Community Partnerships

What are community partnerships?

A community partnership is any collaborative effort between a library and another community organization, such that an ongoing relationship develops that forms the basis for future joint projects. Libraries have been engaging in community partnerships for decades, and recent statistics demonstrate that such partnerships are relatively commonplace. A 1998 IMLS-funded study found that 77% of libraries reported collaborating with a community organization within the last two years (Partnership, n.d.). Given the ever-increasing budgetary pressures that libraries face and ever-diversifying needs of modern communities, it is reasonable to infer that if this survey were repeated today in 2013, the percentage of libraries collaborating would be even higher than 77%. Community partnerships can be an excellent method for maximizing community value with the library budget and meeting a variety of community needs.

Community partnerships usually emphasize outreach to underserved populations and mutually beneficial sharing of resources, including space, staff, and materials. Congruence of the community organization and the library's goals and values are also an important factor in deciding whether to develop a long-term partnership or not.

One of the most common partnerships is between school and public libraries (Fine, 2001). Other examples of community organizations that may be helpful partners are government agencies, service organizations, local businesses, and educational non-profits, such as museums and zoos.

Why are community partnerships important for libraries?

As mentioned above, community partnerships can be an excellent means by which to reach out to underserved populations. Residents within a library's service area might not come into contact with the library explicitly unless the library comes to them through activities by another organization.

Community partnerships also represent a great opportunity to share limited resources to create bigger and better programs for all participants. An example of this type of partnership may be a summer reading program with a theme related to a community organization, such as a zoo.

The community organization that partners with the library will learn a great deal about the values and goals of libraries and will likely pass that information and value forward to their clients. As surprising as it may be to many librarians, many community organizations may have no idea what services the library can offer them (Johnson, 2011).

For youth services librarians, in particular, the outreach opportunities afforded by community partnerships are invaluable. The concept of "meeting non-users where they are" is never more important than with youth, because they do not have their own means of transportation to the library. Furthermore, a young library user can encourage his/her entire family to become library users and advocates.

Pre-Planning your Program for your Community Partnership

A good first step is to identify what your library is looking for in a partner, especially in terms of programming. The desired characteristics in a partner for your library will vary from program to program and institution to institution. This variance means that there is no canned list or program that libraries can implement to find and create ideal partnerships. To get started with community partnerships, the library should start with an informal needs assessment, especially in terms of your program. Some questions that the library may ask are as follows:

What are your overarching program goals?

Community partnerships almost always take the form of joint programming, though general sharing of resources may follow. What kind of programming do you want or need to do? How will these programs serve the community, and how might a community partner contribute to those programs? A good place to start is the library's mission and vision. A library may also use this time to evaluate current and past programming to identify successes and areas for improvement.

For youth services librarians, involving the teen advisory group in the planning process is ideal. For the younger children, consider an informal survey of parents on their way in and out of storytime about what programs they might like to see in the future. Library staff who want even more data can consider an online survey of all library card holders. Depending on the library's time and resources, there are a variety of methods of data collection and brainstorming that can take place even before a community partner is approached.

Who is your target audience?

A major way in which community partners can help libraries is through attracting new and special populations to your library. A good way that libraries can benefit from community partners is to find community partners that have connections or influence with your target population. Look for leaders throughout the community, and be sure to build relationships with them as well as their organizations.

How will you fund your program?

Some libraries may seek out community partnerships in an attempt to fund their programming dreams. Since many businesses budget for sponsoring community events as good public relations, it may behoove the library to contact business owners and the local chamber of commerce to see what funding opportunities are available. Businesses may also be willing to get involved with library fundraising. Another creative idea is to allow local businesses to have booths at library events, with a certain percentage of sales going directly to the library.

Two more groups should be on the library's radar for program funding: national foundations and either the library friends group or the PTA, depending on whether your library is a public or a school library. National foundations often offer competitive grants for a variety of program types. Each grant has its own requirements, but in general, many foundations wish to reward innovative programming. Since community partnerships are mutually beneficial and often require creativity to execute, the library may wish to seek a community partner for creating a program and applying for grant funding. Researching grant opportunities as you develop your community program is a smart move.

Local groups that can help with funding community partnership programs are the library friends group or the PTA. Most library friends groups prioritize fundraising within their non-profit, charitable mission, so they may be able to contribute to a program, either through fundraising or at the very least promotion. As for school libraries, the parent-teacher association (PTA) may already facilitate volunteering and programming at the school, so presenting the fundraising needs for a library program to the parents and staff members may help the community partnership get started.

What space can you use for your program?

