Oak Park Public Library Case Study

Our Path to Engagement, Learning, and Stewardship: The Oak Park Public Library, the American Library Association, and The Harwood Institute

Reposted from Public Library Quarterly ›

By David J. Seleb, Executive Director and
Jodi Kolo, Manager for Communications Services



How do we engage with our community in a more meaningful way? How do we make the user experience the center of all we do? What impact are we having and how do we measure it? In an effort to better answer those questions and make a tighter connection between library objectives and the broader needs of the community, the Oak Park Public Library embarked on a journey to “turn outward.” Following the Harwood model for community engagement, Oak Park has made strides in unifying its internal operations and strengthening strategic partnerships. Its intention is wider and deeper community impact.

How do we engage with our community in a more meaningful way? How do we make the user experience the center of all we do? What impact are we having and how do we measure it? When I became the Executive Director of the Oak Park Public Library in 2013, these questions and many others like them were being asked with increasing frequency by library professionals everywhere, and they were foremost in my mind as I began the next challenge of my career.

Oak Park, adjacent to the western border of Chicago, is a diverse village of approximately 52,000 residents that supports robust community services, such as schools, parks, and libraries. Oak Park’s history includes serving as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and the place where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked. As the racial composition of the west side of Chicago changed very quickly in the 1960s, when white people left city neighborhoods for the suburbs, Oak Park received national attention for its successful work to remain a community of racial diversity through aggressive fair housing initiatives (Oak Park Regional Housing Center)i. Oak Park has preserved much of its hard-won diversity, but faces current challenges regarding equity, especially regarding its residents’ access to financial resources and educational opportunities.

The Oak Park Public Library serves its village out of three buildings: the Main Library, the Dole Branch, and the Maze Branch. In 2003, the community passed a $30,000,000 bond referendum to construct a new, 104,000-square- foot Main Library, which required the demolition of the existing structure and a yearlong move to a temporary facility. That demonstration of significant support for the library was just the most recent in a relationship going back more than 100 years to the creation of the first public library in Oak Park.

As I dove into my new responsibilities – learning about the community, the library’s staff, and all the services the library offered – one of the first specific tasks the board of trustees expected of me was to help to guide it through the development of a budget and a strategic action plan for the rapidly approaching new year. Besides the loyal support of the village’s residents, I saw other clear signals of strong engagement between the library and the community, including solid partnerships with other village agencies and organizations. When I looked at the library’s existing strategic plan, however, I did not see an obvious connection between its objectives and the broader needs of the community. What I did see was a plan with characteristics that had become common to me throughout my career: a list of seemingly isolated actions regarding fairly traditional library services that revealed no imperative to understand community needs or to measure impact. Just at that time, I received a call and an invitation from a staff member at the American Library Association (ALA).

Turning Outward

The Harwood Institute for Public Innovationii was an organization unknown to me in 2013, but ALA and Harwood had just begun a partnership to bring the Harwood message of community transformation through conversation and intentional engagement. This partnership has become ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities initiativeiii, with libraries all over the country now embracing the call to “turn outward,”iv as Harwood teaches.

I accepted the invitation to participate in the first ever Harwood Public Innovators’ Labv created specifically for library staff members in all types of libraries. I had no idea what to expect, and years of attending conferences and other continuing education opportunities can leave one a bit skeptical that there is anything new under the sun. What I discovered, however, was something that was to me very unique and different.

The idea that the key to understanding the real desires – the aspirations, to use Harwood’s word – of a community is to simply ask it sounds quite obvious. But I quickly realized in those three Harwood Lab days in Washington, DC, that this was something I had seldom done or done very well. In fact, it seemed to be something that few organizations anywhere did

well. But, asking well requires asking the right questions, questions such as: What kind of community do you want to live in? Why is that important to you? What needs to happen? Who do you trust to do that work? The answers to these questions and others become the basis of public knowledge, the knowledge you get only by talking to your community. These questions are among the powerful tools that Harwood provides and that I learned at the Lab. Until then, I just didn’t have the words.

