In a recent field survey by the Public Library Association, 55 percent of librarians said that building community partnerships to support economic development was their library's greatest opportunity, and 56 percent identified community partnerships as an area in which they needed to improve their skills.

In the fourth session of our Libraries and Entrepreneurship Webinar Series, “The Librarian’s Path to Partnership,” guest speakers Kellee Forkenbrock, Public Services Librarian at North Liberty Library in Iowa, and Janet McRae, Economic Development Director for Miami County, Kansas, shared with attendees tips and strategies for identifying and engaging local businesses as valuable community partners.

Cultivating Community Partnerships

Forkenbrock presented three key steps to cultivating community partnerships.

  1. Be an outreach detective. Identify the relationships you’ve established internally and externally, determine who heads up those businesses and organizations, visit their websites, and follow their social media pages. Use your reference interview skills to find out which local organizations or resources your patrons like. Through the process of “asset mapping,” your library can curate contacts by thematic/topic area and identify any gaps.
  2. Make it a brainstorm, not a conversation. When approaching a potential partner, Forkenbrock advises, don’t go in with a single idea of how a program would look or how the partnership would work. “Avoid putting your partner in a space where they feel confined,” she advised. “You never want your partnerships to be transactional.” Instead, ask for the partner’s ideas so that the relationship will be a mutually beneficial one. “You definitely don’t want to go in with a blank slate,” Forkenbrock added, “but don’t go in with a set plan because you’re really closing yourself off to the ideas that could benefit not only your relationship with your partner, but [also] your patrons as well.”
  3. Focus on follow up. Keep partners engaged by staying in touch. Plan next steps. This might simply be scheduling a follow-up meeting. Get referrals. Ask the partner about other organizations or partners who might also want to get involved. Encourage partners to share your contact information with their partners. The follow-up process should be ongoing.

Forkenbrock followed these steps in cultivating partnerships for Lighthouse in the Library, a conversational series that North Liberty Library launched in January 2021.

Overcoming Fears

McRae, the economic development director in Kansas, acknowledged that forming partnerships can be “scary” for both librarians and members of the business community given people’s varying personalities and agendas. However, she encourages librarians not to fear the word “no” and to “focus on creating a coalition of the willing.”

McRae said she “loves” librarians because they are smart, creative thinkers with access to “cool data and books.” Libraries are where families gather. Libraries offer makerspaces for content creators, so librarians know when someone might want to take their hobby to the next level and start a business. Ultimately, McRae said, her department’s symbiotic relationship with libraries in Miami County is rooted in their shared goal of improving and enriching people’s lives.

For example, in response to the need for more childcare facilities, McRae’s department collaborated with libraries to create “go” bags for prospective daycare providers. These bags, placed in the library’s children’s story time area, contained books on developing day care curriculum as well as tips and tools for becoming licensed and starting their business. To support Miami County Reads, a one-community one-book initiative, McRae’s department purchased and distributed more than 1,000 copies of “Who Owns the Ice House: Eight Life Lessons for an Unlikely Entrepreneur,” by Clifton Taulbert. They also partnered with libraries to host book clubs, an author event, and panel discussions featuring local businesses.

Taulbert’s book inspired the Entrepreneurial Mindset Training Course, an online course available from EBSCO that enables prospective entrepreneurs to learn the underlying beliefs and behaviors that can help them start a new business, pursue a new career, accomplish personal goals, and achieve richer lives.

There’s much more to hear from our guest speakers!

Watch Part 4 and all other sessions on demand.