library turns outward, looks forward

LIBRARY TURNS OUTWARD, LOOKS FORWARD “Community Conversations” led by trained moderators are encouraging residents to share their visions of what life in Mt. Lebanon should be, while also helping the library shape its future programming. The two-year initiative will use the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s Turning Outward practices, which are designed to help libraries become more relevant and significant to the community.

Mt. Lebanon Public Library was one of 17 Pennsylvania libraries selected to take part in the Turning Outward program, an initiative of the Office of Commonwealth Libraries funded by a federal library services and technology grant.

Based in Bethesda, Maryland, the Harwood Institute trains “public innovators” from the nonprofit, business, government, educational and religious sectors to “use the community rather than the conference room to address tough issues,” according to its website. A goal is to reconnect leaders with people who may feel powerless or voiceless, giving all who are interested a chance to “design, execute and sustain their future.”

Many of Harwood’s successful programs have taken place in partnership with libraries, considered to be safe places where people with various viewpoints can discuss how they would like to see their communities move forward. Mt. Lebanon Manager Keith McGill notes that Turning Outward reflects the fact that libraries are no longer just places to borrow books but are becoming more like community centers.

Library Director Robyn Vittek and a team that included Planner and Assistant Municipal Manager Ian McMeans participated in a three-day training conference last year that prepared the library staff to organize and moderate conversations. Several conversations with groups of 8-15 participants already have taken place, with the help of a Harwood discussion guide that has been used in communities of various sizes all over the world for the past 25 years.

Participants are asked to fill out a preliminary questionnaire that typically reveals common themes. Then they spend 90 minutes to two hours sharing their aspirations for Mt. Lebanon, pointing out challenges they think need addressing and considering how to create meaningful change. A note taker records each session. The conversations are expected to establish a baseline of public knowledge about the community that can guide the library’s strategic planning efforts.

A tenet of the Harwood Institute is that anything is possible if you get the right resources and right people at the table. In keeping with that philosophy, Mt. Lebanon Library’s initiative encourages residents to come up with their own solutions, Vittek says—the staff’s role is to put together the groups, moderate the discussions and take notes, not to provide answers or quick fixes.

The Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board has agreed to help the library with the Community Conversations in various ways, ranging from helping to put together groups, serving as notetakers or perhaps being trained as moderators. To learn more about the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and view a video by its founder, Richard Harwood, visit