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Harwood Institute Innovation Framework

Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County
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Problem Statement

The Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County (PLYMC) is a countywide library system serving a population of 240,000 in a 413 sq. mile service area. As the 1990’s came to a close, it was largely viewed in the community as being a traditional library offering traditional services. It’s circulating and reference collections, programs for children, outreach to seniors, business and non-profit communities were respected; nice compliments in the fabric of the community. In 2000 / 2001 signs that the library’s primary source of funding, the State of Ohio, would diminish began to emerge. PLYMC was aware that its funding relationship with the community would need to be strengthened. While valuing the library, the community didn’t know how much it really cost. The only direct cost on the community was a local tax levy that had been in place for decades, which raised only 13% of the library’s income. There was an added challenge. The Youngstown/Mahoning County area was struggling. Three decades after the total collapse of its dominant industry, it had still not recovered. Its economic, political and human capital systems were all trapped in negative conditions and patterns. The pervasive sense was that the community was stuck. It knew it needed to change. But it didn’t know how and it lacked the capacity to do so.


PLYMC embarked on a new strategic plan that embraced practices of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation; a non-profit, non-partisan organization that seeks nothing less than to spark fundamental change and authentic hope in American public life. The Harwood Institute provided the frameworks by which PLYMC was able to view itself, its assets and its relationship to the community in a totally new light. The frameworks made it possible to see new value in non-traditional assets such as the library’s being one of few civic institutions that was respected and impartial. Harwood made it possible for the library to understand the nature of the community at this point in time, the public capital factors that needed to be developed for negative conditions to be overcome and the role the library could play. Applying the Institute’s frameworks enabled the library to craft strategies that moved the library forward while also building the community’s capacity to change. The library began to forge partnerships addressing pressing public issues such as early literacy and financial stability while also demonstrating new norms for civic institutions to work together. Mahoning County library is the only public library anywhere that has fully embraced and made a conscious attempt to apply the frameworks of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The library’s senior administrative staff, department heads and senior clerical staff have all been taken through the Harwood frameworks. Presentations on the approach have been made in future’s forums in Florida, Alaska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.


The library today is a changed institution. It no longer approaches opportunities with a view of what’s in it for me but rather what’s in it for the community. While the library continues to offer traditional services, it is also frequently sought out as a partner in addressing persistent community challenges. Dozens of robust mutually beneficial partnerships now exist. Local funding has more than doubled in both dollars and percent of total. Polling conducted in anticipation of an additional funding request in the fall of 2010 show the strongest levels of support ever. The library has moved from being nice to necessary.