Rich Harwoodvi, the Harwood Institute’s founder, has helped communities and organizations across the country to transform themselves through community engagement, and his personal work with places such as Newton, Massachusetts, and Youngstown, Ohio, has received wide recognition and respect.

The most important thing Harwood taught me was that if I were serious about getting this public knowledge, I had to get serious about having the conversations and then taking action on what the community shared through that dialogue. The Harwood Lab was the most unique and personally impactful professional learning experience for me in 25 years and I wanted to make the most of it. So, I returned to Oak Park following my Lab experience and told my staff and board of trustees about what I learned. And then we started listening.

Our Harwood trainers and coaches emphasized that we had to engage in dialogue, immediately. We could not let too much time elapse before beginning the conversation or it would never happen. I took that advice to heart. But, when you begin to host Harwood-style Community Conversations, you learn some important lessons even before any public knowledge comes. For instance, how important it is to ask the Harwood questions consistently, to listen intently, and to reflect on what you have heard. You also quickly learn that community members are eager to share their aspirations and want to know what the library intends to do with what it learns.

Another important lesson is that this approach must be intentional and that it takes time. It requires that you turn outward – or, to borrow from a quote from Rich Harwood, that you make your community, not your conference room, the center of your work. This is a shift that all find challenging, but the challenge is worth the work required.

What is a Community Conversation?

I began in early 2014, with the help of Jodi Kolo, the library’s Manager for Communications Services, and other key staff, by hosting Harwood conversations in the library. As Harwood describes it, a Community Conversation is a "kitchen-table conversation" that uses a positive, time-tested approach and the same basic set of questions to gain public knowledge about community aspirations. As a participant, there are no right answers. Participants are encouraged to keep an open mind, to remember that it is all right to disagree but not to be disagreeable, and to find joy in the exploration and discovery. As a facilitator, you take nothing at face value, strive to engage all participants, help get people back on track, and even play devil’s advocate. As a result, conversations can clarify priorities and inspire meaningful action by providing public knowledge – direct, front-line information from individuals and groups rather than filtered, third party perspectives.

To launch initiatives around this very specific way to gain public knowledge, the library began by hosting several “at-large” sessions at all three library locations. While Oak Park’s 52,000 residents live in an area less than five square miles, each library location has a distinct personality and group of loyal patrons. Reaching out to all areas was important.

These initial conversations within the library led to dozens more outside of our walls – with partner organizations, government peers, parent groups, active patrons, and people not currently using the library. We listened to scores of Oak Park residents during these conversations, diverse groups of people of different ages, races, genders, and socio-economic circumstances. And yet, we were struck by the consistency of the messages we received and the passion with which they were delivered. While common themes quickly evolved, they continue to this day to be supported by ongoing community feedback. These include:

  • Diversity, Inclusion, Participation, Equity
  • Economy
  • Education, Literacy
  • Health, Safety, Affordability

Diversity, Inclusion, Participation, Equity. Community members honor and appreciate Oak Park’s diversity. They want to retain it. It is an important reason they came to Oak Park or remain in Oak Park. They want diversity in all its forms, including diversity of thought and opinion, economic diversity, racial diversity, and political diversity. They are concerned that this diversity is becoming more difficult to maintain as the cost of living in Oak Park increases. They fear the distribution of resources is becoming less equitable. 

Economy. Common statements were that taxes are too high, fees are too high, there is not enough business development happening, and the community is suffering from poor economic decision-making. Some participants were apprehensive regarding their future ability to remain in Oak Park, especially as they get older. Many discussed the lack of affordable housing options, especially for senior citizens. This latter theme echoed back to the theme of diversity, inclusion, participation, and equity. 

Education, Literacy. Oak Park as a community of learners, thinkers, and readers was a powerfully important theme for the participants. It was described as indispensable for the kind of participatory and progressive community that people said they wanted. For this to continue to happen, people would need, they said, more opportunities to come together to discuss, to debate, and to learn – more meeting spaces, more gathering spaces. Here especially the participants talked about the need for the library to help to accomplish this. Participants talked about the community’s education gap or unequal opportunities for learning as perceived threats to an educated and learned community. Digital literacy, lifelong learning, and critical thinking skills as ongoing community needs were mentioned.

