Demystifying What???

Collaborative reflections on field notes, data, and experiences within our research team the last couple of weeks have been immensely helpful in bringing to light some key ideas regarding our approach to digital literacy. We refer to the general approach as Demystifying Technology. Demystifying technology is a method that seeks to encourage movement from passive use to co-creation of innovations-in-use by community, in community, for community. It is being implemented both in digital literacy workshops and one-on-one technical support sessions with community members, and also in graduate level courses. And it readily adapts to those interacting directly with digital technologies for the first time, and those who have years of experience with the nuts and bolts.

The approach has been most associated with demystifying computer hardware, but it applies equally well to software and networks. By disassembling and reassembling computers, software, and networks, the black box of technology is opened. The goal isn’t to develop an army of technicians who work daily at the nuts and bolts level of technology. Rather, as highlighted in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition’s list of principles:

Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it, but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.

Indeed, if we are to achieve goals of co-creation and informed decision making, we need to demystify the mutual shaping of technology and society as much and more than we do the physical aspects of technology. 

What are we demystifying?

Technology both shapes and is shaped by society. People bring specific histories, cultures, and ways of knowing to their work. These influence what they prioritize as opportunities and problems. Histories, cultures, and ways of knowing also influence how people move forward to understand and tackle opportunities and problems. An organic farmer may see a plant restoring the soil while an industrial farmer may see a weed. The organic farmer may ask what deficiencies are indicated because the plant is growing there and not elsewhere, and seek to complement that plant with others in a more complex intercropping or rotation cycle to facilitate the work of the plant and thereby bring the soil microbiome to better health. An industrial farmer may ask which herbicide and fertilizer combination will remove the plant and improve the soil as growing substrate to increase yields. Both may use state-of-the-art digital data collection and analysis technologies to inform their decision-making processes. But those collection and analysis technologies may have worked better out-of-the-box, and there may be a much larger support network, for the industrial farmers than for the organic farmers.

Demystifying social<->technology not only makes the hardware and software more approachable by opening up the black box, it also helps to open the OTHER black box, the social and its tight interaction with the technology. Let’s take as an example demystifying the digital data collection and analysis tools used by farmers today.

Today, the predominant funding of agricultural research comes from sources that prioritize industrial farming practices. Government policies prioritize industrial farming practices. Bank policies prioritize industrial farming practices. Transportation and sales prioritize industrial farming practices. And so engineers and computer scientists prioritize industrial farming practices.

But further, science that seeks to reduce complex systems to their smallest discrete part in order to discover regularities and causal laws is very different from science that assumes reality is an irreducibly complex, fluid, and fragile system that can only be understood through ongoing interaction and can never be fully predicted and controlled. If engineers and computer scientists build tools for the industrial farmer based on the first type of science listed above so that the tool works to reduce down components of the complex whole to its most essential part, it may not fit the second type of science the organic farmers pursues. Rather, they need tools that help them understand the complex and dynamic whole of billions of organisms below ground and a rich diversity of plants and animals above ground, as a living, fluid ecosystem.

The data collection and analysis tools used by farmers have been developed with a set of economic, political, and scientific values developed to fit specific cultural, historical, and current contexts. Understanding these values helps to understand — to demystify — how those values are embedded within the physical and software components of the technology. In turn, that helps to begin demystifying how use of the value-laden technology may subsequently shape us in ways that are consistent with, or counter to, our own values and the values of our community.

Ultimately, demystifying social<->technology is not only to demystify the social and to demystify the technical, but it is to demystify the bi-directional arrow that binds these two inextricably together as mutually shaping forces.

Why demystify social<->technology?

How often do we find ourselves frustrated by a technology, wondering why it works for everyone else, but not for us? I’ll readily admit, in spite of my deep knowledge of the nuts and bolts of technology, that I regularly am frustrated by technology. But rather than questioning myself, I recognize the likely influencing factors that have led to technology that works better for others than for me. Touch screens have much to like about them as an input+output mechanism, designed to the advantage of many. But my fatter-than-normal fingers combined with a lack of binocular depth perception means that I consistently struggle with the interface. Iconography that has replaced the written word can serve well a multi-lingual nation, but I often find the images confusing. The image telling me which way to swipe cards seems backwards to me, and so I often get it wrong. The old floppy disk icon that means save in much software means open to me, because I used to use floppy disks to open programs back in the old days. On the other hand, the manilla folder that means open in much software to me means save, because I generally only use manilla folders when a project is completed and I’m archiving old papers, hopefully never to be needed again.

When the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to fight the urge to blame myself and instead to gain agency to consider ways to move forward. Maybe I just laugh at the silliness of it all and try again. Maybe I move back to traditional technologies like pen and paper for some things. Maybe I buy a smartphone with traditional keyboard. Maybe I find software that gives me more control over iconography. Or maybe I just allow myself to be angry that there are no good solutions because current social structures limit choice, and then show myself grace that I need to get by as best I can within those limited choices.

Engineering isn’t about doing things right, its about doing it just right enough (that statement was made recently on the PBS Nova episode “The Great Math Mystery“). To make things right is to reach for the unattainable. To make it right enough is to recognize tradeoffs always have to be made. But what does right enough mean. For instance, eliminating replaceable batteries on a smartphone may result in a more durable product in the immediate, but one that has a shorter lifespan in the longterm. Which choice is right enough? As another example, allowing phone calls over wifi using Skype or Google Hangout could reduce the demand for unlimited cell minutes, but that would reduce revenues for cell companies, decreasing investment and potentially research and development funding. Which choice is right enough?

When the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to choose a phone without a replaceable battery to benefit from the durability. But I also selected one with an extra large battery so that even several years down the line that battery should still have enough juice after a day of use to keep it usable beyond the 2-year standard replacement cycle. When the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to understand for what it is the “innovation” T-Mobile announced recently that now allows customers to make Skype and Google Hangout calls on wifi, which is not really an innovation but a removal of a restrictive policy. It is to recognize that some models of smartphones on the Verizon network enforce this policy, while others don’t, and any one of them can change that policy without my consent during the next software upgrade, which means maybe I upgrade less if it’s working as I want it to.

Returning to the example above related to soil data collection and analysis tools, when the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to begin to situate the struggles of the organic farmer within a larger set of economic, political, cultural, and scientific values. Perhaps these values contributed to the development of the best model of farming, and organic farming is struggling not just because it is counter to these values but because it is inferior overall. But perhaps these values are right enough for a few but are suboptimal for many, and organic farming is struggling specifically because it is counter to the social values that benefit the few. Or perhaps the answer is somewhere between the two.

