In this era of a constantly changing world – e.g., climate change, resource depletion, geopolitical conflict, pandemic disease, technological innovation, data hacks, social networking dependence – there is one issue that communities will need to address, one way or another, sooner or later, and they will need to do it mostly on their own. Local communities will need to find ways to facilitate interpersonal communication so that they can more effectively respond to changes in their immediate environment, that is, their sociopolitical, economic, and climate-related environments.
If improving communication in order to address change sounds like a good idea, why is there a need for communities to do it on their own? It is because state and federal governments, and large corporations, even relying on various technological innovations, won’t be able to do many of the things that will need to be done on the local level.
Large-scale assistance is needed in times of major disasters when survival supplies and rescue machinery are needed, but when the first responders leave, it is the local people who come together to put lives back together again. Big services are just not designed to function very well when it comes to interfacing with the unique qualities and needs of local neighborhoods. In general, local self-reliance makes for better and more appropriate community responses and planning.
In more normal non-disaster times, it is local people who supply the basic resources and who represent the fabric of a community. We could substitute the word “network” for “fabric” and it would mean about the same thing: people connecting and interacting with other people. And many of the resources that are available are often provided by nonprofit organizations.
As a tool, the process of networking can be a powerful facilitator as well as a motivator, drawing people in and keeping them coming back for more.
Dependence on people
Where you live is a combination of people, places, and things, and generally speaking, the better you feel about each part, the more you will like the whole thing – your community. The more positive interactions you have with people, the better the community feels to you, encouraging even more contact. Networking does not make a community, but it can improve a community experience. In doing this, we are treating people and information as basically the same thing: when people communicate with each other, people are an information network.
Websites like Facebook, and other communication forms – books, email, newspapers, and for that matter directory listings – are all go-betweens, stand-ins for the real thing: people connecting with other people.
The benefit of, and the incentive for using, a community resource directory is that beyond improving pathways to the information a person needs, it can also reinforce and create direct interpersonal connections.
A directory listing allows everyone a view of what everyone, in nonprofits, is doing. The purpose of a directory should be to move people towards resources. But just as important, it should also create the potential for a wider pathway, one that can go in two directions so individuals see what organizations are doing, and organizations can see how other organizations are serving people’s needs.
A directory is a quick view of much of what is available to everyone and a lesson in options that are available as well as those services that may be missing. Seeing that a resource is missing can be an incentive for someone to become inspired and take action to create something new.
This bi-directional communication doesn’t just happen, people and organizations lead busy lives. They need a facilitator in order to promote action. This is where the public library and its reference functions come in – overseeing the directory. It is this ongoing interaction between libraries and nonprofits that helps create relationships and promotes the idea of avenues of connection: a continual interaction between providers and consumers.
Community planning and relationships
There’s a lot of potential for change to occur in the future and one way or another, local communities reflect not only what is happening within their borders, but also what is happening in the larger world. And whatever affects a community, ultimately, individuals need to adjust.
This need to adjust can be an opportunity to create ways of bringing people closer together in supportive ways. Within this environment, it’s how we share material resources (which may become increasingly scarce), how we make a living (relying on fewer employee benefits), how we can maintain a home (in a changing climate), and how we can help each other (including the aged and those with health challenges or fewer financial resources) that will represent critical challenges.
There are people and programs working on these kinds of community-related issues. TransitionNetwork.org, a British invention, and TransitionUS.org, the American version, are designed to assist communities in adopting ways of managing large-scale changes that can impact people’s lives. These are program ideas that suggest ways in which people can come together so they can share ideas that may be useful.
Several communities in the U.S. have taken advantage of this process and have produced some interesting results, for example: a local food conference in Boulder; a self-sufficiency skills program in Oklahoma City; a water conservation project, Tucson; a waste management program in Minneapolis. These programs function by creating a core local group of concerned citizens who then get together to work on whatever they think is important for their community. They often do this in a social way, sometimes using a block party or a pop-up store in order to raise spirits and funds; Transition simply offers ideas and a structure.
