Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County Case Study

A pillar of the Youngstown community: The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County engages in the Harwood practice

This is an electronic version of an article published in Public Library Quarterly, Volume 37, 2018 - Issue 2. Public Library Quarterly is available online: click this link to view >

By John Andrew Ouligian


The Harwood Institute arrived in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1999; and today, over 18 years later, its teachings have made a profound effect upon the city. The Youngstown Public Library, through the leadership of Carlton Sears and Heidi Daniel, has wholeheartedly embraced the methods and ideology of the Harwood Institute, helping to reinvigorate and power a city working its way back to prosperity.

The setting: Youngstown

The Harwood Institute—an organization dedicated to helping institutions communicate with and strengthen communities across America—first arrived in the city of Youngstown, Ohio, in 1999.

The Mott Foundation—a grant-making organization dedicated to improving communities across the United States—had commissioned the Institute to investigate the state of the Youngstown community and the conditions necessary to spur its future growth.

In Youngstown, the Harwood Institute discovered a city mired in an economic and social depression. Youngstown, which once enjoyed the title of “Steel Valley,” had since fallen into disrepair. Much of its housing had become blighted; violent crime, particularly homicide, had spiked; corruption plagued its democratic institutions. In the wake of these developments, citizens became territorial and fractured. Youngstown was divided on ethnic, racial, economic, and geographic lines. People identified as members of fragmented communities, not as part of a collective whole. Cross-community events and organizations had largely faded out of existence, and Youngstown residents were united only in their distrust of political and civic leaders (Harwood Group 1999A).

The Harwood Institute drew on its Community Rhythms framework to identify the approach that would most effectively reinvigorate Youngstown. According to this framework, a community is generally in one of five different stages of community life: The Waiting Place, Impasse, Catalytic, Growth, or Sustain/Renew. Different sets of strategies work better or worse depending on the particular stage a community is in. Through community conversations, the Institute determined that Youngstown was in “The Waiting Place”: a stage where a community wishes to move forward but remains unable to break its own internal gridlock. In this stage, frustrated with sluggish growth and repeated failures, communities tend to await outside intervention—“a knight in shining armor”—when, in reality, homegrown leaders and organizations must work together to effect change.

When published, the Institute’s findings and recommendations received a mixed response in Youngstown. Though elected officials largely ignored the Institute’s work, civic organizations, including the Rotary Club and the League of Women Voters, paid close attention to the findings, and took steps to strengthen their local community. It was a start. However, while these groups held positions of power in their local communities, as volunteer-driven organizations, they had inherent limitations in terms of resource and reach. In order for the Institute’s ideas to dramatically impact the Youngstown community, a public institution with funding and widespread membership needed to take heed of their findings and recommendations. Fortunately, under the leadership of Carlton Sears, one public institution stepped forward to take a leading role in reshaping the Youngstown community: the public library.

Carlton Sears and the Harwood approach

There’s damn few places in any community where people can intuitively point to and trust…it’s actually the rare occasion that people don’t see libraries like that.
— Carlton Sears

In 1997, when Carlton Sears arrived as the director of The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, he immediately saw the corruption plaguing Youngstown. In the span of a few years, various high-ranking officials, including sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, and congressmen, were jailed. These instances of public corruption reinforced and contributed to ingrained residential distrust of public institutions. The library, however, was seen differently. Thanks to an active Board of Trustees and its independent nature, it remained untainted by corruption. Thus, the library possessed untapped potential to serve its community—even if Sears did not know it yet.

Sears first learned of the Harwood Institute in the early 2000s when Joyce Brooks, a member of the community, mentioned the Institute’s work to Sears and some Board members. By that point, Harwood had become well known in pockets of Youngstown due to its extensive engagement with the community, the findings of which were detailed in report for the Mott Foundation, Waiting For the Future: Creating New Possibilities For Youngstown (Harwood Group 1999A). Sears first read Community Rhythms (Harwood Group 1999B); enamored with its ideas, he encouraged library board and staff members to read the pamphlet and facilitated participation in its recommended exercises. Through these exercises, Sears ensured that both board members and staff members understood the rationale behind the library’s new approach. And, as an independent nonprofit, the library was able to embrace the Institute’s approaches without awaiting approval from outside figures. With the Institute’s approaches in mind, in conjunction with the Institute’s assessment of Youngstown as in “The Waiting Place,” the library immediately decided that it was necessary to engage Youngstown community members in mapping out its future branch-building process.

