I had the privilige and opportunity to attend a very different kind of conference this month in Colorado called Risk and Reward (R2) along with three bright and innovative graduates of the Eureka! Leadership Institute who received an Infopeople scholarship to attend. I did so with a fair amount of trepidation regarding the much publicized “out-of-the-box” format of the conference involving less static sitting and listening and more interactive brainstorming and doing. In my mind I envisioned conference attendees sitting in a small circle being asked the old Barbara Walters “If you were a tree what kind would you be?” type of questions. Thankfully, not only were my fears unfounded, I found the conference to be one of the most enlightening, engaging and inspirational professional experiences I have ever had.
My first clue to the unusual nature of this conference was a visit to a local Telluride restaurant called “there” where the owner’s professed culinary vision is for a more interactive, community experience – a familiar mantra in libraryland these days. Adding to the synergy of the moment was a bumper sticker behind the bar reading “Came to ski – Stayed for the Library,” an homage to the locally loved Wilkinson Public Library which offers everything from yoga classes to poetry readings and bike loans. A quick chat with the waitress who sang the praises of the library convinced me that this bumper sticker was not just part of the decor, it was a message to the rest of the community and any visitor who might not realize the full impact that a library can have on a community.
It was with this foundational reminder that I began my appropriately named conference experience – Abundant Community. From the very beginning John McKnight drew us in as he illustrated the impact of libraries on individuals and communities starting with the story of how his own childhood library influenced the course of his professional life through the books he read and the librarian who encouraged him to expand his reading perspective. As co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute McKnight has experienced first-hand the power of community and the collection of individual skills, knowledge and expertise for the greater good. As we practiced techniques of community asset mapping we were able to explore the creative and endless possibilities for libraries as hub and facilitator for sharing, collaborating and learning through the connection of people, associations and institutions. We were encouraged and inspired to find innovative ways to cast a wider vision in our communities rather than turning inward during times of organizational stress, such as limited staff and funding. Ideas were generated, shared, improved and recorded as we collectively considered the abundance of our communities and the role of libraries within them.
My conference focus of Abundant Community was just one of four that also included Creative Spaces, Customer Curiosity and Culture – all intended to challenge the 350 participants to consider the risks they might take in their library and the rewards that could follow. It’s too early to tell where will all of the ideas from R2 will lead for libraries as a whole. Although the immediate post-conference buzz was sparkling, as Pam Sandlian, Library Director of Anythink said in her closing remarks we will likely all experience those “yappy dogs” of criticism and skepticism nipping at our risk-taking heels as we return to the real world. The key it seems is to realize that taking risks requires practice, and to remember that as Josh Linkner, one of our keynote speakers said, “from failures you learn – from success – not so much.” My hope following R2 is that those who participated were inspired to risk a lot, fail a lot, learn a lot and eventually experience the rewards of libraries that are a part of abundant communities.