The pandemic has challenged the way libraries connect and engage with their local communities. Here are some of the exciting findings shared by presenters as part of the OPLA Community-Led Think Tank's Community Conversation and what they might mean for the future of community librarianship.
By Brandy Smith
A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark.
~ Dante Alighieri
In endeavoring to meet the needs of our communities, we, as library staff, have to ignite the sparks. We have to listen and respond to what our communities are telling us—the conversations that spark ideas, relationships and information exchange. Most often, the best outcomes are a result of these sparks because such front-line conversations lead to productive ideas and insights into what people are looking for in their community. At the Brockville Public Library (BPL), we refer to these conversational sparks as “The Spark” and capitalize on them to develop programming that is relevant and community-led.
As the BPL Community Engagement Coordinator, The Spark is essential in all aspects of my work: From volunteer positions, to gallery exhibits, outreach, adult programs and collections. And some of my favourite experiences and most engaging work began with a Spark. In particular, our community living program, LGBTQ+ youth initiatives, and “seedy” programs prove that listening to community members has the power to transform our programming.
Several years ago, we were approached by Career Services, a local employment assistance agency for individuals with disabilities, in regards to a placement for one of their clients.
In attempting to place him as a volunteer, we asked what does Kyle like to do? We discovered that he’s very friendly and sociable. To which my response was, “Can he lead a program?”
From that Spark we developed a bi-weekly community living program to support:
- active community involvement
- life skills
Group activities have included:
- growing plants from seeds for our community garden
- cooking classes
- field trips to local attractions
- studying world maps, word games and bingo
- learning about new technologies
Kyle and one of the participants assist with planning and organizing the program. We have also recruited an extra volunteer. The group has been meeting at the BPL for six years, with 6 to 10 people attending regularly, including a group from Disability Services Leeds & Grenville. In fact, for this group, visiting the BPL is one of their regular group outings and establishes the BPL as a welcoming space.
Drop-ins and proms: LGBTQ+ youth love these initiatives
Our LGBTQ+ Youth Drop-in was sparked by a conversation with a community group during which I learned that LGBTQ+ teens need safe spaces in the community. From there we developed (to the best of our knowledge) one of the first LGBTQ+ programs for youth in public libraries. The drop-in provides a safe and inconspicuous space, positive modelling and peer support. As a result of our increased awareness of LGBTQ+ needs, our relationship with Brockville Pride and the Pride planning committee evolved. With the planning group, we helped initiate, plan and organize the first ever Pride Week in Brockville and we’ve continued to be involved with this key community event, which is very much celebrated and is instrumental in advocating for LGBTQ+ issues, inclusion, acceptance and strength in diversity in our community. A true community event, agencies involved in PrideParade include:
- local restaurants and businesses
- church groups
- Victim’s Services
- Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)
- Elementary Teacher’s Foundation of Ontario (ETFO)
- political parties, municipal, provincial and federal government officials
Another Spark ignited from this program and partnership is the LGBTQ+ Prom. The kids indicated issues around going to school formals and graduation celebrations, so together, we decided to host an LGBTQ+ Prom. We have hosted the Prom for 3 years in a row, with the students taking the lead on the theme, planning and decorations. Brockville Pride and ETFO have provided funding for the occasion to eliminate financial barriers.
As a result of our work with the community on this BPL has also been involved in professional development training for local community service providers and we have been invited to speak at a social justice committee meeting.
Are you feeling the glow yet?
BPL has long partnered with a local environment group, Transition Brockville, to provide both space and programming. A few years ago, a new group member approached us about hosting a Seedy Saturday free seed exchange and this Spark led to Brockville’s first Seedy Saturday.
The first event six tables were booked, and approximately 75 people attended.
The event has outgrown the Library space, moved to a larger venue with 18 registered tables of community garden clubs, independent seed savers, vendors and local producers, with over 300 people attending to exchange not only seeds, but experiences and information.
In 2017, we received a Healthy Kids Community Challenge (Leeds & Grenville) grant to develop outdoor community vegetable gardens for children’s summer programming, that has evolved into programming for our Community Living group. The group started most of the plants from seed this year, then transplanted them into the garden, and a number of our community members help take loving care of the gardens. We’ve worked closely with our local community garden co-op, relying on them for advice and we have been a stop on the Communities in Bloom tour the past two years.
With the grant funding we were also able to start a Seed Library that we launched at Seedy Saturday 2018. This year we also bought a rain barrel to promote environmental responsibility. Such events and programs help build community connections and foster resiliency. These initiatives are also strategic in that they align with our municipality’s sustainability plan.
Stronger relationships, stronger communities
All of these initiatives at BPL involve relationships with our community: Library users, community partner groups and agencies, volunteers and BPL staff. Sure, we have all had those brilliant ideas for programs and initiatives that we thought would be amazing opportunities for our communities, and I’m sure we all have experience with those ideas falling flat, I can name a few!
The Sparks of community-led and community-initiated programs have the most potential for success, true community capacity building and provide unique opportunities for library staff to be innovative leaders.
You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.
~ Robin Williams
Photo credit (feature): Milan Popovic on Unsplash