Editor's Note: Barbara Davis, Youth Librarian, and Lisa Backer, Reference Librarian, of the Fruitville Library are participants in the Harwood Public Innovators Lab underwritten by The Patterson Foundation for library leadership in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
At the Fruitville Library in Sarasota, turning outward has been an incremental process as we incorporate the Harwood training into our daily work. It comes both intentionally and subtly in the way we approach our library patrons and the programs we offer.
As a children's librarian and an adult services librarian who took the Harwood training last September due to the generosity of The Patterson Foundation, we were at first a bit unsure of how this would actually work out. After that third half day of training, we put our new workshop notebooks in our desks and went back to work. Things seemed the same.
With time, more study, and a few Community Conversations, we came to understand that we needed to live our roles differently. In our conversations, we realized we should be more attuned to trying to build the kind of community our public wanted. We needed to really understand our patrons' aspirations and learn from them, not just have them learn from us.
We started to take advantage of opportunities right in front of us to find out what people wanted from the library, and not just respond to specific, narrow inquiries.
For example, several times a week groups from a non-profit facility for adults with cognitive disabilities visit the library. They come to both the adult and children's area with a few caregivers. The residents are mostly left to look around on their own and have minimal contact with staff.
We decided to put our Harwood training to work and held some mini-Community Conversations with these patrons and their caregivers. We wanted to know what their aspirations were, what their capabilities were, and what they wanted from us. We learned some were learning to read, others had specific interests like photography, and still, others enjoyed arts and crafts. We started bringing out art projects for them to do during their visits and there was overwhelming interest; we even added word search sheets for those starting to read.
Soon we decided to stock a whole cart with items for these patrons’ different interests and capabilities. We printed out beginning reader activities and added books of interest as well as art activities and materials. These have been well received. We had listened to their aspirations and then used our library skills to meet them with practical applications. These patrons are now using the library to improve their literacy levels and to express themselves creatively. They look forward to participating in activities rather than just passively browsing at the library. The collaboration between Youth and Adult Services on meeting the needs of adults with cognitive disabilities is an example of using the Harwood training. Listening to the residents and the caregivers has allowed us to enhance their library experience.
Another example of our more outward approach is occurring with our young families. In talking with young mothers who visit the children's department, and through Community Conversations, we have learned that many are new to the area and don't feel connected here. Young parents said they felt that most social organizations and leisure activities in the area were geared toward retirees and tourists. Their children were too young for school, so they didn't have that link yet. Our preschool programs were primarily planned around the children for early literacy, and the parents were relatively incidental.
We realized that we could meet the mothers' needs for more socialization by altering our department and planning our programs a little differently. We added activity tables in our children's department so parents could linger and visit together while their children were occupied. We also added a free playtime at the end of some of our preschool programs so that parents could talk to each other. We have observed new friendships forming from week to week, and people have expressed that they like the community atmosphere at our library. The library is not only an educational asset, but it is also a trusted institution where families can meet, learn, and share while strengthening a sense of belonging.
In Adult Services, we used the Harwood approach of turning outward to plan and evaluate a different series of programs. We found by listening to our patrons, and to those in the community who do not usually use the library, what they wanted in cultural presentations. For many in the community, the library is the only place they can have exposure to the music, art, and computer instruction at no cost.
Based on our public knowledge of what people wanted in cultural presentations, we presented an Asolo Play Readers production, a historical Georgia O’Keeffe program, and several musical programs, all of which were well attended and drew a wide range of adults. Suggestions from participants at these programs have directly led to several others, such as an upcoming local history series and a popular movie showing once a month.
Listening to our community has also led to other changes, such as adjusting our large print collection to make it more accessible and known to low-vision patrons. We had learned from public knowledge that many low vision seniors needed resources such as our large print books and specialized computer. However, some were not aware of what we had until we worked to promote these assets better. Again, the library is better able to serve the community by listening and being open to the community’s aspirations.
We look forward to more Community Conversations and more possibilities for the libraries in the community, wherever we find them.
Thanks again to The Patterson Foundation and The Harwood Institute for their continuing support.