British Columbia Library Association

Community conversations: an experiment in community-led librarianship

By Cara Pryor

In 2013, the North Vancouver City Library made a commitment to move toward a community-led philosophy. When I was given responsibility for this strategic direction I felt slightly daunted due to having absolutely no background in community work. My challenge was to find an approach that would work for our system while using the skill-sets and resources we had on hand.

Looking for inspiration and direction, I went to the 2013 American Library Association conference in Chicago. Along with Jane Watkins, Chief Librarian for North Vancouver City Library, I attended sessions offered by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation (which had recently partnered with ALA on the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative). The sessions introduced us to the Harwood Institute’s main mission: to assist organizations in learning how to turn their focus outwards, and make the community the main reference point for what they do.

Both Jane and I were struck by the groundedness and integrity of their message, and by the simplicity and power of their tools. The Harwood processes for community development have been refined and practiced for over 20 years, and emphasize the development of deep community knowledge, consistent scrutiny of organizational motivations and practices, and realistic, incremental change.

As a result of these sessions, I attended a three-day workshop, also known as a Public Innovator Lab, which included a further year of coaching from Harwood Coach, Joanne Linzey. The tools I learned at the Lab were rigorously principled, always leading back a community focus. They were also quite prescriptive – a real selling point for an organization such as ours with no staff experience in community work.

The central tool in the Harwood toolbox is the Community Conversation. Conversation participants (about 10-15 people) begin by answering the question: “what do you want for your community?” The question invites people to start thinking about what they value – What’s most important to me? What do I want for myself? For my family? Why does this matter? This initial exploration creates the possibility for shared understanding. Only after participants have spent considerable time sharing their values do they move on to discussing the barriers to those visions for community life, and possible strategies for meeting those barriers.

We wanted to try using these tools in our community. With grant money from NewToBC (which supports libraries in providing services to newcomers), and in partnership with the North Vancouver District Public Library, we decided to train our staff in Harwood philosophy and practices. With that training, we would hold a series of Community Conversations with newcomers and longer-term residents born outside of Canada.

The project quickly took on a life of its own. When we shared our plan with community partners, they expressed keen interest. We gained the financial support of North Shore Welcoming Action Committee (fore-runner to the North Shore Immigrant Inclusion Partnership) to extend the training to community service providers across the North Shore. Out of that training, we developed a Community Conversations Planning Committee which included representatives from multiple service organizations: the North Vancouver Recreation Commission; the District of West Vancouver; the North Shore Multicultural Society; North Shore Neighbourhood House; and all three library systems (North Vancouver District Public Library, North Vancouver City Library, and West Vancouver Memorial Library).

The newly formed Committee held twelve conversations in late 2014 and early 2015 with over 100 newcomers from across the three North Shore municipalities. We heard about employment, volunteer opportunities, and the desire to succeed in Canada. And we heard – over and over – about the deep desire to belong, to feel connected to the wider community, to develop real friendships with long-term Canadians. We heard about the courage it takes to try to connect, the shame people can feel when those attempts fail, and the responsibility newcomers want to take in their communities. We learned that inclusion is not an immigration issue – it’s a human issue.

For many of the people who have been involved in planning and facilitating Community Conversations, this project is having a profound impact on the way we think and act in community, both as individuals and as organizations.

The initial phase of the project is currently wrapping up (final report forthcoming) and the next phase is launching. Co-led by the North Shore Multicultural Society and North Vancouver City Library, we’ll be going deeper on this issue of belonging and exclusion, inviting both newcomers and Canadian-born residents to participate in Conversations together.

Community-led work is very much in its infancy here at North Vancouver City Library, but experimentation with the Harwood practices has led to some very satisfying outcomes. Our library has become a truly useful community partner on the North Shore, helping to foster more meaningful connection and collaboration among service providers. And we’ve helped create a much deeper – and much more human – understanding of community aspirations. It’s been a worthwhile start.


Cara Pryor is a North Vancouver City Librarian in North Vancouver, B.C.




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