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Building an audience for lifelong learning programs in an economically distressed neighborhood.
Hartford Public Library
Innovation SummaryCreating a regular but informal series of community get-togethers has built an audience for lifelong learning programs at the smallest branch of Hartford Public Library in Hartford's poorest neighborhood.
The neighborhood served by the Barbour Branch of Hartford Public Library is the poorest in the city, with 100% of children qualifying for free or reduced priced lunches. Almost half the households lack access to both vehicles and computers. 37% of the people live below the poverty line. Because the area lacks many of the businesses found in wealthier or more highly trafficked communities, the library is a central, robust resource in a neighborhood with too few services.
Despite the library’s popularity for fax and copy services and on-demand computer assistance, and despite the high need for computer skills for job seekers and quality of life, we were unable to attract community members to pre-scheduled programs. Even after having twenty people sign up, and calling all to remind them of the workshop, often no one attended.
Pre-scheduled workshops just did not work, maybe because crises in the lives of our neighbors occurred too frequently for them to be able to schedule an elective event. Just surviving often trumps a calendar.
Realizing that a “drop in when you can” model works best for our neighborhood, we tested building an audience for lifelong learning workshops by scheduling an informal open house community chat every Wednesday night. The library supplies cookies and hot chocolate or juice, and people are invited to sit around our tables to talk and eat. Initially, the library staff suggested topics and kept the conversation rolling.
One important feature of the community chats, as with the on-demand computer tutorials, is that there is absolutely no judgment should someone not show up on any given Wednesday. We simply encourage them to come next time.
Consistency is the feature of this approach that has created a new way to offer programs so desperately needed by our community.
Since beginning in December 2011, our community chat has successfully built a regular core of people who attend. We have begun to schedule lifelong learning programs for part of the group’s time. For example, this month we are reading and discussing Hartford’s One Book together. The group is also beginning to take charge of its own learning. One week the group conducted a mock interview for a teen who had a job interview the next day. Another teen was able to offer excellent peer-to-peer advice. Another member has suggested scheduling speakers on different topics; and another member suggested assigning one person a week to bring a topic to discuss. Library staff also take part in the conversations, and provide any needed resources and/or research.
After our initial frustration with not being able to fulfill a perceived need, we realized that we had to adapt to the habits of the community rather than trying to shape them to follow traditional library program scheduling models. What started as a way to build an audience for library programs has become so much more—a truly community-driven series of programs at the library.