Health, Safety, Affordability. Community members want an Oak Park that is safe, welcoming, and committed to sustainability. They spoke about their desire for a community where people of all ages and walks of life want to live. They want Oak Park to be a destination, a place where people will want not only to raise their children or to spend a transitory period of time, but also to grow old. Sustainability was discussed both in this context and in the context of environmental sustainability and the desire for an enlightened and progressive place to live. It was mentioned here again that livability includes the ability to afford where you live and to afford it over the course of a lifetime.

Developing a new plan of action

Our library, we realized, needed a new and different strategic plan, a plan that used the library’s traditional commitments to reading, to knowledge, and to sharing information and resources to respond to the community’s aspirations. We listened. We reflected. Now we had to take some action.

We articulated what mattered to our community through the development of three strategic priorities: engagement, learning, and stewardship. These became the nucleus of our new strategic plan. We defined what each of these priorities meant to us, based upon our newly collected public knowledge, and we assigned value statements to each, as well:

Engagement. We are turned outward toward our community. We talk with our community members and take action on what we learn. We are intentional about the choices we make. Corresponding Values: Collaboration, Compassion, Gathering, Participation

Learning. We are an organization committed to our own learning and to education and learning for everyone. We are champions of free and open access to information. We provide the content that our community needs and expects. Corresponding Values: Knowledge, Access, Literacy, Reading, Education, Opportunity, Intellectual Freedom

Stewardship. We preserve and provide access to Oak Park's history. We are committed to environmental sustainability. We are responsible and transparent in the wise use of our community's resources. Corresponding Values: Accountability, Preservation, Sustainability, Transparency

What proceeded from these priorities over each of the last three years have been actions rooted in our new understanding of the community’s aspirations and how the library, and every community organization, should be responding to them in their own ways. At the library, we now speak about ourselves as engagers, learners, and stewards: we listen to our community, we act purposefully, we commit to our own learning and that of others, we defend our shared values, we act responsibly with our community’s resources, and we work collaboratively with community partners to achieve shared objectives.

Being engagers

Sharing goals, objectives, and experiences is broadening the library’s reach and deepening the library’s impact. Our journey to pursue the strategic priority of engagement began inside the library using Harwood’s Innovation Spaces tool, a type of conversation that permits us to reflect on all that we are learning as an organization.

To begin, five library staff members formally trained individual led monthly meetings, each with its own focus, staff contributors, in the Harwood practice and guest community contributors. Each space was held on a different day and time, and had availability for up to 12 participants.

The varying topics included the current state of librarianship; what we were learning as an organization about our community; how the educational achievement gap impacts our work; how the voices and experiences of our many valuable part-time staff may differ from those in full-time roles; and deeper exploration into these three new strategic priorities of engagement, learning, and stewardship.

While each topic was different, shared aspects of each included the governing Harwood philosophy of turning outward, as well as the actual approach. Each group asked the same set of the questions to think about its topic:

  • What are we learning? Why is this important?
  • Where else could we use what we are learning?
  • What are we seeing that suggests things are changing in the community or the organization? What possibilities are there for moving ahead?
  • What insights did this conversation spark?
  • What do we want to make sure we carry forward for next time?
  • When will we discuss these issues again?

Being learners

So what is the result of all this? In addition to more intentional and collaborative ways of approaching our work and our patrons, what emerged were new ways to work with each other, including:

