PLA Conference 2014

I recently attended the Public Library Association Conference in Indianapolis. There was a series of sessions on the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative of the American Library Association and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The initiative is based on the vision of “turning outward,” shifting our focus from an inward institutional viewpoint to an outward community-based view. The Harwood Institute has lots of resources available online  ( including their book The Organization-First Approach, and additional resources can be found on the ALA website.

What struck me most about the ALA/Harwood approach is that the goal is first and foremost to have libraries play a role in bringing diverse groups of people together to work together and determine shared community aspirations – not necessarily related to library service.  Librarians and library staff may not even lead these collaborations, but can help create the conditions for it to happen. As a result of hearing community aspirations, a library can reflect these ideas in library service planning, or share the information with relevant community organizations.  It’s all about the library’s role in being an agent of community change.

Much like our CLA Community-Led Library Service Network, the ALA has an online “community” group called Libraries Foster Community Engagement.  You don’t have to be an ALA member to join.

I also heard about some other online resources, including:


Sara Gillis

Community-Led Service Manager, Halifax Public Libraries



  1. Thanks for this report. I like the focus on community aspirations, which may not be library related. The same principle applies to needs-based libraries who focus on what the community’s needs are (in general terms) rather than just their library needs. Once we understand the community’s aspirations / needs, we can design strategies, structures, systems and culture to meet those aspirations / needs. A community-led service may focus more on people’s aspirations (wants) while a needs-based service may focus more on their needs, and prioritise those with the greatest needs.

    1. In another community engagement related session at PLA, Omaha Public Library shared that as part of their pilot project they trained library staff (not just librarians but staff at all levels, except shelvers I believe) in facilitation skills. They said that they had to work on a mental shift of getting staff used to the idea that conversations they facilitate may not be about library services and that they are not doing a library sales job. Their motto was that “the facilitation is in service to the community, not the library” and they realized, after some initial community discussions, that there is a need for these conversations to happen and that the library’s role could simply be as facilitator.

      1. I like that paradigm shift from ‘what can the community do for us’ (borrow books, visit the library, attend programs) to ‘what can the library do for the community’.

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