Saturday, January 28, 2017

Together at the Table: A Civic Lab Program for MLK Day

My library aims to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each year with multigenerational programming that engages our community on issues from Dr. King's work and themes in his speeches and writing. When it came to planning for MLK Day 2017, the new Civic Lab here at the library felt like a completely natural connection. We wanted to intentionally connect our goals for civic engagement with Dr. King's vision for a truly united country, starting with our library community. And so our 2017 event was created: Together at the Table.

The title Together at the Table is lifted from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Our Together at the Table program was, at its core, a drop-in community gathering meant to foster feelings of empathy and belonging among all the many people who live in Skokie and who use the library. From noon until 8 p.m. on that Monday, Together at the Table took place in our larger multi-purpose programming space which is adjoined with a kitchen. We pushed together four of our tables, end to end, to create a long banquet-style table with chairs. Spread across the tabletops were tent talkers to get conversations started; we chose 6 questions from "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love." We purchased many dozens of muffins (all kosher) and set out hot coffee, hot water and tea, and ice water as well. And so the stage was set.

A snapshot from Together at the Table,
by adult program librarian Mimosa Shah.
Throughout that day, four excellent high school volunteers helped facilitate the program alongside library staff. Those high schoolers greeted patrons at the door--and we indeed saw patrons of every age. After encouraging (and in some cases helping) patrons to make a name tag, the volunteers led them to a seat. New arrivals were seated next to people already in the program, and so the volunteer would make introductions--nobody in the room was a stranger, nobody without someone to talk with. The volunteers would then go to the kitchen to get a muffin for each participant. More often than not, before the volunteer could even come back with the muffin, the patrons were diving into conversations with their tablemates.

As I pitched this program to my fellow programming team members and staff, I kept coming back to the central idea that participants would be able to break bread with one another and get to know fellow community members. I had the support of supervisors throughout the library that these conversations be open to staff at every level as well--and we did have about two dozen staff drop in to meet and talk with patrons throughout the day. Breaking bread is such a strong human interaction that seems to span all cultures; friendships and family are made over a shared meal. We wanted to facilitate that feeling of goodwill and community in our library--in particular at a moment, and at the beginning of the week of the inauguration, when many in our community were feeling unsettled, isolated, and worried.

Was the day successful? To be honest, I would have counted Together at the Table a success if even a single conversation took place in that space. I wanted to foster a space for meaningful interaction--something deeper than a rote "How are you?" / "Fine, and you?" back and forth or a conversation about the weather. And with that modest goal, I was blown away by the interactions that took place and the relationships that were formed.

Some snippets of the interactions, almost all between people who came to the shared table as strangers:

  • "We discovered that we have friends in common!" A patron who participated without knowing anyone struck up a conversation with someone seated near them, and they discovered that they share mutual friends. They remarked about feeling like the community is a close-knit, interconnected one.
  • A girl scout leader in the program with her troop connected with our deputy director, who leads a troop in a neighboring town. The two groups have made plans to get together.
  • An older elementary boy, who spends many of his out-of-school hours at the library, expressed delight and excitement at not only learning the library director is, in his words, "Korean like me!" but in being able to have a conversation with him as well.
  • Two young men who entered the program separately and were seated next to one another became friends in the course of their conversation, trading numbers before leaving so they could meet up again.
  • One woman responded to the prompt about something she's dreamed of doing with her desire to open a female-friendly auto repair garage. After talking about this dream with her seatmates, one identified himself as a person in real estate and he shared with the woman information on how to find a location for her business. They exchanged numbers and made plans to continue their conversation.
  • A 21-year-old man shared that the day of the program marked his twentieth day since coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan. In the course of his conversations with his tablemates and one of the teen volunteers, he became curious about the library's volunteer opportunities as a way to meet people and improve his English. He ended up talking with our volunteer coordinator, who had come into the room.

These are just a handful of the interactions that played out across the shared table. Our community embraced the ethos of Together at the Table wholeheartedly. I was struck by how open-hearted and honest the conversations I had, and the conversations I heard about, were. By how willing our community is to forge bonds with one another.