Unbeknownst to Sears at that time, the Institute’s publications are but a single piece of the organization’s ethos and approach. The Institute mainly spreads its practice through Public Innovator Labs: two-and-a-half day programs designed to teach individuals and organizations the method of “Turning Outward” toward their communities. Using the Harwood method, community change agents can help spark change, foster connections, and drive growth to accelerate their work in communities. Turning Outward grounds itself within a deceptively simple idea: the community, not the conference room, should be at the center of an institution’s decision-making process. Of course, organizations must have clear knowledge of a community’s aspirations and concerns before acting upon them. That is where the “Community Conversation”—another Harwood practice—enters the picture.

Community Conversations are small “kitchen-table” conversations wherein 8–15 participants, guided by a leader, discuss the aspirations and concerns they have for their community, articulating what matters to them, what it would mean for the community to move forward, and how to make it happen. Participants are intentionally diverse and represent varied aspects and interests of the community. By eliciting constructive dialogue built upon shared goals and common challenges, Community Conversations are an ideal alternative to what normally end up being “complaint sessions” in public forums (Harwood Group 1999B).

Sears attended his first Public Innovators Lab in February 2006. After Community Rhythms, he had continued to read about the Institute’s practices, but the Lab was an entirely new experience. He could now see “how all these different pieces fit together” (Sears 2017). Above all, it helped him articulate a community-centered philosophy and determine how to enact that philosophy in his work. Armed with this new understanding, he continued to discuss Harwood ideas with staff and board members, encouraging them to read more of the Institute’s literature—The Organization-First Approach: How Programs Crowd Out Community (Harwood 2009) and Make Hope Real: How We Can Accelerate Change for the Public Good (Harwood 1999), among others. Sears’s experience at the Public Innovators Lab helped him to redefine the library’s ultimate purpose: to “see [the library] as something bigger” and more catalytic. The Youngstown library, which had been inwardly focused on its own initiatives and programs, began to shift its orientation, Turning Outward to the greater Youngstown community.

The Harwood effect: changes in the Youngstown library

The well-chronicled growth, modernization and top-shelf management of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County truly reads as one of our region’s greatest success stories over the past two decades.
— The Youngstown Vindicator

Turning Outward soon became the ethos of the Youngstown library; the Harwood philosophy and approach began permeating all of its outward actions and inner culture. Physical branches were transformed into community centers, offering programming that made specific efforts to help subsections of their communities. The popular Baby Brilliant program, for example, helped to increase childhood literacy and provided a place for families to prepare their children for kindergarten. The Smart Money program taught Youngstown residents financial literacy, an essential skill in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Through the incorporation of high-speed internet, free computer classes, and a newly redesigned website, the library became a technology resource center for all of its residents, especially for those who did not have access to these resources at home. It also collaborated with outside organizations to bring bookstores and cafes into new branches, adding amenities while providing a secondary stream of revenue. Thus, through the Harwood practice of Turning Outward, the library began turning itself into a hub for learning, connection, and community.

As the library Turned Outward, it sought to both increase its community engagement and improve ease-of-access to its services. Its actions were informed by the lessons Sears had learned from Community Rhythms. In the process of building new branches, the library sought to work with its surrounding communities, strengthening residential bonds, and bringing diverse populations together. In Poland, Ohio, the library utilized community input to inform the design of its new branch and maximize its role within the community. Another branch, located between two disparate, segregated parts of a community, created a space where people could—and have—begun to mix. In a difficult situation, when others might have decided to move forward with separate branches for each distinct part of the community, Sears and the Board decided to build one library between the two distinct populations. Individuals entered from two different parts of town and arrived at a central, shared location. Through its work, the library bridged divides, helping to connect a range of community members across Youngstown.

At the same time, the library actively heightened its profile in the community; an ad campaign called “I Love My Library” further improved public perception while advertising the library’s services and resources. The campaign phrase was one people in Youngstown often used when talking about the library. It further demonstrated that the library, by Turning Outward and applying the Harwood practice, was working authentically with its communities, bringing fragmented groups together and deepening its public trust, positioning itself at the heart of Youngstown.

