October 24, 2014

L3 Pilot Boosts Rural Library Literacy Efforts

Six small libraries in rural Minnesota were recently selected for a year of specialized training and mentoring. The pilot initiative was designed by Library Strategies, a consulting arm of the Friends of the Saint Paul (MN) Public Library, and funded by a $388,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

The program, entitled “L3: The Bremer Rural Libraries and Literacy Leadership Institute,” is designed to strengthen a select group of libraries in the Upper Midwest. It was launched in August, and six literacy programs in Minnesota were also invited to take part. The Minnesota Literacy Council has partnered with Library Strategies since L3’s creation.

L3 will provide intensive training and extended on-site mentoring, in order to help these handpicked organizations—in the words of the project overview—“expand their capacity for meeting the unique needs of rural communities.”

“The training will be very targeted,” Sue Hall, the coordinator and lead consultant for Library Strategies, told Library Journal in a recent phone conversation.

“We’re doing individual assessments in advance of the big training,” added Peter Pearson, a lead consultant with Library Strategies.

Dominic Papatola, a program officer for the Bremer Foundation, said, “Our goal for L3, quite simply, is to give these valuable individuals and their organizations the tools to learn—both from experts in the field and from their peers—how to build better, more effective libraries and literacy organizations, and, by extension, to contribute to the vitality of the communities we serve.”

Two key components of L3 are an on-site evaluation of each organization and the future assignment of a specialized mentor to work alongside staff and provide a nine-month period of support. These mentors won’t begin their work until each library (and literacy program) has completed a fairly rigorous training course.

Skills to be developed include advocacy, fundraising, critical thinking, building a volunteer base, leadership, and building community partnerships.

A key date for L3 is rapidly approaching: on Sept. 13, mentors and trainers will gather in St. Paul for a combination work session and pep rally. “The idea is to get them together as a group,” Hall said. “It’s really to do some team-building, some cheerleading. We want them to own the program.”

The six participating libraries were selected from a pool of 10 that had volunteered. They include Fergus Falls Public Library in Fergus Falls, MN, Godel Memorial Library in Warren, MN; Willmar Public Library in Willmar, MN; Marshall Lyon County Public Library in Marshall, MN; Brainerd Public Library in Brainerd, MN; and Milaca Community Library in Cambridge, MN.

At approximately 19,500 people, Willmar is the largest of those six communities, according to U.S. Census data from 2011. The smallest is Warren, which has about 1,500 residents.

The Bremer Foundation has worked with Library Strategies and the Minnesota Literacy Council before, Papatola said, which boosts his confidence for L3’s success. “They’ve been respectful— and in fact eager—in their efforts to suss out what our cohort of libraries and literacy organizations need and to figure out the best, most creative ways to help them reach their goals,” Papatola said.

Representatives from each library and literacy program must attend a pair of weekend training sessions in St. Paul; the first is in late October, followed by a November session before Thanksgiving. Mandatory webinars will also take place during the winter.

The cost, a potential sticking point for small rural libraries, won’t be a concern: Expenses will be covered by the Bremer Foundation grant.

At $388,540, Pearson said the Bremer Foundation grant is particularly large for projects such as these.

“I can’t think of an RFP that came across our desk that’s been that size,” said Pearson, a nationally regarded project manager with more than 20 years experience raising funds and managing initiatives at the St. Paul Public Library.

Founded in 1944, the Otto Bremer Foundation gave out some $30.5 million in grants and program investments in 2011. Its mission is to “help build healthy, vibrant communities,” according to the organization’s website. Their focus is Minnesota, North Dakota, and western Wisconsin, where Bremer Bank branches are located.

Hall also praised Bremer as a foundation that doesn’t make organizations “jump through a zillion hoops” after a grant is awarded. “They’re really about picking good organizations to work with and saying, ‘We’re going to be hands-off with this. No micro-management,’” she said.

Library Strategies has an impressive history of its own. Since its creation in 2007, the organization has worked with clients across the U.S., including Anchorage, AK; White Plains, NY; Sarasota, FL; Steamboat Springs, CO; and others. In 2010, Library Strategies began a two-year effort to help develop a national advocacy program for libraries in Romania, home to some 3,000 libraries.

The Bremer Foundation is committed to only one year with L3, but has not closed the door on further funding or a possible expansion of its mission.

“If it works, it’s absolutely right to go much broader,” Pearson said, noting that the Gates Foundation, which worked with Library Strategies on the Romania project, could possibly be interested in funding future projects.

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