REPORT: Strengthening Networks, Sparking Change: Community Catalysts (2016)

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REPORT: Strengthening Networks, Sparking Change: Community Catalysts (2016)

Strengthening Networks, Sparking Change:
Museums and Libraries as Community Catalysts

The report includes case studies and a discussion of conceptual frameworks that can guide libraries, archives, and museums that seek to spark catalytic change in their communities.

The report is divided into the following sections:
• The Introduction traces the increasing importance of anchor institutions (typically universities and hospitals) to contextualize the evolving efforts of museums and libraries and the broad content areas in which they are expanding their activities. It also presents the social wellbeing and collective impact frameworks that are referenced throughout the document.
• The Continuum of Museum and Library Community Initiatives describes the types of efforts that can improve social wellbeing for residents. This section catalogs key considerations for museums and libraries as they design community-focused efforts.
• Understanding Assets and Challenges, and Evaluating Impact summarizes effective methods for assessing community assets, needs, and approaches to evaluating the impact of museum and library efforts to promote the wellbeing of their communities.
• Building Capacity to Support and Spark Change reviews the requisite skills and competencies required of community-centered institutions and provides considerations for obtaining them through staff development, hiring practices, or partnership.
• The Conclusion summarizes key themes from each section to highlight opportunities for museums and libraries to catalyze change in their communities going forward.

A. The Dimensions of Community-Focused Initiatives
The range of ways museums and libraries advance social wellbeing can be plotted along three main dimensions that are generally independent from each other:
• The relationship between an individual initiative and an institution’s established activities and spaces;
• The relative formality of a partnership, when there is one; and
• The museum’s or library’s level of involvement.
For purposes of this document, “partnership” refers to relationships where a museum or library voluntarily joins with at least one other entity, and each partner shares responsibility and resources for achieving mutually identified goals. Partnerships are distinct from other less structured collaborations, in which museums and libraries contribute to broader community-driven work, but their participation is mandatory, or there may not be shared responsibility, goals, or resources (e.g., renting space, or compulsory participation in a municipal initiative). In many cases, museums and libraries may engage members of the public without the support of another organization.

Community-focused efforts thrive when commitment to them permeates all organizational levels, and lines of responsibility for creating and sustaining initiatives are clear.

Considerations for Designing and Sustaining Community-Oriented Initiatives
A common set of considerations guides museums’ and libraries’ decisions to participate in the community-oriented efforts reviewed in this study. These include: institutional support for testing and managing new initiatives, the process through which goals are set, the ability of an initiative to adapt to changing circumstances over a lifecycle, and how roles and responsibilities are defined. Within each of these areas, museums and libraries face challenges and are presented with opportunities to find new ways to advance their institutional missions through collaboration and outreach that enhance the wellbeing of people living in the communities they serve.

Community-focused efforts thrive when commitment to them permeates all organizational levels, and lines of responsibility for creating and sustaining initiatives are clear.

The pursuit of catalytic community-oriented initiatives has pushed institutional boundaries toward meeting specific needs, both through traditional activities10 and a more fundamental shift toward collaboration, reflection, and community-driven programming.11 At many museums and libraries this has entailed a top-to-bottom assessment and even reorganization of community-engagement and partnership practices, while others have made more minor adjustments. In interviews, museum and library staff consistently highlighted the need for high-level institutional support for community-oriented work and partnership formation. Consistent messaging from the director and board level about the importance and intent of these activities is essential to a truly community-focused orientation. There is also a need for clarity about where authority and responsibility to begin and sustain initiatives lies. In some library systems, branch staff are instrumental in piloting new ideas, while in others there is a more centralized approach. No matter what the decision-making structure looks like, it should be clearly communicated. Adequate resources are essential for departments or individuals tasked with outreach, so that they can develop, monitor, and adjust their work. Without sufficient financial means and staff time, efforts can quickly falter.

Reputational risks associated with moving into new content areas can be managed so that community trust is enhanced rather
than compromised.
Museums and libraries often prize their particular reputation in a community. Some are proud to be seen as purveyors of accurate and trusted information, honest brokers in sensitive matters, or protectors of cultural heritage. Some institutions see themselves as advocates for critical issues. However, as institutions become more involved in initiatives addressing potentially contentious matters, they expose themselves to a greater level of public scrutiny and reputational risk. The director of the Topeka Shawnee Public Library acknowledged that as the library has become more involved with local economic development efforts, she and her staff are continually challenged to maintain their institutional position as a site for the free exchange of competing ideas, even when this may conflict with personally held beliefs. Each institution must carefully consider whether and when it is appropriate for them to take positions about matters of public concern, such as education or immigration policy, when doing so may expose the institution to diminished public trust or reputation.

