Meet Laura Damon-Moore, Madison Public Library

Hey everyone, you’ve heard from me a bit already through a couple of project-specific posts, but Maggie and I want to make sure that you meet us through interviews about our broader community engagement work. To that end, here are my answers to our interview questions.

Please introduce yourself! Tell us your name, title, and how you got to your current position.

My name is Laura Damon-Moore (she/her/hers). I am a Community Engagement Librarian at the Central Library at Madison Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I graduated from the iSchool at UW-Madison in 2012, and then worked in small public libraries as a youth librarian doing lots of programming, outreach, and volunteer coordination. In January of 2016 I started my current position at Madison Public Library. That position is much more focused on adults, and is a combination of public service desk work and engagement, which I would categorize as partnership and relationship building, some programming, and project work. Some specific, larger-scale projects that I personally work on include:

Tell us a bit about your approach to community engagement.

When I first started in 2016, it was very refreshing because it was a new position, so the expectations were very nebulous. I and my one other CE colleague (we are now a team of five!) were just charged with talking to people, no action items or outcomes necessarily. Since those first months, we’ve started to put some projects/initiatives/programs into place, but we work to be very intentional and community-driven when determining how we spend our time. At this point it’s unusual for me and other members of my team to sit around and come up with some brand-new idea that has not been driven or directly led by community members or at the very least, partner organizations. We work really hard not to be prescriptive in our programming and resources. I should note that our team and our approach is very much a work in progress–by no means have we figured out how to do things perfectly 100% of the time.

How has the transition from an internal focus to an external one unfolded at your library?

As a team, we have about two full years of community engagement work under our belts. We are a very new team within Madison Public Library, so there’s been a lot of foundational work done to make, revisit, and strengthen connections. While my core team is based at Central Library, there are other community engagement librarians in many of our eight neighborhood libraries. So a big part of the last two years has also been figuring out who does, and where, and how we support each other’s work across Madison. From what I can tell from folks that have been with MPL for a long time, a lot of the outward facing work was done on an informal basis and by whomever was available at the moment. So the transition has revealed a need to clarify channels of communication, and to get staff organized on the “back end” so that we know our capacity and can respond promptly to community asks.

What’s a challenge or speed bump you’ve encountered in this work?

Identifying community priorities, working collaboratively with community members and partner organizations to determine an appropriate response, while also making sure that we’re not duplicating efforts and not over-committing library resources is challenging, period. It’s a lot to juggle. Communication can easily fall off someone’s radar as soon as you hit a busy time of year, and my capacity can change dramatically depending on staffing levels–someone has to cover the desk. You have to be okay with thinking in three to five year plans. I’ve also run into issues where community wants directly conflict with library policies. For example, we are not supposed to have vendors sell items in the library, but we had a team of community members who wanted to support local vendors at an event, particularly vendors that are women of color. There are workarounds for some of these policies, but it’s also important for staff and the library as an institution to be aware of policies that, in practice, may make it harder to support community initiatives on community terms.

What are your long-term goals for the work that you do?

I really just want to support community endeavors and ideas in an effective and flexible way, to hear from folks about things that are not working well or different approaches, and to have the time and space to make necessary changes to our platforms. So with everything that I work on, I hope I am moving and evolving toward those goals.

Who else is doing interesting work in this area (not necessarily in libraries)? Can be an individual or an institution.

The blog Nonprofit AF has some really terrific articles and perspectives that libraries can learn from, particularly in the area of community engagement. In a lot of ways I think folks working in adult services / public services / reference are showing up late to the community engagement party. Our youth services colleagues have been working very closely and collaboratively with community partners, caregivers, and of course, youth themselves, and they have a whole slew of best practices for us to learn from. And I’ve found that the ABCD Institute, now located at DePaul University, is another solid resource on this topic.

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