I am at a Young Adults and Libraries Summit, listening to the final speaker challenge the audience with this question: “Why do libraries need teens?” Not, “Why do teens need libraries?” – the question I thought I wanted to ask – and to learn answers to. But the reverse… “Why do teens need libraries?”
I am a novice when it comes to libraries. With the exception of the occasional forays during my graduate studies long ago, and the occasions when I accompany my husband to poetry readings, I never paid much attention to libraries… that is, until our county decided to de-fund our public library, assigning stewardship of the library’s resources to the community benefit organization I founded and where I still mentor staff.
First, I was enraged, as I saw my small, rural community losing one more resource in an already resource-scarce community from the people. The more I explored what this change meant, the more I learned that public libraries are one of the few resources that truly serve everyone.
As the new steward of this community resource, it was time to reconsider what a library could look and feel like. It was time to learn whether there was a different way of “doing” libraries and what ideas might be a good fit for our community.
And so I am at a Young Adults and Libraries Summit.
I am here to learn, and I am here to practice. Because this year, I have committed to be on a Listening Project.
The main purpose of the Listening Project is to help me restrain my natural impulses to problem-solve, the impulse to jump into action. My goal is to stay in “data collection” mode – to suspend judgment and action, to allow sufficient time to reflect, refine, review, relearn, reflect more and continue to collect more information. I am determined to observe, listen, participate in conversations, and consider what’s important to people in areas of living, working, and communing that I care about.
Whether it is related to our community’s library, or related to my own exploration, my Listening Project has relied upon a few simple parameters – criteria that would be useful in any listening campaign.
- Create a set of questions that will guide what you will listen for and observe during a particular event, interview, or conversation.
- Engage as a listener or participant, not an active leader or mobilizer. Avoid problem solving or solution finding. Simply note your desire to do so and record that and move on.
- Remind yourself that you are exploring to learn about new ways of thinking and doing around areas of interest to you.
- Listen to what is being said AND how it is being said; pay particular attention to the language that is used to convey meaning—from phrases to specific words—that suggest how the issue/topic at hand is being framed.
- If inclined to engage, reframe suggestions as open-ended questions; ask questions to get at the thinking behind the presentation or conversation.
- Treat the event/conversation much as you would meeting a person for the first time and wanting to truly understand how they think and respond to the world.
- Reflect on what you have heard. Record your reflections from a general and broad lens to more specific focus.
- Go deeper into one or more of these general observations/interpretations and craft./answer the question: What if….? What would be possible if….? What conditions would need to be in place for me to consider this a viable option?
- End with questions that you need to explore further. What else do I need/want to know about this?
When it came to my community’s library, my Listening Project had a concrete focus. I wanted to learn and collect information and reflect before I decided whether to join hands with the owner of a local building and remodel for a spring library opening. I want the outcome to be thoughtful, intentional, sustainable action. I am after all, simply a catalyst.
Through listening, I have learned about teen librarians and youth service branches of libraries. I have learned not just why teens need libraries, but through a simple twist in a simple question, I have explored the powerful reasons why libraries need teens.
Through listening, I learned that in my town of 1,000 and county of 5,000, our organization is a natural fit as the steward of this resource, because of the multi-faceted learning spaces that libraries have the potential to be.
And I have learned that libraries and librarians rock. They may just be the best thing for wreaking havoc on the social change front.
I learned all that by listening.
And so I pose this challenge to you:
What could your organization accomplish if you stopped problem-solving and jumping into action?
What could your organization accomplish if you instead stepped back and devoted yourself first to simply listening?
I look forward to learning from your responses!
Deborah Loesch-Griffin describes herself as a “social artist” – integrating grassroots community-building and social-change efforts with program evaluation and health, education, and human service systems work. To connect with Deborah, follow this link.