  • More and better listening, accompanied by a greater understanding of each other's work and cross-training staff by task and location: librarians and library assistants, the Main Library and the two branches.
  • Re-creating the library as a circular organization with the community as the center surrounded by the three concentric circles of Experiences and Initiatives, Capacity and Infrastructure, and Effectiveness and Impact. The objectives here are to remove the staff silos that impede communication and teamwork and to eliminate an unnecessary hierarchy or bureaucracy. Or, as one of our peer libraries commented recently, “You don’t seem to have a pecking order. Librarians don’t look down on part-timers. Very inspiring!”
  • Creating teams and task forces, work groups that cross service areas and other old boundaries. One such example is our Teen Task Force, created to share a philosophy of service for serving and engaging teens, one integrated with the work and philosophy of our local public high school.
  • A shared language. Adoption of the Harwood tools, including use of a common language and shared definitions that provide an organization- wide framework for positive, proactive conversations. We now ask what the opportunities are for moving forward rather than just searching for our typical to-do list.
  • A safe inside space. Our new tools granted formal permission and space to talk about challenging topics, to speak openly, and to learn from each other.
  • Permission to ask why, to reflect, to fail. The tools moved us from more doing to more asking. "If we learn from what we discover, we can be better agents of change in our community." We have more freedom to fail and more room for creativity. Then taking time to be more reflective, to understand that impactful change takes trust and time.
  • Stronger staff bonds. The very act of holding these spaces (not meetings!) creates more shared empathy, understanding, and cooperation between patrons, peers, and partners. We have a better place to work.
  • More motivation. The tools also help address change in a positive, action-oriented way. They inspire and energize, and they reinforce that learning happens in multiple ways, inside and outside the workplace.

Join these results with an already prevalent philosophy about lifelong learning and you have a powerful combination for more relevant impact.

Learning about the community we serve, the experiences and resources we offer and have access to, and how we share them, is also at the heart of what we do. As a profession, we understand how important it is that our staff continues to engage in learning experiences. In addition to Harwood, each year our board of trustees approves a budget with money for staff training and continuing education. Library staff is challenged to learn in ways that support the best experience for library patrons.

Being stewards

We are responsible stewards of our community's resources, and those include not only the materials on our shelves but the human beings that help find those resources and deliver those services. If our staff members feel invested in and fully prepared, they are empowered to engage more fully with each individual patron, as well as to have a wider, positive impact on the community at large.

One example of such activity is an Illinois Secretary of State grant of $86,900 that permitted us to open access to – and to learn with – rare documents and artifacts from the childhood of Ernest Hemingway, a native son and one of literature’s most famous writers. This recent stewardship was prompted by listening to and understanding what the community expects: the preservation and sharing of its rich local heritage.

Before this grant, access to the library’s Ernest Hemingway Archives had been available by appointment only, with the collection spending most of its time housed in secure, museum-grade vaults at the Main Library. Combining resources and bringing in digitization experts to preserve and promote Oak Park's rich local history was clearly imperative to preserving the community’s collective past and inspiring its future.

The results were a participatory digital initiative that provided middle school students and teachers with access to never-before-digitized Hemingway artifacts. The initiative's goal was to transform students and teachers into digital creators, using rare items from the archive in conjunction with project- based digital learning lessons that offered a unique look at Hemingway, his local ties, and his literary contributions. Projects that came out of the initiative, such as In Your Timeix, a publication of six-word stories created by the students, and digital comics inspired by the artifacts themselves, reflect the participatory nature of the grant that was made possible by collaboration with other community organizations such as the local elementary school district and The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.

As we have deepened our commitment to engagement, learning, and stewardship, our spaces, services, programs, and our internal structure – the ways we go about our daily work – have changed. Everything we do, every plan, every action is rooted in our shared understanding and commitment.

Turning outward, including to ourselves

Turning outward included breaking down some old mental models about the ways that our library operated or had to operate, such as our internal management and reporting structure. In a 130-person organization, silos – barriers to sharing, learning, and communicating – develop, and we recognized their destructive influence and the need to eliminate them. Gradually, then, over the past two years we have reorganized with the intention to improve communication, teamwork, sharing, and our focus on shared objectives rather than processes or individual efforts. We went from a management team of 10 to a leadership team of seven.

Changes also came in the form of how we work with, rather than just for, our community. These include:

  • Creating a Librarian of Practice model – a modernized, aspiration- driven way to deliver in-depth research and support with related programming and resources based on what the community wants from the library and expects to learn. Some examples include a Health and Wellness Librarian and a Business Services Librarian.
  • Making space changes – adding public meeting spaces, reorganizing materials, and introducing new services such as Hot Picks to address specific patron feedback about on-site availability of new and popular materials.
  • Developing tighter external relationships and new programs with other organizations sharing like-minded goals. These include agencies focused on early childhood and adult literacy, teen mentoring, cultural diversity, and entrepreneurial and economic development.
  • Bolstering approaches to empower families to learn together, bringing in proven program models and creating opportunities with teacher librarians, such as a recent series of learning opportunities for parents and caregivers regarding executive functioning skills.
  • Turning outward for specific feedback on theme-related title selection for the adult community reading program and working with patrons for suggestions within themes that address topics defined as important to Oak Park’s future.
  • Investing in resources to track collection use and measure patron satisfaction and behavior. 

