“Ask, Listen, Do:” Digging into Community Engagement with Library Strategies’ Consultants

Library Strategies consultants got together for another fantastic discussion recently to share experience and expertise. When the conversation started, we asked the participants how they thought about community engagement as a concept. Everyone came from a slightly different angle, but agreed that building a relationship that encourages a feedback loop and active participation on both ends is important.

Cindy Fesemyer likes to think of this process as: Ask, Listen, Do. Speak with users and non-users alike, listen to every voice, not just the loudest, and take action on the feedback. This approach is particularly beneficial to a short term, targeted process – whether that is strategic planning or considering the expansion of a program. 

Kathy Dempsey wondered if “community engagement” is one of those phrases that has been uttered so often it has lost specificity. How does it differ from marketing and outreach? What’s the goal? This question helped us break down the many needs housed under “community engagement” into loose categories.

  • Gathering feedback (community and library staff)
  • Getting people into the library
  • Meeting people outside the library
  • Increasing understanding of the library/advocacy

Given this list, one might immediately feel a pinch in an already overwhelmed schedule. Our consultants acknowledge that finding time for community engagement outside of “daily” tasks is difficult! It is also not comfortable for every library staff person, but it is worth the time to build engagement skills. When the time comes for a library to ask for feedback, community members do not respond as well to non-library staff asking for feedback. Everyone would rather communicate with fellow citizens of their city.

Many libraries our consultants have worked with have found creative ways to perform engagement tasks without overburdening a small staff. Some observed techniques include:

  • A take-and-make activity kit that allowed patrons to present their vision for their library, and then an exhibit that got people in the library on the other side of the process.
  • Visual and activity-based means of voting on topics that create interest in a space but also provide feedback (post-it walls, jars with colorful beads)
  • Gamifying data collection – polaroid cameras for documentation as staff or community members walk around the space
  • And, of course, making sure that “engagement” is part of the strategic plan, and responsibility for it is spread throughout the org chart.

“Community engagement” is a term that does a lot of work, but it is possible to break it down into digestible pieces. At its core, community engagement is about building relationships,  whether that is through conversation at a Farmer’s Market beside a Book Bike or because the library acted on something learned from  a boring ol’ survey.

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