Public trust in the Youngstown library became invaluable in 2008, when the library’s budget was slashed in half—from $18 million to $9 million—as a result of sudden state funding cuts. The Youngstown library, like many institutions across Ohio, faced difficult decisions. Eventually, the library decided that it had no choice but to seek a levy in Mahoning County by imposing higher property taxes to fund the library’s basic services—while, in the midst of the housing crisis, people’s mortgages were going underwater. To effectively advocate for the library, Sears made its struggle public; the library had helped the community, but now it needed the community’s help. To communicate these ideas, he drew on another of The Harwood Institute’s tools designed to help individuals operate from a Turned Outward posture—the 3A’s of Authority, Authenticity, and Accountability. Authority stands as a touchstone for deep community knowledge, Authenticity as a genuine reflection of the community’s reality and interests, and Accountability as pursuing meaningful and achievable action. Sears applied the 3A’s to his public speaking, and spoke in a simple, barebones manner about the community’s aspirations and concerns, as well as its deep ties to the library. The levy passed, and the library’s funding was restored. Throughout the process, Sears drew from the Harwood approach to authentically and publicly guide the library through its various challenges.

When Sears moved on after 15 years as the library’s director, the Youngstown library continued to engage in the Harwood approach. Though Sears was the first there to put it into practice, the approach outlived his tenure at the library. While searching for his successor, the Board of Trustees utilized the 3A’s as a way to “screen for the kind of person they were looking for.” The Harwood approach, with its track record of success, had become ingrained within the library’s administrative processes, guiding their actions and ensuring its longevity within the Youngstown library.

Heidi Daniel and the Harwood approach

The characteristic that the Board keyed in on was wanting a person that would listen because you had to listen and really understand the community if you’re going to make good decisions for the community. That’s kind of the starting point because…. you’ve got to listen and deeply understand everything else, and the framework will fall into place.
— Carlton Sears

After a year-long search, the Board found its next director: Heidi Daniel, an exuberant, visionary librarian, who had previously worked at the Houston Public Library. Daniel saw libraries as “community catalysts” devoted to serving community needs through diverse and extensive library programming. Soon after she took office, the Harwood Institute ran a Public Innovators Lab in Youngstown, wherein a number of Youngstown library staff—including Daniel—received first-hand experience with the Harwood approach and practice. As a director, she continued the library’s journey of Turning Outward, placing the community’s aspirations and concerns at the center of the library’s decision-making process.

When Daniel began her term, the Youngstown Library needed a strategic plan. Their previous plan, composed and implemented by Sears, had almost reached its conclusion; and, as he departed, he left the composition and implementation of a new plan to his immediate successor. However, before designing her plan, Daniel wanted to gather information and learn what mattered to the community. She directed a series of engagements to obtain that information, including online outreach, large-group conversations, and more intimate Community Conversations throughout each of their branches. While each method provided the library with invaluable information regarding the community’s values, Community Conversations proved to be the most in-depth and effective. In these settings, residents were prompted to comment on their aspirations for the library. And, after Community Conversations had been conducted across the city, the Youngstown library synthesized and interpreted their collected data. In the end, the library determined that residential aspirations for the library amounted to “removing barriers to access,” especially for underserved populations; expanding “programmatic and life-learning opportunities,” particularly for children; and engaging in “smart partnerships” with other entities in the community. In response to these aspirations, a new strategic plan was unveiled: “My Library 2020” (Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County 2014). By addressing what mattered to the community in the terms expressed by the community, the plan demonstrated Daniel’s choice to Turn Outward and authentically engage the Youngstown community. Instead of reverting to a “traditional” strategic plan without input from the community, the library chose to map out a community-centered course.

Even before fully implementing the strategic plan, the library saw that it could take immediate steps to eliminate some of its barriers to access. In an effort to boost readership amongst children, especially Youngstown elementary school students, the library began piloting fine-free cards for children in 6th grade and below. In the past, many kids had run into issues with fines or paperwork, preventing them from checking out books, which undermined the library’s goal of helping kids learn to read and love learning. The fine-free cards were wildly successful, as they equalized access and, in conjunction with new pop-up libraries, allowed children to more easily access library books. Due to its success, the library gradually expanded the program. Today, Youngstown children, teens, and seniors are all eligible for fine-free library cards. Conditional cards allow adults to gradually pay off outstanding fines, and internet-only cards allow free access to library technology. Although the Youngstown library does not have the financial wherewithal to eliminate fines altogether, it has eliminated significant barriers to access. The program—and its success—represents a key victory for the library’s new Harwood-influenced strategic plan.