We had several participants ask if we plan to do this sort of program again, and many of us on staff and in our administration want to. If a root of civic engagement is feeling invested in one's community, Together at the Table certainly showed we have strong foundation in Skokie for this work.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

In the Civic Lab: Let's Talk About Standing Rock

When we started the Civic Lab at the end of this past summer, we knew one of our major goals would be to engage our community in conversations around current events and issues in a landscape with disappearing local news sources. Like many libraries and other institutions dedicated to access to information, we've felt this particular goal explode in import over the past few weeks. Or, rather, it was always important; the past few weeks simply cast the need in a more urgent light. To that end, many of our staff are scouring news and current events to think about topics about which our community can discuss and learn.

This past week, we focused on Standing Rock.

This pop-up of the Civic Lab had a simple statement to bring people to the space: Let's talk about Standing Rock. I worked with a coworker (who is a bookmobile librarian and a philosophy professor) who had gone out to Standing Rock in early November; with lots of input from his experience, research, and resources, we determined that our pop-up would explore three core questions:
  1. How do the collective economic gains of the Dakota Access Pipeline weigh against its environmental impact, both actual and potential?
  2. To what extent should the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock be considered in the context of the history of interactions between Native Americans* and the United States government?
  3. How should the government respond to the presence of water protectors?
It should be clear from these core questions that our goal was to provide all of the information, resources, and perspectives our patrons would need to be able to make an informed opinion of their own.

To that end, we gathered and curated a number of resources. These included:
This Civic Lab installation popped up for community conversation last Wednesday evening for 2 hours. In that time, we had some really outstanding conversations with patrons ranging from junior high-age through seniors, and all across the political spectrum. Those participants also ran the gamut in terms of previous knowledge they brought to the conversation; plenty had known nothing, while a small handful were already up on many of the details. While several patrons did feel the urge to identify themselves politically, none of the conversations were overtly political; rather, everyone seemed really eager (and relieved) to have conversations about issues rather than partisan posturing. Only one of our conversations lasted fewer than 10 minutes--that's the level of engagement we're talking about.

This photo from the library's Instagram account shows the
Civic Lab pop-up space and several of the participants.

Through the course of our conversations, we learned that 35% of the folks who stopped to talk had not heard of Standing Rock before they came to the Civic Lab. About 30% of the participants took copies of resources with them and/or expressed a desire to share what they were learning with others; one gentleman snapped some photos of resources to share on his Facebook page on the spot. And, when all was said and done, about 80% of the people who stopped to talk about Standing Rock indicated that they had learned something in the course of the conversation.

What we're learning in these Civic Lab pop-ups is that our community is really interested in having thoughtful and resource-based conversations about topics--both ones they've seen a bit on the news, and ones that are totally new to them as well. Are you finding this in your communities as well?

We're also learning that many patrons want to know when these pop-ups will be happening; they want to be sure they plan to come participate, and a few even said they'd do some advance research to come better prepared. These pop-ups thus far have been true pop-ups in the sense that they aren't advertised anywhere; staff know when they're happening and on what topics (so that we can plan), but patrons participate only if they happen to be in the library when the Civic Lab appears. We're going to change that model in coming weeks; while we want to retain the flexibility to pop up around topics as they emerge, we'll take steps to advertise pop-ups on our website and events calendar (and, potentially, via social media if the topic warrants). If the people in our community want to have these conversations, we certainly want to give them tools they need to do so.

Right now we're in planning stages for what's next for the Civic Lab. Staff are scouring the news and thinking about models for civic engagement that may resonate with our community. As we reflect and plan, I'd love to hear how you're thinking about civic engagement in your own libraries.


*You'll note that we used the term "Native Americans" rather than "First/Native Nations" in referring to indigenous groups participating in the Standing Rock action. We used this terminology because it was the express preference of the water protectors my colleague stood alongside when he was at Standing Rock.

**The #StandingRockSyllabus from NYC Stands with Standing Rock was incredibly valuable in allowing us to curate the content for the Civic Lab; if you've not yet explored it, I recommend you take the time to do so. We also looked to a variety of news sources--big networks and national papers as well as the international coverage and, particularly importantly, coverage from within indigenous communities. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Pop-Up Stories & Discussion in the Civic Lab

In this first iteration of our Civic Lab here at my library, most of the modes for participation are passive: voting on the major question, browsing the resources, and reflecting on or responding to the conversation starter questions. This first appearance of the Civic Lab has been largely unstaffed--which is decidedly different from how we plan to proceed when we get to round two.

But there has been a specific active component for youth in conjunction with the Civic Lab's debut: pop-up stories and discussion.

