In the past few years, my role as a librarian at the University of Rochester has given me the opportunity to work with the Rochester community a lot, especially with local high schools who are part of the International Baccalaureate program. I’ve met and worked with hundreds of students and dozens of faculty and librarians both in their schools and with their visits to our library. I’ve worked with the faculty and students at two Theological schools in the area, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. In these cases, I haven’t strayed very far from what I do everyday as a librarian. I listen, I offer strategies for research success, I try to make the library and the University as accessible and welcoming as possible, and I try to lower the fear and anxiety that can arise whenever someone is trying something new and feels clumsy.
This fall, I enrolled in a writing class here at the university: WRT 370 – Creating Digital Identities. This is a community-engaged class, and a writing class, and partly a design class. Our class was tasked with coming up with some new logos and designs for the 19th Ward Community Association, a neighborhood association for the people who live just across the river from our River Campus. It’s been a challenge, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. I knew design wasn’t my strong suit, and that time would be a challenge. But everything was harder than I thought it would be. I’ve been communicating and cooperating with library staff for a long time, and though I work with students all the time, it was hard to negotiate how to listen actively, how to communicate without dropping into my “library authority stance.” Working with the community for this class meant visiting the 19th Ward Community Association’s office and listening and capturing what they liked, what their challenges were, and what they were proud of. All the students in the class interviewed individuals that live in the 19th Ward, and we attended the Association’s annual conference, where we showed them designs and asked for feedback. At every turn, I had to examine my assumptions about the neighborhood, about non-profit work, and how to balance traditions with new ideas.
The joy of doing this work has been writing, inventing and learning about the many talents of my fellow classmates. As a librarian, I often only meet people for a few hours, and usually, it’s a stressful time for the students I meet. Each one of my classmates has a ton of talent, creativity, and they are all incredibly generous to others in class. When I taught college classes in the past, the non-traditional (AKA adult) students were dismissive of their classmates. I think the nature of the project meant that all our skills could be highlighted, and I credit our instructor, Kate Phillips with the skill to create a cooperative and collaborative team.
We don’t know if the 19th Ward Community Association will love our designs as much as we do, but I know that I’ve learned a lot about the power of good design, the value of neighborhood associations for a community, and the need for me to step outside of my comfort zone a little more often.