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Executive Summary

Thirty library, government, nonprofit, and business leaders convened at the historic Julia Ideson Library Building in Houston in November 2017 to explore opportunities for working more closely and more intentionally with Houston’s public libraries. The Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries highlighted the changing role of libraries in response to educational, economic, social, and technological changes in society and explored strategies for leveraging the resources and expertise of the Houston Public Library system to address critical needs for recovery and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Participants made recommendations and proposed sustainable solutions with a long-view to confronting troubling barriers to equity and opportunity in the city, and constructing pathways for long term transformation and community success. Specifically, they identified the roles that the Houston Public Library can play in fostering and ensuring access to the building blocks of community resilience, equity, and opportunity in three broad areas: youth and families, workforce development, and civic engagement.

Issues and Opportunities: Reflecting on problems encountered across the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation and floods, Dialogue participants identified many opportunities to structure a recovery and rebuilding process that would address chronic challenges and previously identified goals for the city. At the top of their list was helping the city to overcome critical barriers by advancing the following goals with planning, action, and new partnerships.

Addressing information and communication gaps. The public library can play an important role as a highly trusted source with expertise in handling information and helping people find the right information to meet their needs. Widely sharing information and data from the Kinder Institute’s post-hurricane needs assessment and helping individuals and small businesses to gather good data of their own to secure funding for recovery and rebuilding are just two ways the library can leverage its information expertise and community connections. The Houston Public Library can help to expand 211 information services and work with community partners to strengthen the use of social media and media infrastructure in order to help close communication gaps.

Prioritizing the needs of vulnerable populations. The needs of vulnerable populations are often complex and require connecting individuals and families to a portfolio of different services available throughout the community. Meeting these needs requires advance planning, greater flexibility, and adaptability in working with these populations, and partnerships that leverage the complementary strengths of each partner. Libraries can help to connect vulnerable members of the community to trusted, credible information and to social services and other resource providers.

Meeting the needs of Latino and immigrant communities. Low literacy, limited English proficiency, cultural differences, and legal and political climates can make life even more difficult for members of Latino and immigrant communities. To better meet the needs of Latino and immigrant communities, libraries can deepen their engagement with trusted community partners, including the Complete Communities Initiative neighborhood teams and faith communities, to develop new relationships with and deliver services to these communities. Successfully serving these communities will require libraries to own the fact that there are cultural differences and develop alternative participatory and engagement methods that align with these cultural and literacy differences. It also requires explicit actions that communicate and create a welcoming and inclusive community.

Addressing barriers to access and engagement. Participants called for greater democratization of access to information and resources. Greater transparency of information held in government databases could have lessened the impact of flooding on many residents through better prior planning. Yet participants cautioned that access cannot happen without a simultaneous emphasis on engagement. Too often access means a “come to me” approach to gaining information or services at centralized access points. By viewing problem-solving activity through the lens of engagement, stakeholders can begin to build connections to the community and particular populations in ways that make barriers more visible and create opportunities for sustained problem solving when and where it is needed.

Dialogue Recommendations. The Dialogue reflected broad agreement among participants that public libraries in Houston and the surrounding counties are a critical part of the community’s infrastructure that give concrete meaning to the principals of equity, opportunity, access, and engagement. Participants explored what these principles look like in the context of the discussion of Houston Public Library’s strengths and the critical issues identified above. The Dialogue yielded the following six recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Leverage the Houston Public Library as a trusted source of information
Recommendation 2: Use library infrastructure to provide important touchpoints for access and engagement to develop financial literacy and empowerment
Recommendation 3: Use the Complete Communities Neighborhood Advisory groups as a model and partner for information, communication, and engagement
Recommendation 4: Utilize smart collaborations in a portfolio approach
Recommendation 5: Connect libraries to schools of social work
Recommendation 6: Leverage the library as social infrastructure to foster greater connection among the city’s residents and student populations

A Path Forward. Finally, participants focused on specific actions the Houston Public Library could take in partnership with local partners to advance recovery, rebuilding, and resurgence in the city. With an eye toward concrete, achievable projects that focus on meaningful collaboration, participants recommended the following projects to create a path forward. Each of the proposals aligns with one or more of the service priority areas of the Houston Public Library (Access, Educate, Connect), and each gives particular attention to the needs of vulnerable populations in the city, aiming to expand equity and opportunity for all.

Project 1: Create a total family literacy program employing a portfolio approach
This project addresses the specific needs of children and families in Houston. Building on the library’s current foundation for successful out-of-school and extended learning programs, the goal of this project is to advance these building blocks in ways that equip parents and children with additional services and supports they need to be successful. This includes filling gaps in family services, child care, mental health services, case management, and home repair in the short term. It also includes developing more systematic, data-informed, outcomes-driven portfolio approaches to improving access to literacy and education, healthy living, and civic engagement opportunities for children and families. As envisioned, this project would involve building a total family literacy program by taking components from existing programs and curricula and building on existing partnerships, especially involving early childhood partners and schools. The proposal cited the Houston Public Library’s successful 2017 Family Place program as a model and recommends investigating how to build on and replicate this model out to other locations.

Project 2: Leverage the library to fill public gaps along the workforce continuum
The Houston Public Library can support the work of the city’s business, workforce development, and higher education sectors in creating pathways for learning, skills development, and helping individuals to identify pathways to achieve their goals. The aim of this project is to change the perception of public libraries from “Libraries = Books” to seeing Houston Public Library as a thriving part of Houston’s economic development ecosystem and a learning institution that fills public gaps along the workforce continuum. The project proposes to scale the cafécollege Houston program by developing the career component through the integration of workforce solutions and economic development partners. The proposal recommends an initial focus on the five Complete Communities pilot communities and working with local colleges and universities, community-based organizations, and others to develop shared action plans.

Project 3: Insure the integrity of information in the community through collaborations with trusted information and communication partners (HISD and media partnerships)
Designing communication and civic engagement strategies that build awareness, knowledge, trust, and resilience is a priority. This project proposal recognizes the Houston Public Library as the trusted source of information in the community. It seeks to expand access to trusted information in coordination with other critical information partners and ensure the integrity of information in the community as Houston rebuilds. HPL can enhance access to trusted information through strategic partnerships with two critical stakeholders: Houston Independent School District (HISD) and Houston’s media outlets and social media. HPL can build on its limited partnership with HISD to create a trusted hub of community information for Houston families by leveraging HISD’s student laptop program. Furthermore, HPL should convene a meeting of city-wide media (print, electronic, digital) to develop better alignment and improved infrastructure for coordination, collaboration, and communication of accurate information, especially during times of crisis. Corporate partners with existing relationships with HPL can help to advance this conversation.

The city of Houston has a grand opportunity represented in its public library system. City leaders began to seize this opportunity by identifying critical opportunities to leverage the resources and expertise of Houston Public Library to address critical needs for recovery and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The library is poised to move the most promising ideas forward and address the goals of all of the recommendations and proposals as resources become available.

The opportunity to bridge gaps in equity and opportunity across the neighborhoods and communities of Houston extend well beyond the library’s response to this one disaster. Fully seizing this grand opportunity will rely on intentionally filtering a vision for the library as a partner, a place, and a platform for learning, literacy, access, engagement, empowerment, and discovery. This level of intentionality to infuse a renewed, community-centered vision for the library into planning by the city’s public, nonprofit, and private sectors has not previously existed. With a wake-up call from Hurricane Harvey and the leadership and commitment of the Dialogue participants and Houston Public Library, it is time to advance efforts to leverage the library as a key partner for building thriving families and equitable communities in Houston.

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