March 16, 2018

Powerful Partnerships: Introduction and Best Practices | Library by Design, Spring 2012

By Marta Murvosh

Marriage. That’s how many librarians describe collaborative efforts with other organizations to fund and construct new library buildings, including joint-use facilities, to serve their communities.

As this whirlwind tour of over a dozen projects across the country illustrates, libraries nationwide have joined forces with private developers; nonprofit housing authorities; colleges and universities; municipal, county and state governments; and others to share land and buildings. At times, construction partnerships have revitalized neighborhoods and led to innovation in service delivery.

“Libraries in general have become much more willing to talk about nontraditional ways of partnership in terms of facilities and shared space, so we are seeing a lot more of it,” says Louise Schaper, a library consultant and former executive director of the Fayetteville Public Library, AR, who is the project manager for LJ’s New Landmark Libraries (

The projects take all forms, but there are several primary types of partnerships:

  • Shared sites: The library and at least one other organization build on land owned by at least one partner.
  • Shared buildings: The partners each set up house in a building that one or all of the partners paid to build. They share ownership, or one partner leases from another. Often, they share parts of the building, such as meeting rooms and common areas.
  • Mixed-use development: The library and its partners enter a condominium agreement. Often the library owns the site, and each partner owns its own space in the development.
  • Integrated libraries: Two libraries with combined staff in the same building serve customer groups once served ­separately.

Benefits abound

Sharing a building with another organization can save money because costly necessities, such as elevators, bathrooms, and boiler rooms, need not be duplicated, says Clint Kinney, city manager of Fruita, CO, where the library and recreation center share a building.

A library-developer partnership for a multiuse building may attract grants and tax credits for urban redevelopment or affordable housing, says Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library, which has partnered with two housing developers. Indeed, private developers see the high foot traffic as a plus for retail sites, says Joe Huberty, a partner at Engberg Anderson in Milwaukee.

In the public arena, some government agencies struggling with dwindling sales tax revenue see libraries as partners that bring cash to the table, says Bruce Flynn, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture in Denver.

Projects that work can transform a neighborhood, says Mark Schatz, principal at Schwartz/Silver Architects, the Boston firm that designed Boston Public Library’s (BPL) Grove Hall branch, which shares a building with Grove Hall Community Center and is also an addition to Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, MA. Libraries built with partners in Boston, Milwaukee, and Rifle, CO, have been credited with helping spur economic development and bringing a sense of community to their ­neighborhoods.

Collaborating with outside organizations on construction can be a new experience for many library directors, and it’s not easy, says Dennis Humphries, principal at Humphries Poli Architects in Denver. “Labor is in the center of collaboration. It takes work,” Humphries says. “It should push you to a higher level.”

Successful partnerships occur when all the organizations involved have a unified vision for the communities they serve, says Patricia Senn Breivik, the former dean at San José State University Library, CA. Breivik, now VP of consulting firm Nehemiah Communications, helped lead the integration of staff at San José Public Library and San José State to build the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, which set the benchmark for integrated public-academic libraries and was the 2004 LJ/Gale Library of the Year.

Such partnership, however, doesn’t always come naturally. “Things like that often don’t happen unless the key person is retiring or leaving for another job. It’s hard to break down barriers,” says Bob Fonte, director of the Stark County Park District, Canton, OH, where a library and nature center share a structure.

Library leaders may need to reenvision their roles in their communities. “Librarians have to see themselves as leaders in their cities, not just in the libraries or universities,” Breivik says.

Best Practices

Often successful library building partnerships arise from the desire to address a community problem or need, ranging from the challenge of saving money to helping a user group improve their lives, says Louise Schaper, a library consultant and the former executive director of the Fayetteville Public Library, AR (the Gale/LJ 2005 Library of the Year).

Beyond solving the problem at issue, the partners should consider other factors, says Schaper, also the project manager for LJ’s New Landmark Libraries ( “On the more practical side, there’s a lot that needs to be thought out in advance, so there is no disappointment in the end,” Schaper says.

A partnership’s success will be determined by librarians’ abilities to communicate clearly and compromise. “Everyone involved must be willing to put all their cards on the table in terms of the venture being considered, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, potential downsides, and fears and hopes. All these things need to be identified and talked through,” Schaper says.

Library directors, architects, and other professionals involved in building construction can offer suggestions to guide their peers who are looking for partners in a library project. LJ’s 2012 Library by Design supplement offers a whirlwind tour of more than a dozen buildings where libraries partnered with another organization to share land or the structure itself or in some cases to integrate operations.

Library leaders who have been in partnerships emphasize the importance of forthrightness and inclusiveness in decisions that have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for their partners, employees, and communities. They also need to engage their constituents and staff and their partners. To build the Rifle Library in partnership with that western Colorado city, says Amelia Shelley, executive director of the Garfield County Public Library District (GCPLD), as many library and municipal staff as possible were invited to give input. “We knew it would impact everyone. We wanted them in the know,” Shelley says.


Library systems, such as King County Library System (KCLS), Issaquah, WA (the Gale/LJ 2011 Library of the Year), with experience in combining with cities and developers to construct buildings, advise the hiring of experts in real estate law, construction, and other specialties to gain invaluable information, says Kay Johnson, KCLS facilities director.

Look for partners and experts with experience with large projects because libraries don’t operate like commercial, retail, or residential developments, several architects say. An owner’s representative can negotiate conflicts and stand by the library’s side, says Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library, which has worked with two residential developers to build two branches in conjunction with apartments. “We are, after all, library directors, and we’re not schooled in construction techniques,” Kiely says.


Libraries require specialized design and construction to support the weight of books and to protect materials from water or fire damage that may occur in the units above it, says Joe Huberty, a partner at Engberg Anderson. Architects also can make peace and find the best solutions for all those concerned, says Humphries Poli Architects principal Dennis Humphries. This holds true even in a good relationship, says Mary Stein, interim codirector of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library (EBRPL), LA. Stein also is assistant library director over administration and the manager of the EBRPL’s main library, which is being replaced at another site in a parish park.

“Our architect described it as follows: ‘this is basically a marriage, and we are all bringing something to the table,’?” Stein says. “The architect was like the premarital counselor making sure we worked things through.”

Piles of paperwork will define the partnership, first with a broadly written agreement that states what each partner brings to the building and mutual goals, says KCLS’s Johnson. Each partner must narrow down goals to four to six top priorities that will guide future discussions and resolve disagreements, says Bruce Flynn, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture.

Once the initial agreement is approved by the library board and other decision-makers, staff will hammer out an interlocal agreement spelling out the details, Johnson says. The agreements should set clear time lines and hierarchies for making decisions, says Mindy Linetzky, who oversaw construction or renovation of 24 libraries for the Department of Public Works City and County of San Francisco, including two partnerships.

Cost limits and the handling of finances should be in the agreements, says GCPLD’s Shelley. Libraries sharing a building will sign a lease or condo agreement that addresses maintenance costs and dissolution of the partnership, if necessary. “You have to have a structure in place to work out the things you didn’t even think of,” Schaper says.

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