setting up some kitchen table conversations in the New Year as I become more acquainted with the program.

The knowledge gained from these exercises is meant to supplement or compliment any formal strategic plans that are in place.

Note:  The Harwood Institute was founded by Richard Harwood, and he has been using and refining these methods for more than twenty years.  Richard Harwood is the person who was asked to conduct the conversations with the families of the victims in Newtown, Connecticut about the disposition of the Sandy Hook Elementary School building.



  1. I think libraries and their staff know their communities quite well. Staff become part of the community in which they work. Many of us have seen patrons grow up and have children of their own and subsequently became librarians for two or more generations. We are already "family" to people who come and NEED us within the physical library. That is what we are here for. That is what we've "signed up" to do with our lives. Why go "out in the streets" when the streets are in our libraries. Kitchen table conversations are already in place within the libraries. They take place at the reference desk which serves often at a chit-chat water cooler. Kitchen table conversations take place in our meeting rooms when staffs join in on the event and hold snakes or eat chocolate covered ants with the patrons or make wreaths with the patrons, or wear our pajamas with young patrons during story hour. Politicians should be the ones “out in the streets. “ They can do things for families and communities that we can’t. Whether it be political funding of local community services, providing social support services in the homes of at-risk kids, assisting people with housing help, or providing better public schools, this is what "out in the streets" should be. Leave us alone and let us do the jobs we know and love within the communities who need their libraries. We have dedicated ourselves in this way to the communities who love us back.

  2. Received via email from Debra: I advocate going “out to the streets”. Seeing environments where potential patrons (who never come into the library) are is very different than the controlled library environment.
    Besides, being the outsider in their environments gives you insight into people’s expectations and assumptions of the world that you would never get from your desk.

    1. We are not outsiders. Libraries exist within communities. We are already in the potential patron environment. We can't knock on people's doors and sit at their kitchen tables. David Mariscotti has worked at the Donnatucci Branch for 20 years. He is a community go-to person. The whole neighborhood knows him. He knows his community as though he lives there himself! He walks down the street to go home and people from a generation past wave hello to him. Same thing with Judi Moore at the McPherson Square Branch. She has worked there for over 20 years. She may as well be the grandmother of "the bad lands". She knows precisely what the adults and children want and need. She knows what the people who don't use the library may want and need. People grow up with librarians. Even people who may not be regular library users. What the Free Library ought to advocate is the support of branch staff to become like family in patron and potential patron environments. How? With enough staff to keep branches open and accessible to patrons and potential patrons, knowing that library staff become indelible to their communities.To offer staff more opportunities for down-to-up communication to let administration know what WE need here "in the trenches/communities" that we know best. Certainly better than they can know at THEIR desks.