If you are trying out a new program, you will need to make sure you have adequate space to reach your goals. When deciding where to hold an event, you should consider the potential costs and benefits of using the community partner's space or a third-party rented space instead of the library. Whenever possible, your library should develop relationships with community partners with large spaces, such as theaters and event halls. Even if you do not need such a large space now, your program might grow!

Who do you need to plan and execute your program?

For an especially big program, remember that everyone is a potential volunteer! You may need staff or volunteers with special skills. Library staff should get in the habit of scanning the local media for artists, performers, and leaders with special skills that may be able to offer their time and talents to library programs. Even if they ultimately say "no," they may be able to provide contact information for other folks in their field of expertise, and they might say "yes" in the future.

Approaching a Desirable Community Partner

Here are some basic tips for approaching your desired community partner:

Do your research! Be prepared.

In addition to your program pre-planning and information about funding, you should do plenty of research on your desired community partner. Be interested and involved with their mission and goals, and consider talking to other community leaders that have worked with them before. Having colleagues or friends in common may help boost the library's visibility within that organization. Additionally, the information you gather may help reinforce whether or not this organization is the right community partner for your library.

You should also organize information about your library and program to present to the potential community partner. They will need this takeaway information to evaluate your proposal and make a confident decision.

Be clear about benefits to the community partner and your corresponding expectations.

The question that your library needs to answer for the partner organization is: what's in it for them? Most organizations need to see the potential benefits before investing their time and money. Most libraries will focus on the public relations benefit for the community organization as a key selling point.

In addition to spelling out the potential benefits, your library needs to be clear about what the community partner needs to do. How active should the community partner be in planning and organizing the program? Will they be involved with funding, promotion, or staffing the event?

Offer generously.

Sometimes, the most valuable partnerships between libraries and community organizations begin due to the library's generous offers of improved collections and services.
For example, Skokie Public Library (IL) created a new business center with the guidance of the local chamber of commerce. (Dowd, 2013). This generous outreach laid the foundation for future community investments from the library, simply because the library offered its services and space generously.

Value your community's suggestions.

Many successful partnerships have started from an idea that a patron brought the library. Be open to these ideas!

How to Work with a Community Partner

Communicate frequently and in writing

Communicate regularly through meetings to track progress and adjust course as necessary based on feedback. Be sure to listen to the partner while also setting clear goals and expectations from the library.

To settle the terms of the partnership, be sure to make a written agreement with your community partner. Details about fees and staffing are critical information to include in this agreement.

Be prepared for anything

As with any library program, create a back-up plan in case of a last-minute cancellation. Assume the best intentions of your community partner, but realize that emergencies can happen anytime. Even if you create only a bare bones back up plan, you will still be better off than with no plan at all.

Follow up with the partner

Be sure to thank the community partner in writing following the event. The community partner should be on the library's mailing list, and your library should be on theirs. Finally, if your program was successful, look for future opportunities to collaborate!

Examples of Community Partnerships/Collaborations

Detroit Public Library
A great collaboration between the Detroit Public Library (DPL), Forgotten Harvest, and the Chrysler Foundation offers free healthy snacks to school aged children who participate in the after school reading program at 20 DPL branches throughout the city. The program was conceived after a series of unrelated meetings between representatives of all three organizations. During one of these meetings it was revealed that many of the children partaking in the reading program at DPL suffered from poor attention due to lack of adequate nutrition. At which point the Chrysler Foundation—the charitable arm of the corporation—gave Forgotten Harvest—a non-profit fighting hunger and waste in the Detroit area—a grant to fund the preparation and delivery of nutritious lunches for the final sessions of the 2012 summer reading program. This pilot program was so successful that the Chrysler Foundation increased its financial support in 2013. Lunches were offered throughout the summer reading program, and snacks are being distributed for the after school reading program during the 2013-2014 academic year.

Participation in the 2013 summer reading program increased to 6,598 children—up 28% from 2012—very much in part to the lunch program. About 11,000 lunches were served over a 10-week period this past summer. With regards to the after school reading program, Forgotten Harvest estimates about 2,000 snacks per week will be distributed during the 2013-2014 school year.

This partnership is extremely important in combating an unfortunate reality for so many children while allowing them the opportunity to learn. “It is difficult for children or adults, for that matter, to concentrate and learn when they are hungry…Our partnership…provides an ideal opportunity to provide nourishing food to hungry children, which ideally will enhance their chances to learn and grow” (Peterson).

Jacksonville Public Library
A partnership between the Jacksonville Public Library (JPL) and the University of North Florida (UNF) brought about a small pilot program that enhanced literacy skills and prevented summer slide of elementary students. The eight-week standards-based literacy program was created by JPL librarian Anita Haller in collaboration with Dr. Katrina Hall from UNF. Its purpose was to provide reading assistance and build literacy skills in young children (K-5th grade) while giving hands-on experience to 27 UNF undergraduates majoring in elementary education.

