During our recent webinar Promoting Library Card Sign-up Month (from inside and outside the library), there was a lot of interest in the topic of strategic partnerships in the community. As a follow-up, I’d like to share some tips on library partnerships that I learned in my 23 years as a public librarian and 10 years working for a state library. We’ve also got some ideas for partnerships you may not have considered from libraries around the country.

Libraries today partner extensively — but do they always partner strategically? It’s so easy to say “yes” when asked to be a partner. When I worked in a public library, I was constantly approached by community agencies, individuals, and businesses who wanted to partner with our library. We were viewed as a valued partner to host programs and disseminate information. I’m guessing our library was like yours — our staff seldom had extra time, extra money, or extra staff. Partnering can have huge benefits, but it can also spread our limited resources too thin. So, when you are thinking about partnering, ask yourself, “What makes a good partner?”

A good partner:

  • Understands the value of the library and can verbalize it
  • Shares a similar mission as the library
  • Recognizes how the library supports them and their organization
  • Identifies as a library enthusiast and actively promotes the library

How do you find the right partner?

  • First, know what you want from the partnership and why you want a partner in the first place. Can they help you reach underserved areas of the community? Do they have expertise or resources that you lack? What can you offer in return? You are attuned to your community; you know what the community needs, and you know how the library can help. Be clear on your goal, so when you approach partners, you are proactive in establishing a positive outcome.
  • Talk to your friends, volunteers, community supporters, and collect ideas.
  • Know the partnering organization. Understand how the library can support its goals as well as how the organization can support the library’s goals. Remember, it’s a partnership.

How do you become strategic?

  • Find out what your partner values and what they need. See how you can benefit each other.
  • Put your partnership in writing. This can sound a bit legalistic, but it’s really just a way to document what each partner will contribute. It helps to avoid any issues later. Trust me on this!
  • Involve your staff — make sure they are aware of your partners.
  • If the partnership is successful for everyone, don’t make it a one-time deal. Look for ways to expand beyond the initial project. Think about ways to stay in touch and grow that connection that you have worked hard to develop.

Partnerships to ponder

  • Consider partnering with local schools. Many schools, unfortunately, are losing their librarians and would welcome help keeping kids engaged with reading, especially teens, a tough group to reach. The Multnomah County Library School Corps helps students succeed in school and improve their reading by mastering public library resources. They work closely with teachers, student teachers, and school library staff.
  • Your community’s historical societies or preservation organizations are great partners to help promote your genealogy resources, special collections, and other archives. In turn, they’ll appreciate you promoting their organizations and offering to host programs given by their members, which is an excellent benefit for your patrons. Pennington Public Library partners with the local historical society to host lectures and exhibits. 
  • Does your library have a collection of sheet music, CDs, and biographies of musicians? Your local symphony or orchestra would be a good partner for you. They’ll appreciate the wider audience they can reach through the library, too. Jacksonville Public Library has had great success with their symphony partnership. New Haven Free Public Library is partnering with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra to provide free passes to performances.
  • Community theaters are also great partners. After all, most plays are based on books and your library has them! Nashville Public Library partners with Wishing Chair Productions to provide wonderful music and storytelling at library locations.
  • Libraries are a hot spot for tech learning. Look at area tech companies to enhance the courses you offer. The New York Public Library offers TechConnect Classes at all library locations in partnership with the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, supported by area foundations. 
  • Area Chambers of Commerce or small business organizations are the perfect partners to help you promote your databases and other resources for emerging businesses and entrepreneurs. In turn, consider co-hosting programs like Mid-Continent Public Library does. They’ll love the publicity and you’ll have great programs for patrons that take very little work on your part. The Louisville Free Public Library hosts a How-To Festival, working with local businesses to provide a daylong event on learning new lessons – how to do Tai Chi, plant a garden, decorate a cake, and many more. 
  • Does your community have a local PBS station? Their educational programming is a perfect match for libraries. They are great partners for a Community Read and can significantly expand your audience. Adams Memorial Library in Pennsylvania is part of a statewide partnership with WQED-TV. The station provides supplies for readings, episode screenings, character visits and other events from their PBS kids shows. 

Of course, not all partnerships will be a success, but you can learn from each experience. Get creative, explore new possibilities. As our libraries change to meet the needs of our communities, our partnerships will change. 

We know many libraries have created successful partnerships throughout their communities. We would love to hear from you! Share your ideas (by leaving a comment below); let us know what worked and brag about your success.

Pam Jaskot is a Customer Engagement Specialist for NoveList.