Can We Talk? Community Conversation in Libraries

If there’s one skill I find equally challenging and exhilarating about my work as a Public Services Librarian is grant writing. Finding investment opportunities for small & rural libraries can seems daunting, especially when you consider all the guidelines grant donors ask of its applicants:

  • Detail all demographics of your library – median income, age, ethnicity, blood type, etc.
  • Explain down to the penny how you plan to spend the funding we haven’t agreed to give you yet.
  • Out of all the libraries in the nation, why should we give you money?

These questions are a touch of an exaggeration (just a touch!) but grant writing is a competitive sport. That is why I felt such great pride when our library was awarded the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) grant. It was one of our library’s first grant awards: $3000 to spark conversation amongst our patrons and neighbors. As grateful as we were for the opportunity, it left us asking ourselves two questions: what on earth are we going to talk about and will the community be interested?

With the grant award, we inevitably launched Lighthouse in the Library (LITL), a quarterly event series intended to bring the community together in open and empathetic dialogue. Two years later, LITL has sparked conversation about a variety of topics: food and wellness inequities, cultural competency, the pandemic’s impact on education. With or without grant funding, libraries engaging their communities in conversation can be effective. Here’s a few ways LITL has impacted our branch:

  • Your patrons and neighbors feel heard and understood.
  • Your library is seen as a communication hub for patrons to voice opinions as well as lend an ear.
  • Your collection’s topics and offerings grow with the conversations held in the building.
  • Your community’s value of the library increases tenfold.

Where do you start? As I stated in our library’s  ALA case study, the best place to start is with your patrons. Set out a suggestion box or spark impromptu conversations with patrons checking out materials. Ask them what they would want to talk about instead of assuming what their needs are: “You can’t assume that [you know what people want] no matter how long you’ve lived in the community.” I urge all library professionals – current and incoming – to launch your own LITL programs at your library. Community conversation helps libraries connect deeper with their patrons and establishes trust in the beacon of education libraries are meant to be.

Kellee Forkenbrock is an MLIS student at the University of Iowa (May 2023). She also works full time as the Public Services Librarian for the North Liberty Library (North Liberty, Iowa), assisting with the management of part-time staff as well as serving as the community engagement liaison for the library. Kellee has spoken about library outreach and engagement on behalf of organizations such as the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL), the Entrepreneurship and Libraries Conference (ELC), EBSCO, and the American Library Association (ALA) Conference. In addition to pursuing her MLIS, Kellee is also in pursuit of a certification in Digital Humanities. Her twenty-plus years of professional experience includes project management, public relations, and multimedia advertising. Kellee is active in her community, having lent her service to the Iowa City Public Library Board of Trustees, Girls on the Run of Eastern Iowa, and currently as an Ambassador for the Iowa City Area Business Partnership as well as a UNESCO City of Literature Board Member. Read more about Kellee on her LinkedIn profile.

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