Each undergraduate tutor was assigned to a group of four or five children. Then, “tutors made informal assessments and developed individualized activities based on standards in the areas of sight words, concepts of print, phonemic awareness/alphabet knowledge, comprehension, fluency, and writing” (Bayer). Parents saw results in their children’s handwriting and vocabulary, as well as in their creative writing skills.

This partnership was a first for UNF and was considered a huge success. JPL and UNF are already planning their next tutoring program.

Best Practice for Young Adult Engagement: Develop community partnerships

— including strengthening ties with public schools.

see Young Adult Engagement for more information on engagement initiatives.

Fostering strong community partnerships should be a goal of any successful youth engagement initiative. Community partnerships offer opportunities for libraries to expand their reach and recruitment efforts, pool resources, increase visibility, and improve the quality and quantity of program offerings.

Urban areas may offer a wealth of partnership opportunities for libraries, while other locations may have fewer potential partners. Consider arts and cultural institutions, schools, parks and recreation departments, government agencies, nonprofit youth services groups, and existing youth services community parterships (Hirzy, 42).

To identify potential community partners, library staff should undertake a community asset mapping activity, ideally involving teen library users. Asset mapping involves identifying the assets your library has to offer, and the assets of other organizations or resources in your community. Ask teen members of your library or Teen Advisory Group to work with you in creating asset maps. Identify organizations in your community that work with youth, and then contact those organizations to learn more about what they do (Rutherford, 24). Ideally, the teens themselves could attempt to contact these organizations under a librarian’s guidance. A useful example of an asset mapping workbook suitable for young people is available here:

Rutherford (2010) suggests conducting focus groups with teens to assess interests and needs and identify community trends (24). This provides insight into opportunities for collaboration with partner organizations (25).

Another useful strategy is to identify fledgling youth services organizations in your community and, if your library is equipped with meeting and/or activity rooms, offer free space to those groups. I recently implemented a successful partnership between the Richmond Public Library and Girls Rock! RVA, the local girls’ rock camp. Girls Rock! Raises the library’s profile in the community and the number of children, young adults and families using the library on weekends, as well as providing a dedicated team of 20 and 30-something volunteers to flyer the city with library materials. The library gives free space for programming, musical equipment storage, and a venue for a gear-lending program to Girls Rock!

Effective community partnerships are mutually beneficial (Hirzy 42). I also encourage you, if interested, to search for a Girls Rock Camp near you using this online resource (zoom in to find a camp nearest you) and form a community partnership with your library:

Consider the public schools as a major community partner. Libraries should promote their services directly to schools. If your library lacks a partnership with the local public school, try to talk to teachers directly on school staff development days (Bourke, 101). Emphasize that libraries provide opportunities for “free-choice” or self-directed learning, a complement to structured school curricula (Jones and Delahanty, 42). Partnerships between schools and libraries can “promote innovative learning collaborations” (41).

Once you have made contact with the teachers and have communicated what you have to offer to the schools, you are more likely to be allowed to address the students at schools in assemblies (Bourke 102) or even better, in individual classes. Consider offering homework help hours or expanded Summer Reading programming at the library in exchange for the opportunity to address students at assemblies and the ability to distribute flyers at schools.

Make the library available for field trips to classes or clubs at public schools. Recently at the Richmond Public Library, I hosted a group of teens belonging to the choir at local Armstrong High School. Our library has an extensive collection of sheet music, scores, CD recordings, and non-fiction books about music and musicians. Several teens checked items out, several registered for library cards, and even a few filled out paperwork to become volunteers. This field trip showcased the library as a place for these teens to pursue their passion for music, and more generally as a place for “self-directed learning that affords autonomy” (Jones and Delahanty 43). Reach out to niche interest groups of young adults through the schools, as “a significant amount” of teen learning “stems from what they are intrinsically motivated to learn on their own” (42).

Librarians are burdened with increased workloads as library funding and staffing continues to be cut nationwide. However, community partnerships can vastly increase your resources and impact for and with young adults. Howard (2011) found that, of young teens surveyed, the reason most did not attend library programs was they simply didn't know about them, and the reason they did not visit libraries was that they did not think about them (332, 335). 35% of teens said they would attend library events if they knew about them (332). Community partnerships, and a strong relationship with public schools, increase the visibility of the library in the community and among teens, increase the impact of promotional and recruitment activities, and increase resources for strong, youth-centered programming.



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