In opening up the black box of both the social and the technical, we don’t get a definitive answer, but a richer information base within which to have dialog and to build knowledge about what it is that is right enough to achieve our personal and community valued beings and doings. 

How can we demystify social<->technology?

Paulo Freire was an adult educator from Brazil, who in the 1960’s worked to develop educational projects that not only taught reading and writing to the illiterate, but at the same time worked to help raise awareness of the agency people had to bring a new reality into existence. He used techniques that would be familiar to us today — show a picture, show a word, help people to pronounce the word and associate it with the picture, connect the syllables of the word with specific sounds, generalize to other words. But as Freire went through these steps, he also encouraged learners to combine syllables in unique ways to create new words. And he encouraged them to see how the old word was often associated with objects that served to oppress the learner (for instance, a brick that perhaps they manufactured for elites who paid them a sub-living wage and then used the brick to build walled fortresses that kept wealth in and others out). At the same time they made connections of syllable sounds with new words, they also made connections between creating their own new words with creating new, more just realities — the social<->technology was demystified.

Here’s an example of how we’ve applied this to a digital technology workshop on hardware.

  1. Icebreaker:
    1. As you enter, please take a moment to draw a picture of an innovator innovating.
    2. Introduce yourself and describe one way you’ve taken something you have and used it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used to solve a problem. Then tell us about the picture you drew [most people draw a white male working alone doing something they deem innovative].
    3. Discussion: How does the pictures we each drew compare to our descriptions of ways that we’ve innovatively repurposed somethign we have?
  2. Hands-on Activity:
    1. Disassemble a computer, highlighting the main parts as we go.
    2. Imagine the flow of a keystroke as it travels from the keyboard input port to controller to CPU to memory and storage and back to the CPU to the video controller and out to the video display
    3. Disassemble other devices like a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Note that the flow of the keystroke passes through the same general parts.
  3. Discussion:
    1. What makes a desktop computer different from a laptop computer or a tablet or a smartphone if they use the same general parts?
    2. What values may have gone into the different ways the parts are put together?
    3. How might choosing one format over another benefit certain values and goals over others? Which is the best device? How might you redesign the device if you could to better fit your values, goals, and context?
    4. What is it? [Place a smartphone on the table, turned off. As suggestions come in, challenge participants to think expansively across different contexts. Also challenge them to consider what it can’t be because of policy or economic restrictions.]

As noted earlier, our demystifying technology approach has been generalized to a wide range of contexts, from the workshop example given above to short one-on-one sessions. It’s been applied to software and networks, not just hardware. It’s an approach just as at home in a library, church, or school as it is in a Makerspace or Fab Lab.

Importantly, we’re coming to realize demystifying technology isn’t about creating different curriculum, but it’s rather what is transformative is the way the curriculum is integrated together with other curriculum, icebreakers, and reflective discussion. In other words, it’s the programming that is built around the curriculum that matters more than the curriculum itself.

And most importantly, it’s the values that inform the programming that makes all the difference (covered in more depth in the post Technology Education and Social Justice):

  • that technology is both shaped by and shapes society;
  • that our most important work is to humanize others and help each person have the capability to flourish;
  • that resilient, just community is the essential outcome goal of our work;
  • that hardware and software expertise is but one of many expertise needed if we are to build and effectively use tools that help us achieve broader human and community development goals;
  • that difference is not just a nicety, but a desperately needed resource; and
  • that there are exclusionary social structures, some of which we actively — even if unintentionally — reinforce through our choices and actions, and that must be countered if we are to achieve these broader goals.
Posted in Education, Reflections, Social Justice | Leave a comment

New Class: Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogies

I am so excited to share this early draft syllabus (bibliography posted separately) for a new class I will be developing for fall 2015.

  • Title: Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogies
  • Meeting Time: Tuesday, 9-11:50, August 25 – December 8
  • Meeting Location: Library and Information Science Building, room 341
  • Prerequisites: none — open to all graduate students and upper-level undergraduates

Description: This course will explore the design of space and pedagogy for informal learning in collaborative environments. We will investigate together a variety of informal learning spaces such as information and learning commons, learning labs, and Makerspaces to understand the impact environment has on learning, and will review key literature concerning informal learning pedagogy and critical sociotechnical perspectives on technology and society. We will also consider qualitative and quantitative evaluation strategies for measuring output and impact of design of space and programming for informal learning in libraries, museums, and other public venues.

Learning Objectives: By the end of the semester, students should be able to identify the following:

  • The trends regarding adoption and use of informal learning spaces in school, public, academic, and special libraries, in museums, and in other public and private collaborative spaces;
  • Ways the built environment facilitates and inhibits learning;
  • Strategies for intentional design of space to better achieve desired learning outcomes;
  • The major educational theories related to informal learning and how to select and incorporate components of these into space and programming design;
  • How critical feminist and social shaping of technology perspectives usefully inform technology implementation within informal learning spaces;
  • Key alternative evaluation strategies, their theoretical assumptions, and important criteria for selection and implementation to aid in space and program development; and
  • How to bring theoretical perspectives from readings and field practice into dialogue as part of LIS professional life.

Assignments and Methods of Assessment: Students will be graded on a 90% (A), 80% (B), 70% (C), 60% (D) scale. Graded assignments and the overall percentage for each category of assignments are listed below.  Note that we will be covering around100 pages of readings per week. To receive full marks on each assessment component, it will be important that student-instructors complete the assigned readings in advance of class unless otherwise noted.

Concept Papers (50% of grade)

There will be a concept paper due at the end of each of the four major topic areas (trends, built environment, educational and critical sociotechnical theories, and evaluation) covered during the course of the semester. Students will be expected to create a 2 to 3-page paper for each topic area that summarizes and synthesizes the main issues related to that topic along with a brief bibliography that could be used to inform a library or museum administrator or board trustee.

Analysis of an Ongoing Informal Learning Space in a Library, Museum, or other public or private collaborative space (30% of grade):

This final project is a 5-6 page paper that analyzes an informal learning space in a library, museum, or other public/private collaborative venue. You may do the investigation in collaboration with another class member or someone in your local community. The length of the paper doesn’t change if it is done in collaboration with another student, however I expect that the depth of information that goes into the paper to be greater.

The analysis must include various sources of information, such as:

  • An interview with one or more LIS professionals and one or more active users of the space;
  • Readings, including but not limited to those on the resource bibliography for the course;
  • Websites with resources on the program/or related projects;
  • Your own direct experiences;
  • The organization’s mission and identified goals in the area

The analysis should incorporate an overview of the informal learning space, an analysis of the space and program design inspirations, a consideration of several examples of successful and failed uses of the informal learning space, and strategies used to evaluate the overall impact of the space. For full credit, the paper should make clear connections between the analysis of the informal learning space and the primary literature reviewed for the class.