Museums and libraries face practical constraints that can limit their ability to engage with members of the public and partner with
external groups.
“Getting away from the desk”—both moving around the building and getting outside of it—has become a mantra for some community-facing institutions, but breaking the habit of staying within arm’s reach of a collection or database can be hard.13 Officials at several institutions emphasized the importance of attending a variety of community events to demonstrate engagement, but this can also put a strain on staff resources. For example, a group of branch librarians at the Free Library of Philadelphia received extensive training related to business services. Ideally, these librarians would attend networking events and commercial corridor association meetings to connect with the entrepreneurs they hope to serve. In the library field this is typically called “embedded librarianship.” But often there is not enough staff coverage at the branches to allow librarians to be offsite.
At other institutions, staff noted that community events are frequently held at night or over weekends, requiring staff to put in additional hours beyond their standard workday. Having sufficient staff levels and flexible schedules that allow individuals to swap out traditional hours of operation for evenings and weekends can support efforts to connect more deeply with the community and help mitigate burnout among staff who spend a lot of time offsite.

Initiative planning and management includes testing new ideas, transitioning to new phases, and sustaining efforts as they evolve over time.
Community initiatives tend to follow a similar path: big idea, planning, launch, growth, and sustained operation or sun-setting. Not all initiatives will be lasting, nor should they be. As one museum official put it, “We start each pilot with a question” to guide the work. Starting small with pilots or informal partnerships creates learning opportunities that require minimal resources and minimal risk. Even after a program has entered full implementation, it may need to adapt to changing needs or resources.
In Massachusetts, the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Apprenticeship Program was developed in response to a citywide call to action to address the low graduation rate and high youth unemployment rate. Since 2010, the program has provided disadvantaged students with opportunities to enhance their academic skills and knowledge, develop professional skills, and gain exposure to higher education and different career paths. Since its inception, the Whaling Museum has maintained a close partnership with New Bedford High School through a consistent and rigorous application process and established sustainable levels of annual enrollment: 18 students per year. To date, every student who has participated in the program has graduated from high school.

As program participants began graduating from high school and transitioning to college, Whaling Museum staff realized their graduates needed ongoing support to successfully make this transition—a well-documented phenomenon among disadvantaged and first-generation college students across the country.14 In response to this ongoing need, the program is pursuing opportunities to expand its support to graduates during their first year in college. Like many programs, the Apprenticeship Program is principally supported through grant dollars, challenging program staff to continually write successful grant applications. The program’s expansion to first-year college students makes the museum eligible for additional funding streams focused in this area. In this way the Whaling Museum is enhancing its services for New Bedford youth and creating an opportunity to become more financially sustainable.

Partnerships are most effective when they are developed strategically, with clearly defined roles for each partner that account for their particular capacities and resources.
When it comes to partnerships, museum and library staff have acknowledged becoming more deliberate in identifying partners with specific, complementary skill sets or resources (e.g., neighborhood relationships, content expertise, and financial stability), with whom they could effectively share goals and responsibilities. Some institutions even use set criteria to evaluate potential partnerships to assess their own capacity to partner on a given effort, their potential partner’s limitations, and other relevant considerations.
These evolving approaches are being developed in response to the fact that partnerships can put stress on limited resources—particularly time—and create tension related to communication, expectations, and conflicting institutional cultures, all of which need to be managed.15 Initiating partnerships with clearly defined roles for carefully selected partners can increase the value of working together and also mitigate potential rough spots down the road.

Museum and library staff may consider the following types of questions during partnership development, as applied to their own institutions and potential partners as well:
• How does this partnership advance each partner’s institutional mission?
• How does this partnership address an unmet need in the community?
• Does this partnership expand access to community members who are not yet engaged with the institution?
• What unique contributions does each institution bring to the partnership?
• Does each institution have the capacity—skills, time, financial resources, space, etc.—to meet their commitments to the partnership?
• Does each institution have the capacity to manage the partnership?
• How and when could a pilot initiative transition to a sustained partnership?
• What evidence would prompt this transition?
• How will the partners assess the results of their combined efforts—
for their institutions and the community?

Dimensions of Social Wellbeing
• Economic Wellbeing: material standard of living— income, education, and labor force participation;
• Economic and Ethnic Diversity: the extent to which certain income levels and ethnic groups are concentrated or mixed in a place;
• Health: physical and mental health status as well as access to care;
• School Effectiveness: the degree to which the local school environment is conducive to learning— student achievement, dropout rates;
• Cultural Engagement: opportunities to experience one’s own cultural legacy and those of other residents;
• Housing Quality: physical and financial conditions associated with shelter—crowding, code violations, and relative cost burden;
• Political Voice: freedom of expression and involvement in the democratic process;
• Social Connection: the presence of nonprofit organizations and cultural resources that connect at an institutional level, and the level of trust and neighborhood participation that underlie face-to-face relations;
• Environment: the quality and risks of the physical environment—the presence of parks and open space, heat vulnerability, and environmental hazards;
• Insecurity: threats to physical security—violent and property crime, social tensions.

Report by Reinvestment Fund Policy Solutions with  support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).


By | 2017-11-24T21:22:49+00:00 November 24th, 2017|Categories: Collaborations/Community, Reports/Plans|0 Comments

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