As an additional way to lower barriers to access, the library has increasingly brought its services directly to Youngstown residents. The aforementioned pop-up libraries regularly visit schools, farmers’ markets, and community gatherings, among other places. They have become a community staple, visiting wherever they are requested and occasionally establishing a long-term presence. For example, a semi-permanent pop-up has been established in the “Oh Wow!” children’s science center, strengthening the partnership between the two organizations and cementing the library’s place in the community. Along with its pop-up libraries, library officials also reached an agreement with the Campbell school district to move the Campbell Branch into an elementary school, deepening the bond between the public library and public schools. With its new strategic plan, the library has built on the Harwood methods that helped Sears revitalize the library, proactively bringing itself to the Youngstown community.

In accordance with its strategic plan, the library has also diversified and expanded its partnerships, as well as the programming options available for children, adults, and seniors. In addition to standard fare like author appearances, library programming now ranges from pony rides, puppet tales, and picture books to science exhibitions, adult art classes, and classical music performances. The library has also made itself more widely available to the entire Youngstown community through small business and youth club partnerships that appeal to people who might not otherwise utilize the library’s services. Daniel, expanding on Sears’s work, has responded to the community’s aspirations and has transformed the library into a catalytic force for the entire community.

At times, Daniel faced challenging situations. A few years into her directorship, the library’s West Branch was in dire need of renovation. When the library faced its funding crisis in 2008, the Board had considered closing this branch. Decisions around whether and where to relocate that branch would impact not only the West Branch patrons but also the library’s ability to fund its other major projects and priorities. On the advice of Carlton Sears, Daniel made the library’s struggles public—a choice that required real bravery on Daniel’s part. Her actions made the fate of the West Branch as much the community’s responsibility as the library’s. Through a number of Community Conversations, tough questions were raised around how to balance resources for this project while meeting the needs and shared values of the community. Library staff deliberated openly alongside community members to arrive at a solution, and in the process of working together also strengthened the bond between the library and the community. Although it would mean a more expensive renovation with fewer modern features, the community and library ultimately decided that rebuilding on the same site would be the best option for the community as a whole. Shortly after settling upon this decision, as if on cue to signify that the right decision had been made, the library received the largest donation ever distributed by The Youngstown Foundation. Michael Kusalaba donated $1.68 million through the Kusalaba Fund, administered by The Youngstown Foundation, to help rebuild and modernize the West Branch entirely. In honor of his donation, the West Branch will be renamed the Michael Kusalaba Branch (Nelson 2015).

The future of Youngstown

People view this community as having a lot to do and as being pretty vibrant. I think organizations like the library have the ability to promote that idea and help it be true.
— Heidi Daniel

Under Heidi Daniel, the library increasingly Turned Outward, institutionalizing and spreading the Harwood approach and practice. These changes amounted to an entire culture shift: library staff members regularly conducted Community Conversations in order to remain aware and attuned to the desires of the community, and the library itself held a monthly innovation space for staff members to share their thoughts and experiences with one another. From director to desk librarian, the library team focused on learning from the community, meeting their shared aspirations, and addressing community concerns. Policy shifts and partnerships were undertaken as mandates from the community, not arbitrary actions taken by disengaged administrators. The Youngstown library had committed itself to the principle of Turning Outward, and thus established itself as a pillar of the Youngstown community.

Since the early 2000s, when Carlton Sears first read Community Rhythms, the Harwood approach has paid dividends for the Youngstown library. The library has been recognized as a gem of the community. It remains frequented by diverse and wide-ranging community members and is deeply appreciated by all of its patrons. Both Carlton Sears and Heidi Daniel have been recognized for their efforts in transforming the library: in 2005, Sears won the Urban Libraries Council’s national Urban Leader award; in 2015, Daniel was named Ohio Librarian of the Year by the Ohio Library Council. Sears has since become a coach at the Harwood Institute, helping individuals and communities nationwide Turn Outward; Daniel recently became director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, a historic and highly regarded library in Baltimore, MD. The Youngstown library continues to improve and expand its services to all Youngstown residents, be they rich or poor, young or old, and it works tirelessly in its efforts to revitalize the city. The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County stands today as one of the great success stories of its city and region: proof of the powerful capabilities of institutions willing to Turn Outward.