Instructor Evaluation (20% of grade):

The instructor will evaluate student attendance, active participation, and overall progress throughout the course of the semester. The following rubric will be used to assign a score mid-semester and again at the end of the semester. These will be added together to create the final score.

  • 10 = Student has been an active participant in class discussions based on assigned readings and lived experiences and is demonstrating an increasing grasp of the key concepts covered in class.
  • 8 = Student has been an active participant in some of the class discussions based on assigned readings and lived experiences and is demonstrating some gains in grasping key concepts covered in class.
  • 6 = Student is occasionally active in class and is demonstrating some learning, but it is clear they are not performing to their full capabilities.
  • 4 = Student has missed several classes and/or is not always active when attending class.
  • 2 = Student has been absent frequently and/or rarely is active in class.
  • 0 = Student has consistently missed class during the rated period

Required Texts: None. Readings will be comprised of sources from journal articles and open web resources.

Attendance and Participation Policy: Students are expected to attend all class sessions except in case of emergency. If you have an emergency, communicate with the instructor as early as possible to prevent negatively impacting your grade.

It is expected that students will participate actively in the class activities and discussions in a professional manner, showing respect for differing ideas and a willingness and ability to defend their ideas by referring to relevant readings.

Library Resources:;; 217-333-3804

Academic Integrity: Students should review and follow the University policy on academic integrity, available online at: . When you submit an assignment, you are certifying that the work is your own, or that of your project group, and that all use of other people’s material is used in accordance to fair use and copyright policies and is properly referenced.

Statement of Inclusion: The following is from the Chancellor’s Commitment Statement and informs our course approach to inclusion (

As the state’s premier public university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s core mission is to serve the interests of the diverse people of the state of Illinois and beyond. The institution thus values inclusion and a pluralistic learning and research environment, one which we respect the varied perspectives and lived experiences of a diverse community and global workforce. We support diversity of worldviews, histories, and cultural knowledge across a range of social groups including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, abilities, economic class, religion, and their intersections.

Accessibility Statement: To obtain accessibility-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603 (V/TTY), or e-mail a message to

Organization and Course Calendar: The following is a tentative chronological list of the main topics that will be covered. This schedule is subject to change. Please refer to the online course Moodle page for the definitive schedule for any given week, including specific readings that should be completed prior to the class session.

  • Week 1-3: Library and Museum Informal Learning Space Trends
  • Week 4-8: The Built Environment and Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogy
  • Week 9-13: Educational and Critical Interpretive Sociotechnical Theories for Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogy
  • Week 14-15: Evaluation of Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogy

Copyright: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Posted in Community Informatics, Teaching | Leave a comment

Draft Bibliography: Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogies

The following is a draft bibliography for the new course I’m developing for fall 2015 called “Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogies”. I welcome feedback on this bibliography, and also hope others find it valuable for their own work.

(Many of the resources related to Makerspaces and libraries were provided by Rachel Suntop and were developed in relation to her independent study with Emily Knox on this topic.)

Library and Museum Informal Learning Space Trends

Scott Bennet (2003) Libraries Designed for Learning. Available online at:

Diana G. Oblinger, Editor. (2006). Learning Spaces. Educause report available online at:

Becky Herr-Stephenson, Diana Rhoten, Dan Perkel, and Christo Sims (2011) Digital media and Technology in Afterschool Programs, Libraries, and Museums. Available online at:

Lauren Britton (2012) The Makings of Maker: Making Space for Creation, Not Just Consumption. Library Journal, October 2012. Available online at:

Kylie A. Peppler and Yasmin B. Kafai (2007) From Supergoo to Scratch: Exploring creative digital media production in informal learning. Learning, Media and Technology . Available online at:

Burke, J. (2014). Chapter 12: Remaking the library? Tracking the present and future of making in libraries. Makerspaces: A practical guide for librarians (pp. 155-164)

Landgraf, G. (2015). Making Room for Informal Learning: Librarians discuss the Future of Makerspaces. American Libraries Magazine, March/April 2015, 32-34. Available online at:

Bagley, C. (2014). Michigan makers group. Makerspaces: Top trailblazing projects (pp. 73-82)

Canino-Fluit, A. (2014). School library makerspaces: Making it up as I go. Teacher Librarian, 41(5), 21-28.

Houston, C. (2013). Makerspaces@ Your School Library: Consider the Possibilities! Kentucky Libraries, 77(3), 26-28.

Moorefield-Lang, H. (2015). Making, Libraries, and Literacies. Library Media Connection, 33(4), 30-31.

Bagley, C. (2014). Georgia institute of technology. Makerspaces: Top trailblazing projects (pp. 56-64)

Bagley, C. (2014). Valdosta State University, Odom library. Makerspaces: Top trailblazing projects (pp. 93-104)

Fisher, E. (2012). Makerspaces move into academic libraries. Retrieved from

Kurt, L. (2012). 3D printers in the library: Toward a FabLab in the academic library. Retrieved from

Pryor, S. (2014). Implementing a 3D printing service in an academic Library. Journal of Library Administration, 54(1), 1-10.

Bagley, C. (2014). Carnegie public Library. Makerspaces: Top trailblazing projects (pp. 37-45)

Makerspace: Is it right for your library. Carterette Series Webinars (Director). (2014).[Video/DVD]

Lee, M. (2014, The library of the century Design4Impact. Libraryjournal.

The Library as Incubator Project website:

Madison Public Library. (2014). Bubbler. learn. share. create. Retrieved from

Pongan, L. (2013). The Bubbler, a New Madison Public Library Program, finds innovative ways to connect creative types. Isthmus.

Makerspace playbook (School Edition ed.) Maker Media. Available online at:

IMLS (2014) Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums: Transformative Spaces for Teens. Report available online at:

The Built Environment and Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogy

Scott Bennet (2003) Libraries Designed for Learning. Available online at:

Peter C. Lippman (2013) Designing Collaborative Spaces. Campus Technology, May 2013. Available online at:

Mizuko Ito, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, and S. Craig Watkins (2013) Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, Irvine, CA. Available online at: ConnectedLearning_report.pdf

Good, T. (2013). Three makerspace models that work. American Libraries, 44(1/2)

Diana G. Oblinger, Editor. (2006). Learning Spaces. Educause report available online at:

Louise L. Lowe and Roylee Cummings (2009) Small Spaces, Small Budget, Big Results: Creating a user-centered Learning Space on a Budget. Georgia Library Quarterly. Available online at:

Martin Wolske, Deven Gibbs, Adam Kehoe, Vera Jones, and Sharon Irish. (2013) Outcome of Applying Evidence-Based Design to Public Computing Centers: A Preliminary Study. The Journal of Community Informatics, 9(1). Available online at:

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 21st Century Learning Environments. Available online at:

Educational and Critical Interpretive Sociotechnical Theories for Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogy

Gerhard Fischer (2011) Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation. Interactions, 18(3). Available online at:

Chachra, D. (2015). Why I am not a maker. The Atlantic.