It’s a great idea, and there are other organizations offering a range of programs designed to assist local communities in addressing change. But like many great ideas, keeping a dedicated group going for the long run can be a difficult task. Individuals may be attracted to group efforts for many reasons, but if the sense of urgency wanes, or involvement becomes too tedious, other more personal priorities can pull people away. Group efforts can fade over time.
This is where community awareness comes in. It’s like the old axiom, “what goes around, comes around.” Information, whether beginning as a personal connection or group effort, circulates and has the potential to bring people together. And if it keeps circulating, it can continue connecting – if.
Bringing nonprofits into the library
Public libraries and nonprofit organizations already exist in villages, towns, and cities; there is no need to create something new when these resources already exist. One only need connect – network – these in order to enable a collective potential.
As the library becomes more familiar with the nonprofits serving their community and develops relationships with them, new joint efforts may suggest themselves. One example is holding an annual nonprofit festival at the library – that showcases unique programs or even provides healthcare or other needed services on the spot.
The following are just a few ways in which collaboration can work.
The annual nonprofit festival
There’s nothing new about having a community festival, or setting up tables, or an information booth: outreach for services. Like a music or crafts fair, or an Earth Day festival, this festival would exhibit the nonprofit organizations that serve a community, and it would be presented by the local public library.
Libraries often have display areas offering brochures and pamphlets for various services and activities. Now just shift the focus: brand the display as a place to exhibit local nonprofit services and activities.
Chances are that material in existing displays already represents many nonprofit resources. By calling attention to nonprofits being local, the library is just rebranding it as community-based – a bit more personal and compelling.
Free meeting space for organizations
Bringing nonprofits into the library means doing just that. Many groups need a meeting space, and library spaces can be rented offering a source of income. But providing free meeting space to nonprofits can have longer term and deeper impacts for the library and its community.
- Meetings bring people into the library, perhaps exposing them to a new experience.
- The library can have greater impact on the social well-being of a community by more directly supporting local services and activities.
“A home for the community” – the public library – opens up the possibility of the library sponsoring a nonprofit conference where organizations participate in discussion panels and take questions from the audience.
Nonprofit event board
Not a general bulletin board (although that’s a great idea too), and not like the brochure stand, but a dedicated board for events sponsored by local nonprofit organizations. Again, if the library already has such a bulletin board, and many of the events are already sponsored by nonprofits, it’s just a matter of rebranding.
Display tables & video
Nonprofit organizations can be treated the same way a library displays new book arrivals, displays of historical significance, art works. Organizations could create their own displays to illustrate and promote what they do.
Where’s the life?
That’s the question: At the end of the day, where is the library headed, and what kinds of things are people interested in?
Is the library utilizing their space in a way that promotes the kinds of things the community is already involved in, or promoting trends not necessarily related to life in their community?
Engaging nonprofits with the local library is one form of collaboration; engaging nonprofits with other nonprofits is another. Motivation for nonprofit collaboration can be the enhancement of efficiencies through shared infrastructure, resources, or combined events.
Larger national organizations may have the financial and staff resources necessary to experiment with collaborations like combined programs that address complex issues. However, many nonprofits serve only local populations like villages, towns, or sections of larger cities. The need for and ability to collaborate with smaller more locally based nonprofits, may not be as apparent as with the larger organizations.
This may be where a “middle person” like the public library can offer a path forward.
The seven lines on the following graphic illustration only show how one might go about investigating collaboration possibilities between nonprofits. The words in this matrix represent specific interests or functions of nonprofits (keywords from an actual community directory). Both columns have the same terms.
The first linked words, business startup and immigrant services, indicate a potential for these organizations to collaborate – perhaps on a project that introduces small business ideas to new arrivals in the community. The others each suggest a possible relationship that might lead to a collaborative effort.
The hope is that suggesting collaboration will cause a shift in perspective, inspiring an organic process that creates new interactions and more meaningful connections to the community.
Visibility of nonprofits through a library connection can offer increased access to nonprofits as well as to the library. And the greater the visibility of libraries, the more relevant they can appear. It’s a reciprocal action: raising awareness attracts attention, which raises awareness and increases participation.
It is no longer just access to the book, journal, or film that needs to be centralized in a library; it is the interactions of residents within a flexible information and community-oriented environment. The public library is the one community space that is designed, built, and paid for specifically to bring people and information together.