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MCLS scholarship recipient Austin Stroud shares experience at the Harwood/ALA Public Innovators Lab

From October 14-16, I had the good fortune to attend the Harwood Institute/ALA Public Innovators Lab in Detroit, Michigan. My attendance, as well as a colleague’s, was made possible thanks to a scholarship we received from Midwest Collaborative for Library Services (MCLS). There is no way we could have attended without their help, as our library simply does not have the travel budget for this type of expense. We are grateful to have received this opportunity!

First, let me give some background information on how we got to the training. Going into the training, we were not sure what to expect. My colleague, me, and our library as a whole knew we needed some change. We were hopeful that the Public Innovators Lab would get those changes rolling for us. One of the goals that we outlined in our MCLS scholarship application included reaching the millennials that are not currently using the library. This same age group is not all that engaged in our community as a whole. Our second goal for attending this training was trying to reach out to the unserved townships in our county. Despite four public libraries present in our county, about half of the 15 townships are totally unserved or merely have a contract agreement with one of the library systems. These are big challenges, yet ones that we were and still are hopeful in tackling in the near future thanks to this experience.

The foundation for this Public Innovators Lab training is learning to be turned outward. As libraries, and really any industry, we spend so much time focused on ourselves (turned inward) and what we need to do to make ourselves better. However, do we really ever find out what the community wants – outside of the library? Even in strategic planning, we are again focused on ourselves; although we do get some community input. How can we, as the library, help move the community as a whole forward? What aspirations do we all share, or maybe there are a couple that many people/groups in the community share? We don’t all have to share the same aspirations, but through community conversations we will find many connections. This message at the beginning, and throughout the training, was a real light bulb moment for me. I spend so much time, as a library director, focused on the library’s problems as well as attending meetings for various community groups focused on themselves. Even in the goals that we had outlined in our scholarship application were focused on ourselves, and not necessarily the community.

The training itself was intense, especially the first day. It was almost information overload on day one, simply because I did not yet fully understand how this all tied together; it was very big picture. The second day brought this back to a level I could understand, and the first day then made sense. The third day was a half day and more of a wrap up and celebration of us all completing the Lab and going back home to try out what we’ve learned in our communities. We spent a lot of the time divided up into four separate learning groups, so we got to know a lot about colleagues from around the country as a result. Working with different librarians with unique situations, yet similar goals, really made the experience for me. Here is a link to a typical agenda on the Harwood Institute’s website if you are interested in learning more about the setup: In terms of building relationships, listening, gaining momentum, and finding shared aspirations for the given audience, there were so many crossovers with this training and union organizing training I underwent several years ago in a prior career. Thinking back to what I learned then really helped me tie things together with what the Harwood Institute was sharing. The overall message of this Lab was both positive, and inspiring.

Of course, the downside of attending anything so inspiring and full of information is coming down from that high and back to reality. Starting at the end of day two, the post conference funk struck me before the conference itself was even over. In talking to former colleagues in Detroit, and colleagues from around the country that were in various roles, I remembered back to a lot of the work I was doing in my prior instructional designer position at the public library in Bloomington, Indiana. My wheels got to turning thinking about all of the things I could have done there and applied what I was learning at the Public Innovators Lab more easily. We had all the resources in place to make it happen: money, staffing, freedom, time etc. I did not make it happen, but I did not know then what I know now. Fast forwarding to now, I am a director, and so much of my time is spent focused on the library, the library’s problems, and meetings that each are turned inward. What time do I have now to get out there and find out what the community wants? After that funk struck me, I first felt a little envious of those with community engagement-oriented roles within larger systems. I also felt envious that they had the resources to devote to that. However, then I came back down to earth and realized that just because I am a director, that does not mean I can’t do those things too. Directors, and smaller libraries in general, just have to do things a little differently. I don’t want to be a director that delegates what I learned out to the whole staff. I want to get the staff involved, yes, but I want to be a part of this and not just sitting in my office planning it all.

When I came back down from the post conference funk, I found my momentum again in sharing the excitement of what I had experienced with my colleagues and our Library Board of Trustees. At our board meeting, we already had some discussions about places in the community that we need to get out and talk to people. These are people that don’t necessarily use the library, but still are important to the concept of finding shared aspirations and finding the needs and voice of the community. A member of the public in attendance voiced that we should come to the school basketball games this winter, and that’s exactly the type of thing we should be doing. One Board member joked that we should go to the dive bar downtown, however, maybe we should? Why not? The same people are active in all of the community groups turned inward. We, at the library, need to get things turned around where we listen to what would get others engaged with our community.

So, that is where I am at less than two weeks from returning from the Public Innovators Lab. This was an incredible experience, which we are grateful to MCLS for giving us. As you can tell by the length of this article, the Harwood Institute really got my wheels turning and my mind is still running a million miles a minute. However, we are excited about what is next and have hope for turning things around not only for us but for our community. Our next step is to make our monthly staff meeting on November 19 all about the Public Innovators Lab, and work on spreading this message to all of the library staff. We cannot wait to see where we go from here. Thank you for letting me share this experience with you all.


Austin Stroud is the library director for Bloomfield-Eastern Greene County Public Library in Bloomfield, Indiana. He also works as an adjunct faculty member for Ivy Tech Community College’s Library Technical Assistant (LTA) program, as well as IUPUI’s Department of Library and Information Science.