Norris, A. (2014). Make-her-spaces as hybrid places: Designing and resisting self constructions in urban classrooms. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(1), 63-77.

Toupin, S. (2014). Feminist hackerspaces: The synthesis of feminist and hacker cultures. Journal of Peer Production, (5)

Brady, T., et al. (2014). MakeAbility: Creating Accessible Makerspace Events in a Public Library. Public Library Quarterly, 33(4), 330-347.

Diana G. Oblinger, Editor. (2006). Learning Spaces. Educause report available online at:

David Buckingham, Julian Sefton-Green, and Rebekah Willett (2003) Shared Spaces: Informal learning and Digital Cultures. Media Culture Online. Available online at:

Bertram C. Bruce and Ann Peterson Bishop (2008). New literacies and community inquiry. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear, & D. Leu, (eds.), The handbook of research in new literacies (pp. 699-742). New York: Routledge. Available online at:

Richard Kahn & douglas Kellner (2007) Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich: technology, politics and the reconstruction of education. Policy Futures in Education, 5(4)

Yasmin B. Kafai, Kylie A. Peppler, and Robbin N. Chapman (eds.) The Computer Clubhouse: Constructionism and Creativity in youth Communities

Edith Ackermann (2001) Piaget’s constructivism, Papert’s constructionism: What’s the difference? Future of Learning Group Publication, 5(1). Available online at:

Louise Limberg and Mikael Alexandersson. (2009). Learning and Information Seeking. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition. Available online at:

Carol Collier Kuhlthau (2010) Guided Inquiry: School Libraries in the 21st Century. School Libraries Worldwide, 16(1). Available online at:

Kirsten Drotner, Hans Siggaard Jensen and Kim Chistian Schroder, Eds. (2008) Informal Learning and Digital Media.

Rhinesmith, C. and Wolske, M. (2014) “Community Informatics Studio: A Conceptual Framework”, Challenges and Solutions.  CIRN Prato Conference 2014 Eds, Larry Stillman, Tom Denison, Centre for Community and Social Informatics, Faculty of IT, Monash University. ISBN: 978-0-9874652-3-8.

Evaluation of Informal Learning Spaces and Pedagogy

Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic and Mary Anne Kennan (2013) The Methodological Landscape: Information Systems and Knowledge Management. In ResearchMethods: Information, Systems and Contexts.

Scott Bennet (2003) Libraries Designed for Learning. Available online at:

Mizuko Ito, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, and S. Craig Watkins (2013) Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, Irvine, CA. Available online at: ConnectedLearning_report.pdf

Diana G. Oblinger, Editor. (2006). Learning Spaces. Educause report available online at:

Reflect and Improve: A Tool Kit for Engaging Youth and Adults as Partners in Program Evaluation. Copyright 2005 Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development.

Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Outcome-based Evaluation

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton and Cynthia C. Phillips (2013) The Logic Model Guidebook, 2nd Edition. Sage Publishing

Posted in Miscellaneous | 1 Comment

Community happens when…

Community happens when the many realize their oneness1 …

  • When the neighbor is loved as the self;2
  • When the suffering that is experienced by the one directly is also suffered by the many indirectly;3
  • When the common good – and especially the good of the poor, the oppressed, the stranger – is cherished as well as the good of the self;4
  • When difference is understood as the root of wholeness;5 and
  • When liberative dialogue grounded in love, humility, faith, mutual trust, hope, and critical thinking progressively speaks a new, more just reality into existence;6

… so that everyone – human and more-than-human7 – has the capability to fully flourish8.

The goal of engagement and social change projects is to, in allyship with the oppressed9, counter the coercive ideology of the elite and the common sense hegemony of our social institutions10 so as to dismantle the systems of oppression that stand in the way of community. The means of engagement and social change projects must, whenever possible, advance the knowledge power with and within11 the many and the one so as to avoid replacing one form of power over with another form of power over12. To this ends, engagement and social change are not side projects, but a lens and process that infuse all that we do and are as we dedicate ourselves to building community.


[1] We are always mutually interdependent but often act as if we are independent. Community starts when we come to appreciate and act intentionally on our oneness.
[2] Many of the major religions and the non-religious all champion some form of this golden rule. However, in her book Becoming an Ally, Anne Bishop highlights the importance of working to heal our own oppression if we are to better serve as an ally for others — that is, love our neighbors as ourselves. Unhealed, loving our neighbor as ourselves may instead serve as a mirror for the unhealthy ways we love ourselves.
[3] Many have noted this mutuality, but in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., stated this point particularly well:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

[4] Calls towards a common good have been made periodically throughout our history. A good review of the problems with the concept, but also the value of it, has been developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. An example of a recent dialog regarding the common good can be seen in this article by Jim Wallis and a followup caution by Onlielove Alston as part of Huffington Post’s ‘Common Good’ series.
[5] Two recommended resources exploring the value and necessity of difference are Iris Marion Young’s chapter “Difference as a Resource for Democratic Communication” in Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, and Cricket Keating’s article “Building Coalitional Consciousness” in the NWSA Journal, 17(2), 86-103.
[6] Both John Dewey in Experience and Education and Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed highlight the need to bring action together with reflection in community as part of an educational process and also a social change process. We work together — community inquiry — to envision and bring about an alternate reality in what Dewey stresses is a true participatory democracy. Freire especially emphasizes the dialogic aspects and a process of liberative conscientization while Dewey helpfully constructs a theory of experience that grounds a progressive form of inquiry-based, problem-posing education.
[7] Many indigenous people deeply value the more-than-human as in community with the human. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” in her wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants was very helpful in bringing me to a new awareness of this. I also highly recommend Aldo Leopold’s concluding chapter “The Land Ethic” in his book A Sand County Almanac.
[8] The human development and capability approach has been developed as a more expansive alternative to the narrowly defined economic development models for individual and societal flourishing. It champions an approach to development that works to assure people have the capabilities to live lives they value and enabling them to become actors in their own destinies. An excellent introduction to this alternative to neoliberal market economics can be freely downloaded.
[9] Randy Stoecker introduced me to the idea of allyship as a primary method for how we do engagement. Anne Bishop’s Becoming an Ally is an important work describing the necessary work to assure we use this method in a respectful and helpful way.
[10] I highly recommend Mark Stoddart’s article “Ideology, Hegemony, Discourse: A Critical Review of Theories of Knowledge and Power” in Social Thought & Research, Vol. 28, Social “Movements for an introduction to important concepts like ideology and hegemony, and theories of knowledge and power that deeply underly our human interactions.
[11] InBecoming an Ally Anne Bishop helpfully clarifies distinctions in power, differentiating power with others and power within from power over others. She also notes that one person who brings forward power over can completely disrupt even the strongest power with community unless clearly recognized and carefully addressed, sometimes even resorting to power over briefly.
[12] In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Friere notes that even as the oppressed take ownership of their own liberation, they need to be intentional to assure that they also work to liberate their oppressor instead of becoming themselves an oppressor.

