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Community Impact through Renewed Engagement

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Community Impact through Renewed Engagement

San Francisco Public Library, Calif.

Institutional Change and Strategic Management | 2013 | Top Innovator

Innovation Summary

Urban libraries are adapting innovative approaches to respond to service needs as communities evolve. These approaches require a change in organizational culture by engaging staff with community stakeholders to inform new service models. SFPL turned to its future leaders to target five neighborhoods, re-engage with community, and create sustained change.

Problem Statement

SFPL_EngagementEvery urban library system has service areas that would benefit from a refresh in community engagement. While these neighborhood libraries may be meeting basic expectations, their services and collaborations can become routine, and their demographics may change so swiftly that re-focusing resources is difficult. In 2012, five library communities in San Francisco, hard-hit by the economic downturn, underwent in-depth analyses designed to see community engagement through a new perspective and approach. Each branch was assigned a “tactical force” from throughout the Library to perform an intensive review of the relationship between the library and its community. By turning to our leadership program, Gen PL, to staff these groups, we brought together emerging leaders from all parts of the Library (e.g. pages, librarians, paraprofessionals, security, custodial, IT, etc.). Their breadth of experience and varying perspectives allowed for out-of-the-box thinking. With a focus on external forces and a high degree of contact with community stakeholders, the teams made connections and developed insights into target neighborhoods that re-energized the public and the staff equally. Through this process, staff expertise and creativity was marshaled to identify problems and solutions that might be missed in the flow of everyday activity. The teams were able to zero in on the circumstances of a particular community in ways not possible through the standard deployment of staff.


While closely involving the branch staff, each team was free to examine the conditions, trends, and prospects within each community. Five cross-functional teams of about six Gen PL Fellows developed their own design specific to the target community, but to include: • a demographic profile of the community • key issues and stakeholders driving the neighborhood • areas of common interest with organizations/partners, opinion leaders • what role the library should play in this specific community Teams worked in smaller groupings, as needed, to walk the neighborhood, interview community leaders, consult with elected officials, and interact with community members in a variety of local settings. They also used census and planning data, local histories, photographs, and ephemera within the community. To gain fresh perspectives on the neighborhood, teams collaborated with police precincts (some even doing ride-alongs with beat police), conducted “person on the street” videotaped interviews with community members, surveyed people of all ages and in several languages, and forged relationships with a variety of social service and cultural organizations. Information was gathered for about three months with occasional team meetings. Data was organized into individual multimedia presentations held in the target communities. Presentations focused on challenges facing the community and where the opportunities lay for the library to address these needs, along with an action plan and set of related recommendations. Community members and Library staff were invited to hear what was learned and to engage in an open dialogue on the team’s conclusions and recommendations. The session ended with a team “de-briefing” of processes used, group dynamics, challenges faced, and lessons learned.


The five cross-functional teams made recommendations that ranged from small, specific modifications to one branch, to broad, overarching changes at the organizational level. Outcomes affecting single outlets involved an array of topics such as: more cross promotion of services with other key agencies like GED/ESL providers and local Farmer’s Markets; training Youth Workers to help with outreach; providing multi-lingual library orientations for new immigrants; and expanding the Project Read literacy program into the branches. Among the system-wide outcomes (some in progress) the analyses engendered are: • A major reorganization creating a Community Programs and Partnerships division that combines Youth Services (Teens, Schools, Early Childhood) with a new Community Engagement unit (Learning and Instruction, Programs and Outreach, Exhibits, Volunteers). • Development of a multilingual, real time reference service based upon a Scype- type platform. • Expanded off-site service with a technology bookmobile, pop-up libraries and classes in community agencies. • A system-wide, but locally based, branding project to tie each branch to strong neighborhood identities, improving visibility in a more focused community awareness/marketing campaign. • Decentralizing some fine and fee decisions to allow for local experimentation with user-friendly alternatives like paying through installments, or “working off’ fines through reading challenges. • Refresh exteriors with banners, stenciled pathways and other visual cues to make libraries inviting and accessible. SFPL profited from the talents of its future leaders by engaging them in a challenging, worthwhile endeavor while at the same time creating sustained organizational change.