Meaningful Relationships and Building Community

“Community Engagement” has become a significant buzzword not just in library circles, but across all kinds of social service-oriented entities. Here in our little town of Shaker Heights (pop. <30,000), I work with no less than 5 folks from other agencies with “Community Engagement” in their job titles–at our schools, the recreation department, churches, and early childhood centers. As the digital environment grows and encompasses us all, service organizations are learning that in order to remain essential to our communities, we must go meet our residents where they are, and we must engage our neighbors more deeply in order to meet their needs.

From my perspective, the most important element and driving force of CE is simply the practice of building relationships. Whether the relationship you are developing is with another organization, with leaders in your community, or with a resident of your service district, every relationship matters. Local organizations might be potential partners, with whom you can share resources in order to provide stronger and more accessible services to your community. Local leaders set the tone for the issues your neighborhood will focus on and care about, and they can help you access new resources or lend you much-needed support for a new project. Your residents are the beating heart of your community, wherever you are, and strong relationships with residents will help you achieve deeper engagement within your neighborhoods. Taking the time to nurture relationships on all levels yields significant opportunities to work together to improve the lives of everyone we serve.

A lot of the goal-setting we do in our CE work at SHPL is based on research we are borrowing from social science literature on social capital and asset-based community development. Ultimately, we see ourselves as community builders who seek to facilitate connections among our community in order to strengthen it and grow the social capital our residents have available to them. These connections don’t have to just be between the library and community members–if we know two of our contacts at different orgs share similar goals, and we facilitate a connection so they can work together, we know we’ve done our part to help our community grow.

There’s so much more to explore in how libraries fit into this puzzle as unique community assets. Over time at the ELC, we’ll be discussing how relationships have led to wonderful collaborations in our own communities. How has a connection or relationship enriched your life lately? Tell us in the comments!

Meet Stephen Harris, Bundaberg Regional Libraries

Greetings! It’s my pleasure to welcome Stephen Harris, writing from Bundaberg Regional Libraries in Queensland, Australia. Enjoy! ~Laura

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

My name is Stephen Harris and I am the Information Services Librarian at Bundaberg Regional Libraries. I used to work in Information Management within the health sector in Brisbane when I saw an advertisement for an Information Services Librarian in Bundaberg. Bundaberg is where I did the majority of my childhood education. So I interviewed for the position by Skype; was successful and packed my bags and cat and headed off to regional Queensland.

Stephen Harris with Di Parr and Di Hilliard from the Gracie Dixon Respite Centre

Tell us a bit about your approach to community engagement.

My approach to community engagement is to recognize elements within the community that I would like to see move from a suspended position. One of my first programs was an outreach shared reading experience that engaged dementia patients at the Gracie Dixon Respite Centre. As it has grown and developed I have gained volunteers who are discovering what dementia is and how shared reading can bring about social inclusion and a reduction in symptoms. I am currently working towards a digital health literacy program for seniors.

How does that philosophy play out in your day-to-day work?

The philosophy keeps me focussed on the community and its people. I always listen attentively to members of the public and their interests and concerns. Local history is popular in Bundaberg so I am engaging with the community to see what parts of their history they would like programs to be centred on.

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

An external focus has unfolded by simply expressing new ideas and seeing where they lead. Our library has a real “let’s see what happens” attitude so ideas are always vibrant and experimental.

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

One of the biggest challenges is getting the community out of their comfort zone. So getting seniors interested in the benefits of technology is always an interesting effort.

What do you think makes librarians in particular suited to this work?

Librarians are very good listeners and we are active in the community. It’s so important to be involved and keep up with professional development. Sometimes I have achieved more attending an art exhibition or community event and networking than I ever could by writing a proposal.

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

My long term goal is to actually make a difference. With an aging population in Bundaberg it’s important to me that they are as informed as they can possibly be. The creation of a sustainable digital health literacy program would be a good place to start. I believe that libraries as information centres have a responsibility to inform the public for the greater good.


Tenille Jacobsen, of the Australian government

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

Tennille Jacobsen, the Central Queensland eHealth and Practice Support Officer is doing absolutely brilliant work in health communication and health promotions. She helps build digital engagement as well as education and access to electronic health records. Tennille puts massive effort into ensuring the community has strong literacy and information skills.

Links & more:

Welcome to the ELC

Hello and welcome!

The Engaged Library Collaborative (ELC) is a (mostly) online platform for sharing philosophies, approaches, and practical application of community engagement / outreach / partnerships / etc.


  • Facilitate a conversation space for librarians working on engagement / outreach to share experiences and ideas with colleagues on an international level.
  • Pool our collective knowledge to share resources, articles, research in the area of library engagement and outreach.
  • Support and amplify work already happening in libraries worldwide and to develop a community of practice around engagement and outreach work.

What you can expect:

  • New postings twice a week, interviewing engagement librarians of all stripes and types, and sharing hands-on tools and ideas to support engaged libraries, librarians, and communities.
  • New resources added to the Resources section on a monthly-ish basis.

Help us do these things. Contact us to be featured, to talk about your rad engagement program or tool, and to add a resource to that section.

Who are we, anyway?

Maggie Killman and Laura Damon-Moore met via Skype call first and started a conversation about their engagement work in Ohio and Wisconsin, respectively. Read about us on the ELC’s About page.