Posted in Community Engagement, Reflections | Leave a comment

Creative Destruction’s Impacts

The last few weeks have been exceptionally hard as I watch one important social program after another see immediate cuts, and as I talk to those in our community and state who are already struggling take one more punch to the gut. This is not a story of unwise individuals making poor, lazy choices. This is rather a story of systems of oppression — our sins and the sins of our ancestors — holding fast for yet another generation of oppressed. Programs that had a chance to in some small ways right a wrong are once again dismantled.

Then I was introduced to the concept of Creative Destruction in a recent article. And my stomach did backflips (excerpts taken from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economic entry on the term):

Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) coined the seemingly paradoxical term “creative destruction,” and generations of economists have adopted it as a shorthand description of the free market’s messy way of delivering progress.

Schumpeter and the economists who adopt his succinct summary of the free market’s ceaseless churning echo capitalism’s critics in acknowledging that lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system. The saving grace comes from recognizing the good that comes from the turmoil. Over time, societies that allow creative destruction to operate grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products, shorter work weeks, better jobs, and higher living standards.

And here’s the clincher that makes my stomach do those backflips!

Herein lies the paradox of progress. A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever. At the same time, attempts to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries will lead to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march of progress.

“…some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever.”

But heaven forbid we should short-circuit the march of progress to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction.

If creative destruction is the price for progress, then progress be damned.

Any philosophy that recognizes and blithely accepts that some individuals might be worse off, perhaps forever — especially given the odds of that individual arising from a systemically oppressed class — is an evil condemned in the gospels, for instance this passage from Matthew 25:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

It is inconsistent with a new kingdom lifestyle that gave to any who had need, for instance as described in Acts 2:

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

It is inconsistent with a Jesus who overturned the tables of moneychangers to upset the systems that oppressed the poor, a theme that carries over the whole of the Bible.

Economists, please correct me where I am wrong in my understanding. I don’t want to make false claims or act out of misunderstandings. But I simply cannot reconcile a capitalist political economy based on creative destruction with the gospels of Jesus.

Everyone else, please take a minute to read the encyclopedia entry on creative destruction and let me know what you think.

Posted in Social Justice | Leave a comment

Public Libraries Exemplifying Various Trends

In my last post I introduced the engaged public library as a defining transition underway across our country. Rather than a specific end-product, the engaged library is a user-driven, ongoing process of co-created and co-delivered services. Thus, while some aspects may remain core to many public libraries, ultimately every public library will look as unique as it’s community for which it is a keystone institution.

What follows in this post is a listing of some libraries exemplifying various trends in public librarianship. As chair of the newly created Visioning 2020 committee for the Champaign Public Library Board of Trustees, I hope this serves as a starting point for our upcoming dialogs with different stakeholder groups regarding aspirations for the Champaign community, hurdles to achieving those aspirations, and ways in which the Champaign Public Library might work in partnership to support achievement of the aspirations.

I’ve divided the examples into three overarching themes: Co-Learning and Co-Creating; Civic Engagement; and Resilient Communities. I chose these as the starting point because they seemed especially relevant to the current Champaign Public Library context. A number of the examples overlap different themes, and there are other themes that might be considered. Many of these examples will likely seem familiar as they aren’t revolutionary but rather evolutionary. Common across all examples, though, are libraries that have progressed from primarily doing outreach to their community to instead primarily doing engagement with their community, a transition that is the mark of a keystone institution.

Co-Learning, Co-Creating

There is a growing trend of a sharing economy, bringing together social technologies and a new valuation of access over ownership, a trend especially led by the Millennials generation. There is also a growing interest in development beyond just that of productivity and the economy, as people seek to fully realize their broader capabilities to achieve human flourishing. A do-it-yourself mindset is being combined with a renewed interest in community. The library, as the people’s university and a third space beyond home and work, is uniquely situated to build from its historic role in providing free/shared resources and spaces.

My first visit to a new model of a shared library learning space was at the Abilene Christian University library (the notes from my visit are linked here). They had collaboratively redesigned their first floor to serve as a learning commons, a vibrant space for co-learning that gave new vitality to the library. Instead of being a quick in, quick out location to grab a needed item from the collection, it has become a hotspot for co-learning. The Writing Center and campus IT support have co-located facilities on the first floor as well, to create more of a one-stop shop for students. Faculty voluntarily hold some of their office hours there, and administrators walk through to get a pulse on the campus. Upstairs, they have a learning studio that includes various digital media production tools and expert support staff, technology-equipped meeting rooms with flat screen TV’s for shared displays, as well as the traditional stacks with books and magazines.

The Brooklyn Public Library has created an information commons that more intentionally brings together its computer labs, technology-equipped meeting rooms, recording studio, and digital conversion equipment. Jesse Montero, Coordinator of Information Services, writes:

The Info Commons is a new space that promotes learning through instruction, collaboration, and access to new resources and services. Combining open workspace, advanced computer workstations, public meeting rooms, and a training lab, the Info Commons recognizes that people can learn from instructors, with peers, and on their own.

YouMedia at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago remains a strong model of learning labs for teens. But other examples serve patrons of all ages. For instance, the Waukegan Public Library transformed its main floor “to reflect the changing role of the library from information warehouse to educational institution” and “further define the library as a Learning Center for the community.”

The use of the term learning or information commons emphasizes co-learning and co-creation for community as well as individual use, bringing to mind common good or the community commons area. At The Urbana Free Library, the 2nd floor computer lab was considered a very noisy space, with surveys and focus groups indicating regular group work as well as individual work. A collaborative process was used to redesign the space to create a more open, attractive, and flexible space that more effectively supports the group work while continuing to also support individual work. It had an immediate impact reducing the volume in the space as groups were able to work more conveniently together when they wanted, while also using the geography of the space to redirect voices away from the back wall that served as an echo chamber.

