Facilitation and Building Public History Discussion Spaces

A circle of coffee cups on a wood table.

Facilitating meaningful discussion can be hard.  Many of us have facilitation success and horror stories from the seminar room, a larger classroom setting, or a community outreach program.  Engaged conversations can be a powerful way to learn and provide a sense of shared learning, build on collective intelligence, and allow for diverse viewpoints.

The Art of Hosting argues that facilitating conversation is an art and that it takes practice and work to become skillful at helping folks work together.  I also love their philosophy that a host is someone who “ignites and holds the space for conversation.” This idea situates hosts as part of a group and not a leader of conversation and discusses facilitation as form of participatory leadership.

This facilitation philosophy also appeals to me because it draws on the important idea of building physical and intellectual space for discussion.  Making sure physical and intellectual spaces are welcoming and as barrier free as possible can be crucial in establishing room for open dialogue.  In just simple things like making sure an appropriate amount of time is set aside for discussion – don’t rush participants or the group as a whole.  Discussing challenging, divisive, personal, or emotional topics often require more time.

Recently, in a presentation Jessica Knapp of Canada’s History Society remarked that public history is all about relationships. I couldn’t agree more. At their core many public history projects are about building and maintaining relationships with others. Long term community discussion and fostering long term community conversations is all about relationships.  It means meeting people where they are at, building space to share stories where folks are respected and heard, and making room for communities to co-create and learn together.  It also means understanding that people come to discussion spaces on uneven ground, that power imbalances all real, and that reflecting on what brought us to a space can help us move forward.

Some of my favourite community based experiences recently have included participating in Thinking Rock making sessions, where community members are engaged in hands-on making projects. The facilitation style of the folks at Thinking Rock is something I greatly admire.  Similarly,  in the past few years I’ve had the chance to work with 4Rs Youth Movement and their framework for cross-cultural dialogue and building spaces for critical conversations is fantastic. The work of 4Rs emphasizes that dialogue takes “time, space, and care” and that “the activities or facilitation methods themselves are not impact without intentions, approach, and goals carefully thought through.” (p. 14) What you are attempting to accomplish through facilitation and discussion matters.  Why are you having these community conversations? Are they merely a check box form of consultation?   Or are you actively listening and letting community responses guide your work?

Creating space for discussion takes time and effort. Participating in community discussions and working in existing collaborative spaces is a great way to start to learn about what facilitation styles appeal to you and an easy way to start thinking more critically about dialogue spaces.  What are your go to facilitation strategies?

Additional reading:

Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Interactive Libraries: the New Halifax Central Library

Image from Wikimedia Commons, Citobun

The Current on CBC has been running a series recently focused on all elements of design.  By Design looks at traditional design as well as new technologies, education practices, and other human constructed ideas that shape our world.  This week By Design featured a segment on designing libraries in a digital era.

The feature focused on the design of the new Halifax Central Library.  Set to open in the fall of 2014 the library is the first of scale to be built in Canada in many years.  The library features gaming stations, meetings rooms, community spaces, cafes, and takes the approach of libraries as gathering spaces and communal spaces of knowledge.

The discussion questioned the future of libraries and placed libraries as much more than a place for books, but as an actively engaged center of a community. This sense of community engagement was integrated into the design process for the Halifax Library. Five public consultations were held which invited Halifax residents to provide input on the design and components of the library. Many of these sessions were interactive.  For example in 2008 library patrons were asked to write down what they wanted in a new library on a ‘graffiti wall.’

Interactive events including knit-ins, talking fences, and community art projects are other examples of the Halifax Library already beginning to engage the community through non-traditional means. The library is position itself as a welcoming multipurpose environment that encourage conversation.

It is great to see such a large scale library project being funded and supported by a community.  As the library opens it will be interesting to hear feedback from the community and see how this new community oriented space is being used.  

For those interested in checking out the design of the new Halifax Central Library a virtual tour is available:

Community Conversations and Libraries

Earlier this week I attended a music night at my local public library.  The night featured a couple of local musicians as well as Tenpenny Bit a traditional music group from out of town.  The evening was free to attend (but a number of people did give small donations), included a couple of hours of good music, conversation, and snacks.  The event was well attended and made me think about the relationship between libraries, art, and communities.

When I first moved to Northern Ontario I remember being baffled by the fact that the library wasn’t open all the time.  The town I grew up in wasn’t huge but it had enough people and funding to support a large library with great hours.  The library in the community I live in now is only open 29 hours a week but still manages to offer a range of programming.

In the past year the library has hosted a handful of small art shows and music nights.  The art shows and displays have featured works by local artists and the music nights have highlighted both local and visiting talent. The events bring people into the library that might not normally visit and provide a needed creative venue within the community.

The most recent music night also highlighted the idea of libraries as community spaces and places of conversation.  Most businesses in our small town close at 6pm.  But the library is open from 7-9pm four nights a week. The library also has a visible presence in the local paper, community nights, and local events. This presence might be as simple as offering hot chocolate and cookies during the winter ‘midnight madness’ event to encourage people to step into library.  The local library is an integral part of the community and actively works to engage locals outside of traditional library programming. 

I like the idea of libraries as being flexible spaces of engagement where patrons can engage with knowledge, arts, and community.  Books bring people together.  But so do free cookies, music nights, and children’s programming.