Libraries Turning Outward in Mahoning County

( by Carlton Sears )Three decades after the collapse of its dominant industry, Mahoning County (Ohio) was still struggling to recover. The pervasive attitude was defeatist and pessimistic.  In 2000 against this backdrop the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County began work on their new strategic plan. Many of those working on it had roots that were deep in the community.  They had a life-long affection for the area and longed to see its rebirth.



The library was one of the oldest, most respected institutions in the county.  Yet even though its services were valued, there was a sense that the library was not viewed as relevant to the life of the community.  Those planning for its future began to explore what might be done to make the library more essential.  In the course of doing so, several people came across the work of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.


The Institute provided the inspiration to what became a major thrust of the library’s new direction; civic responsibility.  Harwood’s work made it possible for the library to view itself, its assets and its relationship to the community in a totally new light.  The library discovered how communities evolve over time and that it was possible to take action to do two powerful things at once; address pressing public issues that matter deeply to people and to go about it in a way that builds a stronger civic community.


Applying Harwood’s frameworks changed the library.  As opportunities arose, it stopped asking; what’s in it for the library?  It began to ask; what’s in it for the community?  The traditionally passive library role was no longer enough.  It began to look for ways to actively apply its assets.  The library turned outward just in time.


When funding fell by nearly a third ($3.6 million) the library was left no recourse but to ask voters in the local community to dig deep and approve new funding.  Asking this in the midst of the worst economic time since the Great Depression was a clear test of the library’s relevance, no one would tax themselves for an irrelevant organization. The challenge became even steeper when unprecedented circumstances resulted in the issue having to be voted on twice within 12 months.  Earlier this month, the citizens of the community said yes.  That both votes were successful is perhaps the best testament to the new relevance of the library in the community; a relevance that was inspired by turning outward.


Carlton Sears has directed public libraries in Alabama and New York before moving to Ohio in 1997 to lead the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. Carlton is a Harwood certified coach and was recipient of the Urban Libraries Council’s 2005 Urban Player of the Year Award. Recently he received an Alumni Citation Award from Wittenberg University.