Rule #1: You can do ANYTHING
In the United States, 92% of public library funding comes from local sources, and there are no national standards that determine what libraries can and cannot do. The result of these facts is that public libraries can do basically anything that aligns with their mission to support lifelong learning.
As Cleveland Public Library proclaims on their homepage: “Our mission: We are the ‘People’s University,’ the center of learning for a diverse and inclusive community.”
Aimee James, the director of the Wilkes County (NC) Public Library in the rural foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, told me “as long as it’s something that benefits our patrons and it’s not illegal, I’m willing to try anything once.”
One can see this attitude play out in the extraordinary variety of services public libraries have offered, which span the range from checking out snowshoes to parkour classes to hosting community gardens.
Have a great idea for how to improve your community? Go talk with your librarian to see what you can do together.
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- How Libraries of Things build resilience, fight climate change, and bring communities together
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- Public libraries are giving away an insane amount of free food
- Seed libraries help communities grow food in a pandemic
Rule #2: Respect your librarian and their commitment to the community
The quickest way to torpedo a partnership is to go into a meeting with your local librarian assuming that they sit around all day reading books. Librarians love books (and movies, and audiobooks, and music, and audio-visual collections more generally). For many, it’s what got them into the profession.
But those who choose public librarianship as a career path tend to see themselves as community members first.
Kieran Hixon, the past president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries, says “I didn’t start out as a librarian. I started out caring about my community and saw that the library was essential to my community.”
So make sure to start the conversation by respecting your librarian and all the work they’ve already done. Start by asking, “what do you see as the community’s key needs, and how are you working to address them?” And follow that up by asking “how can we work together?”
Rule #3: If you’ve visited one public library, you’ve visited one public library
Owing to their idiosyncratically local nature, a great unevenness exists among public libraries around the nation. State and national organizations try to even out this unevenness, as do Library and Information Science educational programs, like the one I work at. But, at the end of the day, if you’ve visited one public library, you’ve visited one public library.
Just to give a flavor for this variety. Some libraries have teaching kitchens, others have bike fix-it stations, others are located in the middle of parks, others have no greenspaces around them. Some have large meeting rooms open to the public from sun up to sundown. Others have spaces the sizes of large closets and are open twice a week for a handful of hours. Some have specialized staff with backgrounds in public health, social work, nursing, and community development. Others only have one part-time staff member with a high school education.
What are the implications of this fact for partnering with public librarians? If you don’t get traction in one place or with one individual, keep stepping!
If you or your organization can’t get traction with the first person from your library you talk to, maybe you’re not talking to the right person. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to ferret out the champion for your cause in your local library.
And if you can’t find it at one library, no matter how hard you try, move on to another library. Eventually, you’ll get there.
Rule #4: Share your story!
We are awash in stereotypes about public libraries and public librarians as quiet, bookish, introverted types who would like nothing more for the public to leave so that they can enjoy their book in peace and quiet.
Do your part to overturn this narrative. If you work with your librarian, share your story! We need to hear from you. The more stories we share about successful partnerships, the more this will become part of our collective narrative of public libraries as the multi-faceted people’s university, and the more support there will exist for public libraries as key to collective impact.
Rule #5: Repeat! Keep the conversation going and the impacts flowing
Congratulate yourself and everyone who came together to do something great in your community. Keep the conversations going and the impacts flowing. Here are a few tactics you can use:
- Cross-Promotion: Promote on your social media and on your communication channels what the library is doing and ask them to do the same for you
- Community coalitions: Invite your local librarian to participate in any ongoing dialogues you may be organizing. In my research, I’ve seen librarians participate in everything from rural physical activity coalitions to early literacy task forces. Whatever the issue, if enough people in the community care about it to meet and discuss it regularly, a librarian could be part of that conversation and therefore part of the solution.