Richard C. Harwood, president and founder of the nonprofit Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, spoke to a packed conference room last week at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference about the potential for libraries to strengthen their role in communities and improve civic life. More than 20,000 library supporters attended the national conference, which took place in Anaheim, Calif.
Harwood began his discussion, titled “Reclaiming Main Street and Libraries,” by citing key findings from his recently released Main Street study. According to the study, many Americans feel that the country is lost amid a sea of changes and that they crave more openness, simpler living, humility and compassion. Americans want to kick-start a new trajectory for the country that begins with small, local actions.
“Libraries are critical to our country now more than ever,” said Harwood. “Americans want to move forward and they need libraries to do it. Change will start small and locally.”
This session gave ALA members from all types of libraries the opportunity to consider the implications of the Main Street study for their work as agents of democracy, ranging from engaging varieties of local communities to lobbying and galvanizing grassroots action at the national level.
At one point, Harwood took a question from an audience member who asked about ways that libraries should respond to controversial community issues, such as gay rights. Harwood encouraged the librarian to use controversial issues to turn libraries into centers that encourage public dialogue.
“Libraries are conveners–they bring the community together,” Harwood said. “They are fair and honest, and they don’t have agendas. Libraries are essential to our community and our livelihood.”
The conference session was a continuation of “Transforming Libraries,” a campaign initiated by former ALA President Molly Raphael to transform communities into places that engage the communities that they serve. In early 2012, Harwood presented on community engagement at the 2012 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, where hundreds of people attended conversations to better understand how libraries can respond to changing communities.
ALA President Maureen Sullivan will continue the “Transforming Libraries” campaign by developing a sustainable program that supports library leaders and next-generation librarians to engage their communities in innovative ways.
The session “Reclaiming Main Street and Libraries” was co-sponsored by the ALA Center for Civic Life, the ALA Committee on Legislation, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and ALA Public and Cultural Programs Advisory Committee. The ALA conference was one of the first stops on Harwood’s national tour.
Press Officer, American Library Association, Washington Office