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A new role for local libraries and museums

Founded in 1925, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis is "committed to creating extraordinary family learning experiences that have the power to transform the lives of children and families."

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest children’s museum, is a good neighbor. It offers one-dollar admissions for low-income families and free membership for foster care families and any residents who live in the surrounding Mid-North community.

But it also does much more than that. The museum was the convening organization for the Mid-North quality-of-life planning for LISC Indianapolis’ comprehensive community development program and is responsible for overseeing implementation of the plan and holding the community partnership together.

The museum has helped bring physical improvements to a local commercial corridor, develop affordable housing and provide enhanced educational opportunities for local kids.

In Connecticut, Hartford Public Library has played a similar outsized role in its community.

The library is a key player in the city’s collective impact work around early childhood education and a partner for the city’s workforce development system, including offering job and career services on site and serving as a point of access to more intensive services.

Hartford Public Library is also a municipal leader in helping immigrants acclimate, providing services that help with everything from learning English to participating politically in the life of the community.

Hartford Public Library’s state-of-the-art downtown facility and nine branches serve thousands of families throughout the city.

“We have become a de facto immigrant center, with connections to government and the Catholic Church, and others to form a significant well-oiled partnership,” says Matthew Poland, the library’s chief executive officer. 

"It’s become a huge part of our practice—passport services, adult literacy, naturalization ceremonies, all embedded in the core work of the library," he says.

Indianapolis and Hartford are examples of how museums and libraries can become crucial partners in community development efforts, making a measurable impact on community life across a wide variety of comprehensive development activities.

Documenting an exciting and new idea

“A children’s museum taking a lead role in redevelopment of its neighborhood—that’s an exciting and a new idea,” says Chris Walker, LISC’s director of research and assessment. “This work is not institution-centric. It’s community-centric. These are organizations that are working toward common goals that have been identified by their communities.”

Walker has been LISC’s lead in a partnership with the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to promote the involvement of these institutions more deeply in comprehensive community development, a model that benefits both the community and the museums and libraries themselves.

“We’re particularly interested in intensive investment over the long haul—multilayered, complex relationships in the community to resolve local issues."

“We’re particularly interested in intensive investment over the long haul—multilayered, complex relationships in the community to resolve local issues,” says Carlos Manjarrez, the director of the office of planning, research and evaluation for IMLS.

The team has been collecting exemplary case studies like the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Hartford Public Library, both to illustrate what is possible and to learn how it’s been done (the children’s museum was honored with an IMLS National Medal this year and the Hartford library was a finalist).

This summer, IMLS and LISC expect to release a report on what they’ve found from around the country, in part to help guide funding available from IMLS, which is interested in supporting this kind of work with its National Leadership and Museums for America grant programs.

“We’re building the bicycle as we’re riding it,” Manjarrez says. “There’s no list serve for this kind of work yet, no association or web site. So first we want to label this and describe it in a theoretical way. As we define and examine what works, we can help support more of it.” 

What libraries and museums bring to community development

For years, community developers have looked to include anchor institutions as a powerful ally in neighborhood revitalization. Typically universities and hospitals (“eds and meds”), these local institutions are big employers that can have a large impact on their community.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis led efforts to transform a local abandoned hospital into affordable housing for area families. From left: Mayor Greg Ballard, U.S. Congressman Andre Carson, Museum President and CEO Jeff Patchen, V.P. of Operations Brian Statz, and community leader and Museum Trustee Cordelia Lewis Burks.

The LISC/IMLS team is making the case that libraries and museums are essentially little anchors. They might not employ nearly as many people as a university, but they’re rooted in their community, have a relatively large budget for an institution in a low- or moderate-income neighborhood, and exist to fulfill a social mission.

“There is also a lot of talk in the creative world right now about the utility of ‘third space’—common space between home and work where people can come together as a member of the community,” Walker says. “Libraries and museums are excellent examples of third space.”

As Walker, Manjarrez and colleagues interviewed museum and library staff around the country for their research, they organized the capacity for deeper community involvement into three broad categories, which are often combined in the institutions that are most invested in the work.

Physical revitalization: Both the children’s museum and Hartford library started their expanded work in the community during the process of building a new facility. By considering how growth will impact and fit into the community and by leveraging the investment in new construction, libraries and museums can have a profound impact on the neighborhood.

