From the Field: County Librarian Learns New Tools at Public Innovators Lab

Todd Stephens, county librarian of Spartanburg County Public Libraries in upstate South Carolina recently participated in a three-day Public Innovators Lab in Washington, D.C. hosted by The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and the American Library Association. Todd wrote about his experience for The Harwood Institute. In today's world we are burdened with an increasing amount of information within an expanding community conversation. Then again, is it really a conversation, or are we just talking at each other and not listening? Given all of the social media at our disposal - Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram and so many others - are we truly connected or are we creating pipelines that feed us only what we want to know, when we want to know it, and only through sources from which we want to hear? Are we taking the time to open ourselves up to a diversity of information and opinions? Or are we using these tools to selectively filter only the information we want to hear? So many questions!

A year or so back I had a meaningful conversation with my predecessor's brother-in-law, Carlton Sears. Carlton, a retired library director, had faced several challenges within his library's service area. While seeking solutions, Carlton stumbled across a process that encouraged engaging and embracing the community through conversation. Carlton was able to help facilitate and encourage change though valuable community conversations. I remember thinking that what Carlton was describing sounded a little flaky, but I was still listening.

Just last week, at Carlton's invitation, I participated in a three-day Public Innovator's Lab in Washington, D.C. offered by The Harwood Institute and the American Library Association. After all, who wouldn't want to become a "public innovator”? That’s The Harwood Institute’s term for people who have learned to tap into their own potential to serve as agents of change and lasting impact in their communities.

I am truly energized and excited as I process what I learned at the lab. Rich Harwood – the head of the Institute – stood before 65 library leaders and challenged us to turn outward and engage the communities we serve in thoughtful conversations. Rich insists that we must carve out time to ask four simple questions* (see below) and then to listen. "Listen" ... the word sounds so simple, but the concept is not. Its implications are both complex and encouraging. Think about it. What would your home, organization, church or community look like if you took the time to ask - and then took the time to listen? Maybe, just maybe, you would find yourself better aligned with the aspirations and hopes of others.

As I return to my role as a library director I have a new set of tools in my toolbox. I plan to use The Harwood Institute’s framework to seek public knowledge, serve as a steward of this knowledge, speak and align myself with authority, and be authentic. Through our collective aspirations we will explore and discover the change that we all are seeking.

*Four questions: 1. What kind of community do you want to live in? 2. Why is that important to you? 3. How is that different from how you see things now? 4. What are some of the things that need to happen to create that kind of change?