I facilitated each of these pop-ups, one for each of our six topic areas. During the days we were focused on each topic, I grabbed the picture book from that topic's micro-collection and headed into the youth services department. I looked for the areas where kids were playing or hanging out, then introduced myself and invited them to participate in one story with some talking afterward. As is usual in our busy library, only a handful of kids were willing to put down the activity they'd been engaged in to participate--but that's fine, as it ensured our groups were small and cozy, better for thoughtful shared reading.

Then, when we were settled around a table, or in a circle on the floor, I'd open the book and start to read. Depending on the particular title, we might immediately start talking about what we saw in the pictures, or words that we were hearing in the story that weren't familiar. The goal of the pop-up stories was to engage kids in the focus topic in a developmentally appropriate way; and in many instances, the reading was the first encounter with the topic. It felt important to share the story together and to think about it, to ask questions and to encourage kids to ask them, too, and to respond with information, or more questions, when appropriate.

Here are the books we discussed:
  • I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Black Lives Matter)
  • Where's the Elephant? by Barroux (Climate Change)
  • Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado (Immigration)
  • Yard Sale by Even Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Income Inequality)
  • Donovan's Big Day by LeslĂ©a Newman, illustrated by Mike Dutton (LGBTQQI)
  • My Body Belongs to Me: A Book About Body Safety by Jill Starishevsky, illustrated by Angela Padron (Reproductive Justice)

My favorite, and probably most successful, of these pop-up stories and discussions was with the title Where's the Elephant? In that gorgeous picture book, kids are asked on the first, lush spread to try to find the elephant, snake, and parrot. It's a familiar type of book-sharing for kids--the seek and find. They get really into it, applying laser focus to each spread to find those animals. It gets easier and easier to spot them on each spread, as with each page turn, more and more of the lush forest in which they've lived is cut down. Eventually, the animals are hiding among houses, not trees, until finally they end up in the zoo. Easy to spot? Absolutely. And that visual storytelling makes it so impactful to finish the book and ask the kids, "So what do you think the story was really about?"

Spread from Barroux's Where's the Elephant?

Spread from Barroux's Where's the Elephant?


Where's the Elephant? spurred great conversations about how humans impact our environment, and how that has effects on other living creatures as well as on ourselves. It was a unique approach to the larger topic of climate change, which ties back to humans' impacts on our world. The simple story gave kids a frame for thinking about the topic.

I think this type of activity could be easily replicated outside of a larger initiative like our Civic Lab. A storytime leader could easily add one of these picture books into storytime and have a quick little chat after the story. If parents are present at the story sharing, the story gives them the opportunity to think about how they might have that conversation with their kids. We've anecdotally found that parents do want to talk to their kids about these major topics in the world, but they don't always know how to go about doing so. Sharing stories that connect to major topics can show parents that there are resources to support those conversations, and that their library is a place to go for those resources and for their own support.

Sharing these types of stories gets us engaged in conversation with each other in ways that build community bonds--whether among a family, a neighborhood, or an entire community. Give it a try.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Civic Lab: Skokie's Civic Engagement Library

Civic engagement is on our minds at my library. Not just because this is an election year--although that certainly adds a layer to the conversation and mood around civic engagement in our community. Civic engagement has been on our mind for several years, and it's informed public programs and initiatives as well as discussions around our strategic plan. We've seen teens and adults having conversations about issues and things they see in the news, and children and their parents trying to figure out how to process those same issues and news items. After seeing The Uni Project in New York, this idea of civic engagement in the library seemed to coalesce for us around the idea of a mobile, pop-up space. And so after a few months' discussions, followed by a few weeks of planning and resource-making, we debuted our civic engagement space at the end of August.

Welcome to the Civic Lab at Skokie Public Library.

The Civic Lab is a mobile, pop-up library with resources and activities. Its first appearance is situated in the library itself--specifically, in our Boutique space, which features seasonal and themed collections throughout the year. The Civic Lab as a concept is meant to offer information and thought-provoking activities meant to support dialogue and engagement on issues that affect our community. For this two-month residency in the library, the Civic Lab is exploring six main issues of impact and importance to our community: Black Lives Matter; climate change; immigration; income inequality; LGBTQQI; and reproductive justice.


This debut Civic Lab includes elements of collection, activities, and facilitated programming.