Community-building: In addition to their other assets, libraries and museums are also usually seen as a neutral, public-serving institution, a local actor that’s not involved in local politics or agendas. That can help when organizing and promoting community-wide action for revitalization.

Collective impact for services: Museums and libraries work with local partners to provide a set of comprehensive and coordinated services to a very specific clientele. The museum and library contribution can be as simple as offering walking tours of the local neighborhood or as complex as providing an array of youth services.

Both Walker and Manjarrez emphasize that there is no specific set of activities or level of commitment by museums or libraries that must be achieved to be involved in community development work.

Hartford Public Library is home to CTWorks@HPL, a collaboration with Capital Workforce Partners. CTWork@HPL has a dedicated staff that provides free assistance six days per week in resume writing, job search, computer training and job skills workshops.

“There is a continuum on this kind of engagement,” Manjarrez says. “Even the libraries and museums that are now very involved started somewhere, with a exhibition that was particularly aimed to the local community or going to a neighborhood meeting and just listening.”

Walker points out that every effort means more when it’s in the context of what the community has identified as its priorities for improvement.

“An example like what’s happening in Hartford is fantastic, but that’s not the only way,” he says. “A library could do a talk on a specific topic, for example. Find out what issues are important to the community—say, gentrification or local schools—and get an expert from the local university to do a presentation on the topic and engender a conversation. That could be enormously beneficial to the people in the local community.”

How to make the connection

Last December, the LISC/IMLS team gathered experts, practitioners and funders for  community development, creative placemaking, and museum and library services in Washington, D.C. to talk about the research and opportunities for ongoing support for this work.

“There are an enormous number of museums doing work outside their walls and in the community."

“There are an enormous number of museums doing work outside their walls and in the community,” says Jason Schupbach, the director of design programs at the National Endowment for the Arts, who attended the day-long meeting. “With the NEA’s Our Town grants, we fund a lot of museums, for example. I think there’s a very healthy conversation in the field about this kind of work.”

Schupbach says that, as someone with a background in urban planning, he’s excited that there is increasing movement toward connecting arts and culture to community development work.

“Most community development practitioners know you can call experts on economic development for a commercial street program, or find easy access to information about afforable housing and transit strategies,” he says. “But do they know they can call the Public Art Network to learn exactly what you need to get public art into a community project?

"I want people doing the hard work on the ground to have those kinds of learning networks to get more sophisticated about arts-and-culture strategies for community development."

So how can community developers get the neighborhood library branch or a local museum involved in a deeper relationship around community revitalization efforts?

School kids learn about worm composting at the Garfield Park Conservatory, another facility highlighted in the report. The conservatory has been the lead agency to create a LISC quality-of-life plan for its Chicago neighborhood.

Start by knowing that many libraries and museums are primed for this kind of relationship. Museums are facing what Walker dubs “the opera issue,” trying to stay relevant in an interactive, multicultural world, and many libraries are making their case for support in an era of municipal budget cuts.

“There’s actually more participation on a per capita basis for libraries than there was 10 or 15 years ago,” Manjarrez points out. “Information technology has dramatically changed the work at local libraries, and so librarians are spending less time shelving books. More people are coming in and asking questions like, ‘How do I log on to sign up for Medicare Part D or apply for a job online?’ There are now many more information sources to address a wider range of community needs.”

By becoming a more deeply involved community partners, libraries and museums can bring in new patrons or address the needs of current patrons in new ways.

“Institutions that have gone down this path have also identified resources that weren’t accessible before,” Manjarrez says, “whether it’s funding to run a new program in the neighborhood or knowing people now at a local university that has resources and insights for their staff.”

But Manjarrez also adds that community groups should recognize that institutional change takes time.

“The executive director or staff you work with might get things started, but they may have a board with limited experience or knowledge of neighborhood or economic development issues. So they may have to bring them along,” he says.

“But when they are in, they are often all in. In our interviews, we found that library or museum became more and more involved over time, often increasing investments in staff time and institutional focus.”

Want to learn more? The Institute is hosting a webinar on the topic on June 19!

Posted in Engaging, Implementing, Arts & Culture

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