Session Notes: Turning Outward – You, Your Library, and Your Community | Compendium

This is part of a series of Session Notes from grantees who have received Professional Development grants from the Office of Commonwealth Libraries. Each grantee will share their professional development experience and include tips and other resources from the workshop or class. Grantees had their choice of an article for the Compendium, a webinar or a podcast. This project was made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Brianna Crum

Brianna Crum


Brianna Crum,
District Consultant
Capital Area District

I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a workshop of the Public Innovators Lab for Libraries, provided through a partnership between the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and the American Library Association (ALA).  The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that teaches, coaches and inspires individuals and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together.  Here’s a great video that describes the Institute’s organization and focus.  There are also many helpful resources on their website, such as reports, videos, and other tools to provide a better understanding of the ‘Turning Outward’ approach.

From October 19 – 21, 2016, over 90 participants from school, public, academic and special libraries met at the Loudermilk Center in Atlanta, Georgia to learn what it means to be a public innovator in our communities with the goal of moving forward, and how to shift our personal and organizational focus from looking inward for answers to more of a ‘Turned Outward’ approach and practice.  Throughout the workshop, we were broken into smaller groups for discussion and facilitated activities, led by Harwood-certified coaches who were engaging, helpful and focused.

Community impact is created at three different levels; individually, as an organization, and on a community level.  Libraries across the country are doing great work; however, as organizations, are we asking the right questions when it comes to the needs of our communities?  How can we as organizations create a greater impact, be more relevant, and work to strengthen our communities?  These were just a few of the questions the Lab challenged us to answer.

The first key area we discussed was the importance of understanding our community.  Rather than focusing on what we think we already know about our community’s needs, we focused on how to ask questions to garner public knowledge.  Public knowledge is having a sound understanding of people’s aspirations, concerns, and how they view their community.  It’s relying on what people are telling us, rather than focusing on the expert knowledge we are comfortable using (the data, studies, and best practices many of us fall back on when assessing the value and impact of our libraries).  The questions we ask the members of our community result in answers of shared aspirations, and show how we all have a common ownership in the direction our community is heading.  It’s important that we listen to those answers, learn from them, and share this information with others to build community ownership and better partnerships.

The second key area is a focus on Turning Outward, both personally and as an organization.  What does this mean exactly?  The Institute describes this as “an orientation – a stance we assume, a posture, a mindset.”  Making the choice to ‘Turn Outward’ results in discovering a community’s shared aspirations and a way to focus on making progress together.  It means making intentional choices and judgments to move our community onto a path of possibility and hope.  As participants, we were asked to personally make the choice to Turn Outward; by doing this, our focus became less on inward goals and activities and more on people, engagement, and impact in our community.

It’s important to remember that your community is not only those outside of your library’s walls; it’s your reference department, a library’s management team, your board of trustees, even the entire staff of your organization!  While it’s important to focus on the outside community, it’s also essential to look within your organization and discuss not only everyone’s shared aspirations, but the concerns and important issues that prevent your organization from meeting those shared aspirations.

Once we personally made the choice to Turn Outward, the focus then shifted to our daily choices.  Here’s where the Institute’s ‘3 A’s of Public Life’ were presented.  Turning Outward will not be effective without holding authority (having a deep knowledge of your community, and applying that knowledge in the work you do), being authentic (reflecting the reality of people’s lives and deeply listening), and by being accountable (setting realistic expectations, pursuing what’s meaningful, and creating a fou

ndation for what the future holds).  This certainly isn’t an easy path; it’s challenging and easy to slip back into an inward-focused mindset.  These touchstones help to keep you focused on looking outward, while earning trust and gaining credibility in your community.

We then learned about identifying the stage of our community; it’s important and essential to know what stage your community is in at any given moment.  Once you understand where your community is, you can work to develop strategies, programs and actions that fit your community’s context and help move it forward to another community stage with further possibilities.

The entire practice of ‘Turning Outward’ is quite an undertaking; it’s not something that’s easy or a ‘once and done’ to be crossed off a list.  The simple act of getting started on ‘Turning Outward’ can be the most difficult, so it’s critical to begin where you believe the most progress can happen, and where you can get a ‘quick win’ – think about your fellow library staff, your board of directors, or even your family. How can you engage others in your community to spread the practice of an outward focus?

This is where many of us at the Lab, myself included, became overwhelmed, even stuck on how exactly to begin.  There’s so much that can be done, so much that our communities need and aspire to be – where is the best place to start?  Also, there’s the constant pressure to turn inward, to focus on the day-to-day tasks of our role in our libraries, and let things get in the way of an outward focused mindset.  On the last day of the Lab, each of us worked on an action plan and a personal covenant in order to stay true to ourselves and the lessons learned from the workshop.

I am starting small, because it’s more manageable.  As a district consultant, I am connected to communities which are the staff of the libraries in my district.  I am looking at those I work with, and beginning to ask these questions:

  1. What kind of community do you want?
  2. Why is that important to you?
  3. How is that different from how you see things now?
  4. What are some of the things that need to happen to create that kind of change?

I’m listening when I ask these questions.  Really listening and focusing on what my coworkers are saying.  And I am constantly asking myself, “Am I Turned Outward Today?”

Rich Harwood is the president and founder of the Harwood Institute, which began in 1988, and has a 30 year track record of positively moving communities forward.  Today, there are more than 2,000 public innovators across the world (including myself!) who are working to bridge community divides and find common ground.

Source: The Harwood Institute, 4915 St. Elmo Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814