Six micro-collections comprise the bulk of the materials available in the Civic Lab. Each of our six focus topics is supported by six core resources: two for adults, two for teens, and two for children and families. These lists have been carefully curated, with library staff in nearly every department having input. We've curated these lists not to be neutral, but rather to provide introductions and perspectives on our six topics. Lists for further reading--which also live on our library website--provide even more choices for exploring a topic. All the core resources, further reading, key definitions, and conversation starters appear on handouts in the space. They're also available here:

We're rotating some of the interactive components of the exhibit so that each of our six topics has an opportunity for closer focus and engagement over these two months. On one wall of the Civic Lab, we pose a general question relating to that featured topic; when we opened with the Black Lives Matter focus, we asked: "Has the Black Lives Matter movement challenged you to think about racism in Skokie?" The question sits atop a large board for voting, with bright-colored sticky notes ready to be placed on the sections for "Yes," "No," or somewhere in between. Pencils in the space allow patrons to write any comments on their sticky notes, too; and the longer the Civic Lab is up, the more comments people are sharing.

This type of voting component is taking place on a display unit in our youth services department as well. While the questions may be phrased differently for kids and families to be developmentally appropriate, they get at the same ideas and concepts.

We've also set a kitchen table of sorts in the Civic Lab. With boxes surrounding the table for sitting, and a box atop the table with conversation starters on it, the table is meant to be a place to stop and have a kitchen table conversation about these issues. We've left postcards on the table as well, encouraging patrons to share their thoughts--with a friend or family member, or just with the library in general--by writing them down and placing their postcard in our mailbox. These conversation starters are also the basis for some of our facilitated conversations taking place in the Civic Lab--more on those types of programs later.


Today I wanted to share an overview of this first appearance of our Civic Lab. I'll be back in a few weeks to talk about some of the programming elements that accompanied this first iteration, and in coming moths I'll share details about additional instances when and where the Civic Lab pops up. In the meantime, explore the resource lists we've created; have a conversation with a friend or colleague around a topic of import to your community; and make a point of recognizing instances of civic engagement in your library practice.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Take the Our Voices Pledge

Over the past few months, I've been part of a dedicated and inspiring team of individuals from multiple corners of the book ecosystem. We're the Advisory Council for the Our Voices, which launched today, the start of Banned Books Week. I'm incredibly proud of the work we're setting out to do, which will ultimately include an initiative to connect small, independent, and self-published content creators in the Chicago region to libraries and readers.

What's gone live today is a pledge, which I encourage you to read and consider; to take; and to share with your friends and colleagues. If we want a more diverse, representative body of quality content for our communities, it's up to each of us to work toward that goal.

Please take a few minutes this week to peruse the Our Voices website and to take the pledge!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Wrapping up Summer Reading with a Field Day

We wrapped up summer reading at my library 10 days ago after an eleven-week program. Our reading clubs committee, which comprises folks from youth, adult, programming, and marketing, created our own theme: Camp Curiosity. We had all things camp- and outdoors-related this summer, so it only seemed fitting that we'd match our summer reading finale with an outdoorsy-flavored event: an all-ages Field Day.

On a sunny, not-too-hot Sunday afternoon, we spilled out onto the Village Green adjacent to the library for our Field Day festivities. Almost 200 people, mostly families, participated in the range of activities available over a two-hour span. Here's what we offered.

Self-Paced Field Day Activities

The majority of our activities at Field Day were self-paced, with each activity set out at a station that families could approach as they pleased:

Compass and orienteering mini-workshops from L.L.Bean - The L.L.Bean store at the mall in Skokie was hugely supportive of our summer reading club this summer, and the manager brought one final activity to the Field Day. He set up a table with maps and compasses and gave at least a dozen mini-workshops on orienteering for folks who were interested. This activity spanned all ages quite easily.

A community mural - Our staff artist, who works in the youth department, created two large-scale line-drawing murals on white foam core: one showed a daytime outdoor image, the other a nighttime one. The tone aligned with our summer reading Camp Curiosity theme perfectly, and Field Day attendees were invited to grab some markers and help to color in the murals. This activity had lots of sustained engagement from kids and adults who wanted to get their large-scale coloring on.

Chalk art - We blocked off the driveway between the library and the Village Green, giving the event a bit of a block party feel. Kids got creative in adding chalk art on the drive. It was great to be able to redirect young kids to the chalk art--if they were too young for the community mural (i.e., would scribble rather than color), they could do as they pleased with chalk on the ground.

Jumbo lawn games - We brought out our sets of giant Jenga and giant dominoes for families to play with. Bonus: kids too young for Jenga are pleased as punch to use those Jenga blocks for stacking and building, too.