The Urbana Free Library is one of a growing number of examples of creation spaces in libraries (for more regarding libraries and Makerspaces, see this librarians guide). The Teen Open Lab is a teen-directed space that promotes creativity, peer instruction, and community building. Teens solder their own sound-making squishy circuits, use vinyl cutters to turn out patterns that they then sew on the sewing machines, record their own music, and use graphics tablets to create their own digital characters. Support for programming has come from the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, Makerspace Urbana, and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. But this is very much a teen-led program, and teens often help with setup just to get early access to the space after school. The graphics tablets where acquired at the request of a teen who now as an 18-year old continues to volunteer in the space, teaching others how to develop their artistic talents going from drawings on paper to digital creations. Teens not only learn cutting edge digital literacy, but broader 21st century literacies that include communication, collaboration, and civic literacy.

Dodge City Public Library was the first place I encountered librarians helping to co-facilitate groups coming together to attend webinars, much the way they also continue to co-facilitate reading groups. Citizens who don’t find attending an online webinar by themselves find it both informative and an enjoyable activity when the online learning is combined with in-person discussion. Another example is discussed more below in which 21 public libraries across the state of Wisconsin are teaming up with the University of Wisconsin Madison to give local context to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) the University is offering on climate change.

Civic Engagement

Nancy Kranich is past president of the American Library Association, focusing on the role of libraries in democracies. In the 2012 paper “Libraries and Civic Engagement“, Kranich notes:

Nationwide, libraries are undertaking new approaches to engage communities and assist them in meeting today’s most pressing civic challenges. Their efforts are rekindling civic engagement, connecting citizens, boosting citizen participation, and encouraging increased involvement in community problem solving and decision making.

She describes 7 ways libraries are engaging citizens, including example libraries:

  1. The Library as Civic Space. Libraries offer safe, neutral spaces where citizens can turn to solve personal and community problems. Over the past two decades, communities, schools, colleges, and universities have refurbished or built exciting new spaces for their libraries—spaces that also serve as public gathering spots that anchor neighborhoods, downtowns, schools, and campuses. A good example is the Salt Lake City Public Library, which built a dramatic new facility designed by Moshe Safdie—an award-winning facility considered the community gathering place where “citizens practice democracy” (Berry 2006, p. 32).
  2. The Library as Enabler of Civic Literacy. Children and adults alike must learn a broad range of 21st century literacy skills if they are to become smart seekers, recipients, and creators of content, as well as effective citizens. School libraries, academic libraries, and, increasingly, public libraries—long committed to enabling information literacy—can extend their offerings into the realm of civic literacy (Milner 2002; Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.) so that their constituents can gain critical thinking skills along with a sense of civic agency (Boyte 2007, 2009). Different approaches to civic literacy all encompass active engagement with the civic life of communities, helping civic actors to apply skills for participation in civil discourse. An example of a civic literacy initiative used by an academic library is the application of James Fishkin’s (2010) deliberative polling technique at Kansas State University Libraries. Donna Schenck-Hamlin (et al. 2010) used the technique to measure whether students think more complexly and revise their opinions after a deliberative dialogue about the death penalty.
  3. Library as Public Forum and Conversation Catalyst. Many school, public, and academic libraries host public programs that facilitate the type of discourse that offers citizens a chance to frame issues of common concern, Libraries and Civic Engagement deliberate about choices for solving problems, create deeper understanding about others’ opinions, connect citizens across the spectrum of thought, and recommend appropriate action that reflects legitimate guidance from the whole community. Libraries that sponsor deliberative forums see benefits in connecting them more closely and deeply to their communities. These forums and community conversations often follow the formats developed by such organizations as the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums Institute, Study Circles (now called Everyday Democracy), Choices, Conversation Cafes, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, and others. Libraries are among those offering deliberative public forums in State College, Pennsylvania; Johnson County, Kansas; and Des Moines, Iowa. Topics range from democracy and immigration to energy and health care and involve citizens holding different perspectives in learning and participatory democracy. Librarians in Virginia Beach, Virginia, helped citizens collect and assess community concerns about redevelopment, learn about civic action, participate in democratic discourse, and develop civic leadership skills (Caywood 2010). In Des Plaines, Illinois, librarians joined forces with community partners by framing and deliberating the question “What does it take to meet the needs of Des Plaines residents?” These community conversations resulted in greater awareness of local services and new collaborative approaches for taking action (Griffin 2006). In Youngstown, Ohio, community conversations helped the public library gain more knowledge of citizen’s aspirations and apply it as agents for change, thereby strengthening community ties as well as public perceptions about the library that resulted in a successful tax levy referendum that increased the library’s budget in November 2010.
  4. The Library as Civic Information Center. Using both electronic and print technologies, libraries now deliver numerous local databases and Web sites about vital services within their communities. Joan Durrance (2004) and her colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Information have identified and evaluated successful civic library projects in communities throughout the country that help immigrants and minorities, teach youth to participate in community problem solving, and pull together essential information and communication resources that might otherwise be difficult to identify or locate. Beyond access, libraries are also facilitating e-government services (Bertot et al. 2006; Jaeger 2005; Horrigan 2004). A good example is Florida’s Pasco County library system, which helps people transact government business, search for jobs, and file online forms for food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and more through its extensive e-government program.
  5. The Library as Community-Wide Reading Club. For many years, school, public, and academic libraries have hosted community-wide “one-book” reading initiatives. The idea was launched by the Seattle Public Library, but Chicago advanced it considerably, promoting reading by “giving a ‘public voice’ to what is usually considered a private activity … to discover or build unity in a diverse city” (Putnam and Feldstein 2003, p. 53). The Kentucky State Library linked with Kentucky Educational Television to launch a highly successful statewide reading effort with outreach and engagement activities involving a mix of 130 partners (Pennsylvania State University Public Broadcasting 2002). Other libraries offer shared reading experiences through the Civically Engaged Reader program (Project on Civic Reflection, n.d.), a diverse collection of provocative short articles designed to inspire contemplation about the central questions of civic life. With a grant from the Fetzer Institute, the ALA Public Programs Office is training librarians to use this reflection technique as part of its “Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion” project (ALA Public Programs Office n.d.).
  6. The Library as Partner in Public Service. Pennsylvania State University (2002) launched Partners in Public Service (PIPS) in 1999 to demonstrate how collaborative projects between public broadcasting stations, libraries, museums, and educational institutions could enhance services to participating communities. With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), PIPS produced a useful guide with case studies on how to undertake these institutional partnerships to help communities revitalize by utilizing digital technologies and fulfilling unmet needs. Considered a vision for a “community as a learning campus,” IMLS built upon the PIPS idea by funding numerous collaborative civic projects around the country that bring libraries, museums, and public media together. An example is a collaboration between the Princeton (New Jersey) Public Library,, and Princeton Community Television that “applies the power of digital media to the civic, cultural, and commercial life of Princeton” (, n.d.).
  7. The Library as Service Learning Center. Service learning combines meaningful public service with curriculum or program-based learning. Schools, colleges, and universities use service learning to strengthen academic skills, foster civic responsibility, and develop leadership abilities. Today, many require students to participate in service learning in order to graduate. An example of a school library involved with service learning is at the Urban School in San Francisco, which works with faculty and students to facilitate their co-curricular community-based research and engagement projects (Urban School n.d.). Even though one-third of college students now participate in service learning activities (Campus Compact, 2010), Lynn Westney (2006) found academic library contributions to service learning sparse. A number of MLIS programs do incorporate service learning into their curriculum. These include the University of Texas School of Information project to create a National Virtual Museum of the American Indian and a University of Wisconsin–Madison Jail Library Group student project to provide reading materials for incarcerated adults (Roy 2009; Riddle 2003). Another, based at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science program in Community Informatics, involves students interested in the experiences of underserved groups in Professor Ann Bishop’s class onsite at Paseo Boricua Community Library Project in Chicago (Bishop, Bruce, and Jeong 2009).

