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N.H. librarians learn how to lead community conversations that go beyond the book

A sign at Goodwin Library in Farmington reads: "Not all heroes wear capes"
The Goodwin Library
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New Hampshire Listens hosted a recent training designed to give librarians across the state the tools they need to facilitate better community conversations in all kinds of contexts.

Kayla Morin-Riordan oversees programming and children’s services at Goodwin Library in Farmington. But most days, that job entails 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 unload on what is going on with their life.”

Navigating those conversations can be tricky, at times. But rather than retreat from those community dialogues, Morin-Riordan is trying to lean into them — exploring how her library can serve as a space where people can come together to talk about issues affecting their community, to learn about local political candidates and more.

That’s part of what drew her to a recent training hosted by New Hampshire Listens, designed to give librarians across the state the tools they need to facilitate better community conversations in all kinds of contexts.

“We were very excited to work with librarians,” said New Hampshire Listens Director and Co-Founder Michele Holt-Shannon. “They’re [in] such lovely public spaces. And a lot of libraries are hosting more conversations, as opposed to other kinds 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 issue, rather than debating one “right” answer. The second session focused on thornier territory: how to facilitate conversations among people with vastly different life experiences or levels of authority within a particular community.

“The kind of disagreements we see that are the toughest, messiest disagreements to deal with as a facilitator are often about position and 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 defends and defends and defends their officers, but doesn’t listen to a community member about their experience.”

The training isn’t meant to offer a one-size-fits-all template for these kinds of conversations. Instead, Holt-Shannon said, it’s to offer “a bit of scaffolding to help them navigate tricky moments,” with the goal of building a stronger culture of sustained, civic engagement at the local level.

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

Back in Farmington, Morin-Riordan said she still had lots of questions after going through the training, but she’s eager to practice these new skills. She now feels more equipped to navigate disagreements with members of the public who take issue with the library budget or a fine on their account, not to mention those who might object to library material or programming. (Thankfully, she said, 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 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, inviting location makes them uniquely positioned to do so.

“We are one of the few entities where you can go where there is no expectation that you need to spend money in order to stay there,” she said.

We want to hear from you: How connected do you feel to your fellow neighbors in your community? How has that changed in recent years? If you don't feel connected, what do you think might help? Share your thoughts at voices@nhpr.org.

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