Read-outs - One of the features of Camp Curiosity this summer was the Tuesday afternoon read-out, when teen volunteers took out camp chairs and a selection of books to the Village Green to encourage people on their way into, out of, or near the library to stay a few minutes to read and chat with neighbors. We brought out the chairs for a final read-out at the Field Day.

Inflatable obstacle course - This is the component for which we hired folks for the Field Day: we rented a giant kids inflatable obstacle course and two attendants to staff it. Kids of every age were happy to kick off their shoes and try the obstacle course, with nearly everyone going through many, many times. We will be bringing these folks back for future events--such a huge hit.

Group Field Day Activities

A few of the Field Day activities were scheduled so that all interested folks could participate together:

Group photo - It's tradition that anyone who completes the summer reading program gets a t-shirt. This is longstanding tradition--we see patrons of every age wearing their summer reading shirts from years past pretty much on a daily basis. Our staff photographer snapped a photo of the folks at the Field Day who wore their shirts (including a few family members who forgot theirs at home).

Balloon toss - Field Day participants paired up with partners for this event on the patio of the Village Green. All pairs stood the same distance apart, and each pair got a water balloon. Then, one by one, each pair tried to toss their balloon from one partner to the next. If the balloon popped, the team was out. Teams remaining after each round took giant steps back and repeated the process until a single pair was left victorious. We did three rounds of the balloon toss.

Ice pops - Even though it wasn't an extremely hot day, it was still warm, and the sharing of ice pops was quite welcome by attendees and staff alike. We brought out a cooler with the ice pops and folks could come select the flavor of their choosing from one of our staff.

Water balloon fight - We hadn't advertised that there would be a water balloon fight--we weren't sure how many folks would show up, so we modestly stuck with the balloon toss as the main event. After three rounds of the balloon toss and we still had about 120 balloons left, however, we gathered interested folks for a water balloon fight. We had two rules: 1) no throwing at faces, and 2) if you throw a balloon, you help pick up the pieces when the fight is over. Each participant got two balloons, and on the count of three, we had a quick, damp little battle.

~~*~~

So that was our Summer Reading Finale Field Day. In comparing notes after the event, several of my colleagues and I reflected that we had a particularly high number of positive comments from families about this event. They were singing the praises of the Camp Curiosity program, but they were also massively appreciative that they could attend the Field Day. It seems that, in an age where almost every public event involves the temptation to spend money (that cotton candy booth at the fair is there whether you want to spend money or not), families really appreciate getting to attend something fun and totally free.

We are happy to oblige.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I'm Taking the Pledge #Libraries4BlackLives #M4BLPledge

As a librarian, I find it is insufficient to simply espouse equality and equity. I must do more with the knowledge and resources I help to steward. As a librarian, I must advocate for opportunities and social justice for all whom I serve. The implication of that statement is that, when I see systemic barriers to opportunity, systemic denials of social justice, I must advocate for better. I must do better. I must speak out about the inequities and injustices I see working against members of my community, and I must work hard to dismantle them. I cannot merely pay lip service to these ideals. I must commit myself to living them.

Screen grab from Libraries4BlackLives.org
And so I am answering the call to action of #Libraries4BlackLives. I am taking the pledge for the Movement for Black Lives. I am looking to resources curated by the librarians behind #Libraries4BlackLives and crowdsourced by library workers also committed to ensuring that Black lives are afforded the same opportunities and dignities so freely given to others.

It may seem that, as a White woman coming from a position of White privilege, I do not have to do these things. On a surface, survival level, our society confirms that is true: no harm or injustice will come to me if I choose to remain quiet. But the Black members of my community will continue to come to harm and experience injustice if I remain quiet, and if all other White library workers remain quiet. Black lives will continue to come to harm and experience injustice because that is the effect of the systemically racist society in which we live and work. It is a moral and professional imperative that I do not remain quiet and do nothing. Staying quiet and doing nothing is directly antithetical to the values of libraries to serve and support all members of our communities. Serving and supporting all members means recognizing when voices are systematically marginalized and doing something to address that inequity.

I urge you to reflect on your values as a person working in libraries.

I urge you to recognize the vital necessity of the Movement for Black Lives, and to explore the resources curated by #Libraries4BlackLives as a starting place for working to do better.

I urge you to join in answering the call to action and taking the pledge.