Resilient Communities

Resiliency is a concept growing out of an increasing awareness of the need for strategies to address climate change, natural disasters, terrorism, and injustice that leads to civil unrest (for as John F. Kennedy famously said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) As noted on the Center for the Future of Libraries website:

Resilience requires community involvement – encouraging individuals to make decisions that help prepare for and prevent the impact of disasters, providing resources and information to help them make informed decisions, and offerings programs and services that allow individuals to respond to issues as they arise. Libraries and information professionals may be ideal partners or providers in helping individuals adopt resilient practices in their communities.

The Ferguson Public Library has received nationwide attention and a public outpouring of support for their response in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. The sole full-time librarian, Scott Bonner, has created a model for library response in the wake of an emergency. Businesses have used the library as a meeting space, the Small Business Administration did staging of emergency loans from the library, and the local school met with students in the library when the school was closed during demonstrations. Check out this NPR news story and Library Journal article for more on the ways Ferguson Public Library partnered with other community agencies during this community emergency.

Houston Public Library provided important services in response to Hurricane Ike. The library provided essential child care services for city employees and other first responders so that they could return to work quickly. Library programming specifically related to natural disasters like hurricanes went beyond that which would have been available at most daycares. Conversations with children about their hurricane experiences and impact at home raised the need for some sort of return to pre-Ike normalcy, and Children’s librarians improvised where the could to accommodate. Tween and teen programming also went beyond a “holding zone” approach to provide engaging programming that might also be therapeutic.

The role of libraries goes beyond responding to emergencies. As noted in the section on Civic Engagement, libraries can be a neutral, safe place for deliberative dialog and community conversations that raise people’s awareness of the different sides of core community issues in ways that proactively address issues before they become an emergency. This plays strongly into a core educational mandate for public libraries.

An important area where libraries are serving that educational role as it relates to sustainability comes by modeling green practices, serving as a test center for energy conservation innovation, engaging the community in supporting local environmental goals, and educating the public about environmental sustainability in general and local priorities in particular. For instance, the Champaign Public Library makes strong use of natural lighting to conserve on energy for lighting. The Milwaukee Public Library has a green roof and solar panels. The Fayetteville Public Library is collaborating with the city of Fayetteville to bring solar energy to market in the region, with the library serving as a solar testbed for new innovations. The Arlington Public Library in Virginia hosts a speaker’s series with prominent authors while the San Francisco Public Library’s “Green Stacks” connects residents to local environmental sustainability issues. Twenty-one public libraries across the state of Wisconsin are teaming up with the University of Wisconsin Madison to give local context to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) the University is offering on climate change.  For instance, the small, rural Dodgeville Public Library will facilitate both in-person discussion related to the MOOC and  partnerships with local groups Trout Unlimited, Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin—Sustain Iowa County, the Uplands Garden Club, the University of Wisconsin Extension, and the Iowa County Master Gardeners, through online participation and public discussions. The Mid Columbia Library in Kennewick, Washington, has partnered with the local university’s master gardener program to create a demonstration garden. The Horticultural Society of New York is collaborating with branch libraries in the New York Public Library system to create the “GreenBranches” program, creating both demonstration gardens and library programming. For instance, the Aguilar Branch in East Harlem includes English as a Second Language speaking classes in the library and uses the garden as a teaching space and focus. Many libraries are now serving as seed banks and tool banks, responding to the growing interest in the sharing economy, something Millennials in particular are championing.

New Librarian Positions

This is just a start of a list of the trends and example libraries within these trends. But it gives some sense of the possibilities that build from the library’s historic role in the community, maintains many of the core services, but also identifies new opportunities to support human and community development in ways unique to each local context. As emphasized in the first post, many of these services themselves are co-designed and co-delivered with a broad range of individuals and organizations in the community. And so I’ll finish this post with some new librarian positions that are emerging.

The Vancouver, Regina, Toronto, and Halifax Public Libraries (HPL) created new community development librarian positions to work in diverse urban neighborhoods and with diverse communities as part of the Working Together Project.

Over this period, the project’s community-based librarians talked and engaged with literally thousands of socially excluded community members from diverse communities in the four large urban centers across Canada. The librarians took a community practitioner–based approach. This approach moved community-based librarians’ work beyond discussions among library staff on how best to meet community needs to discussions based upon the lived experiences of socially excluded community members and the librarians who engage with them as equal members of the community. Some libraries have previously worked with targeted socially excluded groups. However, the purpose of this project was not to review other works—rather, it was crucial to have community members’ library experiences drive the project, not library-based beliefs held by librarians nor internally generated professional literature. It became clear that librarians’ traditional approach to library services did not adequately address the needs of socially excluded community members. It also became clear that it is essential to begin a discussion around the use of traditional library service planning versus a community-led service planning model as the most effective way to make library services relevant to socially excluded community members.

