Community led work with communities: The Impact of professional library identities

Over the course of the next few months Ken Williment, a member of the Working Together Project at the Halifax site, and the current Community Development Manager for Halifax Public Libraries will explore the integration of Community Led Program and Service development on librarianship on the Social Justice Librarian Blog .  This will include discussions on possible systemic barriers that currently exist within library culture, which we need to be aware of when trying to work from a Community Led approach.

The four-year and four-city Working Together Project sent Community Development Librarians into diverse neighbourhoods across the country. Vancouver, Regina, Toronto, and Halifax public libraries, supported through funding agreements with Human Resources and Social Development Canada, worked in diverse urban neighbours and with diverse communities that we would traditionally consider marginalised or socially excluded.  Two of the lasting legacies of the project was the development of a library toolkit, which provides library staff with multiple tools to work with communities in different ways, and the development of a Community Led Service Planning Model pg. 24-33 of Working Together Toolkit ( and

Community led work with communities:

The Impact of professional library identities

Brief Community Led Definition: Collaboratively working with community in the identification, planning, delivery and evaluation of library services.

When shifting library work to reflect the needs of local community, the potential exists for library staff to feel their professional identity is being challenged.  Instead of viewing community led library work as a challenge to our professional work, it should be viewed as a set of new skills which allows us to build upon our other professional activities.  This approach to working with community will help to ensure library relevance within the local communities we serve.

What does this mean?

Library Staff as Expert

When entering library school, or the workplace, we are trained to become experts within our roles and assigned duties (e.g.  Using databases, sorting information – cataloguing, selecting book or materials, making lists, using technology, answering information questions etc.).  These are the professional skills which we offer to the community.

Community as Experts

As we discovered through Working Together, community members are the experts of their own needs.  While library staff may enter a community with preconceived notions of community need, only after directly engaging with community do we discover from them, what their needs are.


This is potentially where the disconnect lies.  While librarians and library staff do bring professional skills to the community, these skills differ from the skills and knowledge community bring to the interaction.  These concepts and their impact on our identities as information specialists cannot be confused.  When using a community-led approach, we need to begin the process by understanding that we are not the experts of local community need, or how to best address community need.

Why is this important?

Traditional library service planning provides limited opportunities for the community to play a significant role to actively identify their own needs, and participating in the development of service or programs to meet their needs.  Our engagement techniques need to move beyond consultation.

Since many of the services are internally identified by library staffs perception of community need – the Field of Dreams/Outreach model: if we build it they will come – we are missing numerous opportunities to:

  • get to know our communities better,
  • discover needs and develop new innovative services to address them, and
  • help increase our local community’s capacity to gain skills to address these needs.

As public library staff, our role is to meet the information needs of all community members.

What does this mean for me?  The potential for changing roles and soft skills as a professional librarian!

Adopting a community led approach does not mean that we abandon our professional skills, nor does it mean that we shift our key service areas.  It does mean that we need to build upon our professional skills and be cognisant of how we present our professional skills to the community.

The old Field of Dreams/Outreach model provided library staff with a tool to create services to take out and deliver in the community (please refer to the Working Together Toolkit).  In addition, we are comfortable with library staff or community experts providing information to the community – either in the branch or in the community.  This information out process, automatically sets up an us/them power dynamic.  This needs to change.

Library staff need to have support (e.g. training opportunities, support from supervisors and senior management) to begin working with communities in different ways.  One of the first key steps is to learn how to actively listen to our communities.  It sounds like a very simplistic concept; however, putting this into practice can actually be very difficult – since one of our key skills as information professionals is to continuously provide information to community.

Being inquisitive and acting on our curiosity of the unknown within our community is a new skill which must be developed and added to our current skill sets.  This is one of the beauties of using a community led approach.  The power of listening, exploring the unknown, and documenting need is that library staff become connected to the needs of local people.

It is a humbling experience to step back and listen to important issues being discussed within a community. Often we may find just how disconnected we are from the pressing issues relevant to the people we are meant to serve, and discover the opportunities and roles the community may view the library may play in addressing these issues

In order to implement this approach we need to be confident.  We need to be confident because it takes time, patience, and a new skill set to explore, document, and contextualize need and trial and error when trying new and different approaches when implementing a service or program response with community.  We also need to be confident that we can learn as much from our failures as well as from our successes – and to know that learning to listen does not dismantle our professional identity.

~ Ken


Filed under community development, public libraries, The Profession

4 responses to “Community led work with communities: The Impact of professional library identities

  1. greyson

    Thanks for this first post, Ken. I’ve been thinking about what you said about confidence, as that seems key.

    In my first term of library school, we had an assignment in an intro class that required us to do something along the lines of argue whether librarianship was A Profession. Thus it was clearly communicated us from the start that we would need to defend our questionable status as professionals.

    There seems to me to be somewhat of an insecurity within some corners of librarianship – not totally unfounded – about being seen as True Professionals and Experts, not just people who loan out books. I think you’re right when you say that learning new skills, and admitting that we are indeed *not* experts in everything, requires confidence.

    I wonder if working to create a more secure library profession would create the underlying confidence required for more of us to place ourselves in non-expert roles, or whether it would just make us more secure know-it-alls?

  2. willimen


    I think that the irony with using a community led perspective, is that library staff need to constantly step outside of the perscriptive role – in the sense that ‘objectivity’ and clear paths are no longer relevant. What worked in one community may not work in another. Who we are, and the approaches used to meet the information needs of the community, need to be refined so it is applicable to the community that the librarian is working with.

    I am not sure that people using this approach should ever place themselves in the role of the ‘know it all’. If someone does become the ‘know it all’ they need to ask themselves if they are becoming spokespersons for the community – and if so – they are not using a community led approach.

    Who is really leading the process – is it the community, or is it library staff? Is there collaboration?

    The comment you made about acculturation into the profession, and the development of an insecure professional identity could be another independent discussion. I think an important question may be – how can library schools address this issue appropriately?

  3. Pingback: Library Schools: Developing Librarians of the Future – Moving beyond Professionalism « Social Justice Librarian

  4. Pingback: Addressing Perceived Barriers to Implementation: Community Led Libraries | Social Justice Librarian

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