Santa Monica Public Library Turns Outward

November 29, 2016
by Erica Cuyugan

Santa Monica Public Library Turns Outward

After ten years as a public librarian, I thought I knew what it meant to be outward. I’m a librarian and a civil servant. Connecting with members of the community is a large part of my job. I do it on a daily basis. I know them. I hear them. I listen.

What is “Turning Outward”?

But there is my first mistake. Being outward—connecting, knowing, hearing, listening—is not enough. So what does it mean to turn outward.

Members of the Library’s senior team and I, along with Santa Monica community member Shawn Landres, attended the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation (www.harwoodinstitute.org), a training sponsored by the California State Library. There, approximately 100 people from the state—library staff, mostly—learned about Harwood’s approach to “turning outward,” and better aligning our work with the community’s needs.

What was I missing?

When I managed the Santa Monica Public Library’s Fairview Branch, conversations with neighbors and visitors centered on niceties: “Hi there, how are you doing? What are you reading? What are you interested in learning?”

I enjoyed those conversations, and connecting with Fairview Branch’s patrons was important to me. However, now, as interim director the challenge is different. How do you cultivate a connection between library and patron that is meaningful, that is animated by engaged dialogue?

Last year, the Santa Monica Public Library hosted community forums to do just that: to engage in conversations in our five libraries. That dialogue helped inform the focus areas outlined in the Library’s Strategic Plan. We brought aboard a facilitator to conduct those forums, and elements I would later encounter at the Harwood Institute certainly existed in the questions she asked of the participants. Those forums had their limitations, however. One-time forums lack the consistency, intimacy, and structure of smaller “kitchen table” conversations that focused on community—not library—aspirations.

The Harwood method demonstrates the value of framing conversations in ways that engage our community to reflect, and speak in positive terms of their dreams, not simply problems.  To talk about their hopes, rather than their complaints.  Only by asking these question can we, as an organization, learn how to effect change for our community. 

What I discovered through these exercises and discussions was that connecting with community members is not enough. It is important to be intentional about how we connect with people and what questions we ask to get to the deeper knowledge, the shared goals. We need to have these types of conversations regularly through our interactions with the community, not just internally, with the same staff using the same methods to make decisions.

How will we turn outward?

The first step is to train staff and equip them with the facilitation skills, conversation tips, and guided questions to successfully conduct these community conversations in small and big ways. Then, we need to practice. We need to practice with our peers, practice with each other, and practice with the people we talk to every day. Then, we start. It may get uncomfortable, and it may be unpredictable. It may not always be successful. We will start with a small area and steadily grow our skills and our knowledge of the process. We will try things out, and we will sometimes fail…and that is okay. We will learn. Our goal is that eventually the idea of turning outward will no longer be something we talk about; it will be something we do as public innovators for the community.

What’s next?

Library staff will coordinate community conversations in early 2017. After a year-long closure and renovation, the recent re-opening of the Fairview Branch presents a perfect opportunity to engage community members. These conversations will serve as a way for the public to reacquaint themselves with the branch. More importantly, they will offer the chance for people to sit around a table and talk. I sincerely look forward to discovering the community’s hopes and dreams and to finding out how the library can help achieve them.  

Back to top