NH Librarians Trained to Have Better Community Conversations

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Kayla Morin-Riordan oversees programming and children’s services at the Goodwin Library in Farmington. But most of the time, this job involves much more than giving book recommendations and planning events.

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“We’re kind of like bartenders without a liquor license,” said Morin-Riordan, who grew up in Farmington and has worked at her hometown library since 2014. “People come to us with different needs, and we can connect them with things. they need. Sometimes they want to vent, sometimes they need to vent about what’s going on in their life.

Navigating these conversations can sometimes be tricky. But rather than retreating from these community dialogues, Morin-Riordan tries to build on them – exploring how his library can serve as a space where people can come together to talk about issues affecting their community, to learn more about local political candidates and more.

This is part of what drew her to a recent training run by New Hampshire is listeningdesigned to give librarians across the state the tools they need to facilitate better community conversations in all kinds of settings.

“We were very excited to work with librarians,” said Michele Holt-Shannon, director and co-founder of New Hampshire Listens. “They are [in] such beautiful public spaces. And a lot of libraries host more conversations, unlike other types of events where it’s not as interactive.

The two-part virtual training drew participants from Barrington, Hanover, Moultonborough, Troy and more. The first session focused on the basics of facilitating public dialogue, for virtual or in-person events: how to listen, how to ask good questions, and how to design an event that can help people deepen their understanding of a complex problem, rather than debating. a “good” answer. The second session focused on trickier territory: how to facilitate conversations between people with vastly different life experiences or levels of authority within a particular community.

“The kind of disagreements we see that are the most difficult and messy disagreements to manage as a facilitator are often about position, power and identity,” Holt-Shannon explained. “So if a superintendent is in a group with students and families and isn’t a good listener, or if the chief of police stands up and stands up and stands up for his officers but doesn’t listen to a community member talk about his experience.

The training is not intended to offer a single model for these types of conversations. Instead, Holt-Shannon said, it’s about offering “a bit of scaffolding to help them through difficult times,” with the goal of building a stronger culture of sustained civic engagement at the level. local.

Librarians aren’t the only local professionals in public-facing positions looking for advice on how to have better conversations these days. Holt-Shannon said New Hampshire Listens has also been asked to conduct similar training for teachers, lawyers and even people who run local parks and recreation programs — who might, for example, find themselves arbitrating disputes. tense exchanges with parents in the stands of local sports. events.

Back in Farmington, Morin-Riordan said she still had a lot of questions after taking the training, but was looking forward to practicing these new skills. She now feels better equipped to handle disagreements with members of the public who challenge the library’s budget or a fine on their behalf, let alone those who might object to library materials or programming. (Luckily, she says, her library hasn’t received any challenges yet – but after watching a wave of challenges across the country, they want to be prepared.)

But Morin-Riordan hopes to use what she’s learned to make her library a space where people can meet their information needs and find a sense of community and civic engagement. And she thinks their status as a free and inviting place puts them in a unique position to do just that.

“We’re one of the few entities where you can go where you don’t expect to have to spend money to stay there,” she said.

We want to hear from you: how connected do you feel to your neighbors in your community? How has this changed in recent years? If you don’t feel connected, what could help you? Share your thoughts at voices@nhpr.org.

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