Sharon Comstock is the Oak Park Public Library’s Library Content Strategist. In answering what she does for the library, Comstock writes:

Perhaps I can best answer that by describing what I DON’T do: I don’t see the library as only a place of things, but of experiences. I don’t see the library as a noun, but a verb. My job is to see the rich complexity of what a 21st-century library is and define its data so together the library and the community can act on it. My role is to see the real, everyday life of the community and the library as intrinsic, transactional, and potentially transformative.

Community and embedded librarians often do part of their regularly scheduled reference librarianship work in the community. For instance, Douglas County Libraries embedded librarian program includes helping “Douglas County businesses with workshops and research; librarians volunteering with leadership groups and municipal government; and embedding children’s librarians in elementary, middle, and high schools…The Women’s Crisis and Family Outreach Center has a librarian visit families in the shelter weekly to provide library cards, books, movies, and donations of needed items such as cleaning supplies, gift cards, and grocery store cards, as well as computer and résumé-writing workshops for the adults.” Deschutes Public Library in Oregon trains paraprofessionals to answer reference questions, who are encouraged to spend 1/4 to 1/3rd of their time in their communities.

While the community librarian is not yet a formal position at any library that I know of in Champaign-Urbana, we are fortunate to have two strong public libraries, a world-class University library, many excellent school libraries, and a number of outstanding museums. This in addition to the #1 graduate school of library and information science in the nation. The quality of these institutions is due to the many remarkable library and information science professionals that work and study at these institutions and live in our communities. On their own time they contribute on a regular basis as embedded librarians.

A textbook example of the difference this can make comes from reflecting on the model citizen action that resulted in the changing of the policy related to backyard chickens. A community member, Karen Carney, with support by Mayor Gerard, organized and guided the process of bringing the issue before the city council at appropriate times through signatures and study sessions. But an essential contribution was made by local librarian Deborah Campbell who as a volunteer consistently served as a reference librarian in the process. Council members commented several times on the model way this process led to a change in the ordinance regarding chickens. I would further argue it is a model because an embedded, community librarian engaged with a community organizer, an informed community, champions on the city council, and a city planner to co-design and co-deliver the process for modifying the ordinance and implementing procedures to have backyard chickens. Ms. Campbell also later did critical research in advance of the tour of chicken coops, research that helped us avoid the spread of potential diseases between coops, pointing out the importance of ongoing support from community librarians.

Libraries have a central to play as a keystone institution within a community. But what the community needs of a keystone institution can only be determined through dialog with the community. The Champaign Public Library is a strong library because of the rich outreach to the community that is a formal part of our library services, and the various informal engagements with the community that are already happening. An important next step for us in the transition to be an engaged library is for the library board to increase its capacity as an internal engagement advocate so that we can assure the library’s vision, policies, and budget are aligned with such a transition. Dialogs with various stakeholder groups as part of the Visioning 2020 committee will be a valuable part of that step.

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Public Libraries: The engaged library

I have been a board of trustee for the Champaign Public Library since November, 2014 and am chair of the newly created Visioning 2020 committee. I accepted the appointment because I am excited by what I see as the opportunities for libraries moving forward, and want to make sure Champaign Public Library continues to evolve to assure it is a “keystone institution” for a resilient, sustainable Champaign (a concept borrowed from Michael Dudley and a host of contributors in the book Public Libraries and Resilient Cities). As suggested in the report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries”:

No longer a nice-to-have amenity, the public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change. Public libraries inspire learning and empower people of all ages. They promote a better trained and educated workforce. They ensure equitable access and provide important civic spaces for advancing democracy and the common good. Public libraries are engines of development within their communities.

Still, it was a surprise to hear Mayor Don Gerard mention me by name in a recent mayoral candidate forum in response to a question about future city funding of the public library to restore open hours that will be cut beginning this summer because of funding shortfalls (the question is introduced at minute 53:20 of the forum recording, and Mayor Gerard’s is the second response). I will own a leadership role, bringing in the knowledge I’ve gained from my roles for the past 20 years at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, including many enriching conversations with librarians around the country and globe.

For the past decade public libraries have once again been reinventing themselves. There has been a growing movement to challenge the centrality of collections and collection management as the means and ends of the library. This is not to minimize the value of the collections by any means! But I believe it is an example of implementing the change called for by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his statement “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” In the earliest stages, libraries work to be more user-focused or user-centered. With this comes increased outreach to help community become aware of library services. But more advanced stages see libraries entering into a deeper engagement with the community. The library becomes increasingly user-driven, partnering with a wide array of institutions, individuals, and organizations to co-create and co-deliver user-centered services.

Given this change in library services, there can’t be a single leader or expert. This is not something the library director, a librarian, I or any paid library consultant that we might bring in from the outside can design. It is not an end product, but instead is a dynamic, never-ending process of co-service development and delivery. Thus, a wide range of community members need to each play a leadership role at different times and in different ways to building this public library as keystone institution.

PublicLibraryEngagementBoundarySpanningRoles-DiagramI wrote a piece for the March, 2015 issue of Strategic Library in which I reflect on being a new library board of trustee. This diagram regarding engagement boundary-spanning roles at public libraries is included in that article. The whole social ecology of the library needs to be intentionally developed and continually drive towards a process of engagement to support such a user-driven keystone institution. Librarians and other library staff, the library director and other administrators, the library board, the Friends, Foundation, and our many donors, and the community at large all have important leadership roles to play.

The expertise isn’t in any one of us, it is distributed amongst all of us!

I firmly believe that Champaign will not be all that it’s citizens dream of it to be unless the Champaign Public Library evolves in line with the broader public library trends. This is not because the library is a weak library — quite the contrary, it is an award winning library. Rather, it is because the dreams of each of us individually, and as a community, continue to evolve as society more broadly continues to evolve. And so to, then, does the library need to evolve if it is to remain an award-winning library.

In my next post, I’ll do a first draft listing some libraries exemplifying various trends in public librarianship. I suggest this is a first draft because I hope others will followup with me through comments or by email providing still other examples.

In the meantime, here are a few resources of possible interest related to this post.

Reports and Websites


  • Public Libraries and Resilient Cities. 2013. Michael Dudley, Editor. American Library Association. ISBN: 978-0-8389-1136-5
  • Reflecting on the Future of Academic and Public Libraries. 2013. Peter Hernon and Joseph R. Matthews, Editors. American Library Association. ISBN: 978-0-8389-1187-7
  • Transforming Libraries, Building Communities: The Community-Centered Library. Edwards, Julie Biando, Robinson, Melissa S. , and Unger, Kelley Rae.  2013. Scarecrow
    Press. ISBN-10: 0810891816; ISBN-13: 978-0810891814.
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