One of our bolder and more controversial decisions regarding our commitment to equity was to hire a professional social worker as a full-time Manager for Community Resources. This new team of five individuals works to engage our most vulnerable patrons and ensure safe spaces for everyone who uses the library. The community’s challenges do not stop at the library’s door, and the strategic partnerships we have strengthened with other agencies in the community, such as Housing Forward and the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition, ensure that more individuals are connected to the resources they need.

This new experience model also adds a trained professional to the library staff and the leadership team who understands the challenges of working with at-risk, underserved populations in a much better and deeper way, a benefit for the library as well as the people of Oak Park.

Two unique strategies introduced through this work include a continuum of care model (see image) and a trauma-informed care approach to communication and engagement. In the former, we consider the totality of this special work, including identification of needs, connection to needed services, and strengthened partnerships with other community agencies all while managing the library’s environment for a diversity of users. The latter acknowledges the unique challenges of communicating with vulnerable individuals with degrees of trauma, such as a person experiencing both homelessness and addiction or a young person being abused. The objective, again, is not to supplant other community services but to guide and connect with them.

Where do we go from here?

Harwood emphasizes the importance of public knowledge, the knowledge that you get only by listening to those you serve, but it does not deny that other data is also necessary and useful. So, the Oak Park Public Library intends to use a diverse set of data to learn as much as we can about our patrons to create the services they need and want:

  • Use quantitative and qualitative data to improve our collections, services, programs, and experiences.
  • Measure, evaluate, and communicate our value and our impact.

These two objectives from our strategic plan are followed up with actions and a commitment to use appropriate tools for measurement and assessment. Edge Assessment, the Public Library Association’s Project Outcomexiii, and CollectionHQxiv are three products that are helping us to get at the data around digital inclusion and digital learning, outcomes and impacts from library programs, and the use of our different collections to develop them appropriately. In November 2016, we hired a full-time data analyst to work with these data tools, to assist our managers and other staff on data use strategies, and to help to communicate what we are learning – in other words, to share the stories that show results, to demonstrate that listening and acting with intention are instrumental to understanding the community’s aspirations, and to develop the services that respond to those aspirations.

This journey of ours – the journey of turning outward – is ongoing: one of continual listening, intentional acting, and deep reflecting. It is designed, at its very heart, to fulfill and support what matters most to the people we serve. It is driven by objectives, has innate flexibility, and is grounded in trust. As we continue to see how this philosophy is meeting the needs of the Oak Park community, we plan to continue to walk its path, to see where it leads.

About the Authors

David J. Seleb

David J. Seleb has served as Executive Director of the Oak Park Public Library (IL) since May 2013. Previously Library Director of the Indian Trails Library District based in Wheeling, IL, David also served as director of the Winnetka-Northfield (IL) Public Library District and the Blue Island (IL) Public Library. He was Director of Consulting and Continuing Education with the Metropolitan Library System and today remains active in the Illinois Library Association (ILA). Mostly recently, David served as the Board President of the SWAN area consortium, was a member of the ILA Nominating Committee, the Chair of the ILA Public Policy Committee, and the Chair of the ILA Fundraising Committee. With 16 years of library management experience, David earned his Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Dominican University in 1995, and his Bachelor’s degree from Saint Xavier University in 1989.

Jodi Kolo

Jodi Kolo has served as the Manager of Communication Services at the Oak Park Public Library since 2014. In that role, she collaborates regularly with library leadership and teams to create and share information demonstrating effectiveness and collective impact of library relationships, services, resources, and programs. Previously the Marketing Manager at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, her career has included communications roles supporting nonprofit agencies and Fortune 500 companies. She received her Bachelor's degree from Miami University (OH) in 1990.