Rich Harwood on Libraries as Change Agents, Turning Outward, and the Need for Qualitative Data
By Lisa Peet
January 9, 2015
Rich Harwood is an author, public speaker, and the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to change in the public sphere. Since its establishment in 1998, the institute has worked with such partners as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, and the United Way Worldwide, as well as civic groups across the country, to help them develop innovation strategies guided by community engagement.
Harwood has always viewed libraries as strong agents of social and civic change. In 2001 he met Nancy Kranich, then president of the American Library Association (ALA), and the two began an ongoing conversation about specific ways in which the institute’s tools could help libraries. In 2013 he joined forces with ALA to launch the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities project, a yearlong initiative to help libraries focus on civic engagement as a way to move their message forward.
The result is the Public Innovators Lab for Libraries, an intensive three-day training session for librarians and library stakeholders on how to utilize Harwood’s “turning outward” approach, and to better align themselves with the communities they serve, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The first session was held in Washington, DC, in 2013. A report on one held in Atlanta in October 2014 can be found here. LJ recently caught up with Harwood himself to discuss his work with libraries:
How did you move from your own community engagement to running these workshops with ALA?
My interest in libraries is that they’re essential to the civic life of communities, and as you know they’re gateways for immigrants, for nontraditional learners, for people learning financial literacy skills, for all of us in terms of deepening our knowledge. And unlike a lot of groups that we work with, libraries still have a great reservoir of trust in communities that a lot of community and public institutions no longer have. I think they’re essential right now to helping us rebuild our sense of connection to one another, and the ability of communities to come together and solve problems together.
How are libraries different from the other nonprofits you work with?
With some groups there often is a kind of skepticism about community. With librarians and other library staff I’ve found none of that resistance. Actually I’ve found a keen desire to engage with communities. There’s much more “let’s go, I want to learn.”