March 16, 2018

If You Don’t Have Time for Partnerships, Chances are Your Community Won’t Have Time for You

Nancy Dowd

Nancy Dowd

I recently attended three award ceremonies for Library Journal’s LibraryAware Community Award at the Canton, MI, Skokie, IL, and Hartford, CT public libraries. For all three, the community has stood up to say they value all the services the library provides to the community. The competition was tough: more than 100 libraries applied for the award. With so many communities supporting the library, you would think we are in the golden age of libraries. And yet just this past January the Pew Institute report, Library Services in the Digital Age, stated that only 22 percent of those surveyed say that they know all or most of the services their libraries offer now. Ouch. Okay, so there’s still work to be done. But perhaps the work isn’t what you might expect.

According to Library Journal’s survey, most libraries aren’t satisfied with the results of their promotional efforts. Next month I’ll be writing about the discrepancy between the ways libraries choose to promote their library and the results (or lack of results) they are having. Before we can have that discussion though, it is important to understand that awareness will never fully be achieved with promotion alone.  The secret to Canton, Skokie, Hartford and other libraries’ success with community awareness starts with one word: partnerships.

Plain and simple, libraries that are valued by their communities involve the people, local groups and government agencies in developing services and programs. If you don’t have the right programs and services, people won’t care. If people don’t care, they won’t pay attention. And if they don’t pay attention, they’ll just keep thinking the library is doing the same things it was doing last time they visited.

Four Tips to Ensure Your Community is “Library Aware”

Susan Conlon

As a result of supporting a local teen’s vision to make a difference, 2009 LJ Mover and Shaker Susan Conlon hosted the seventh annual Princeton Public Library Environmental Film Festival.

1. Ask, even if you think you know the answer

When Skokie saw that small businesses needed propping up due to the economic downturn, the library staff reached out to the local Chamber of Commerce. With the Chamber’s guidance, they were able to build a business center that truly met the needs of the small businesses. The result was a board room that reflected success, where small businesses could host meetings, and a separate meeting room where they could give presentations to larger groups. The furniture conveyed success, the equipment was top notch, and of course, there is a computer where businesses could access library resources. The center was a success even before the doors were opened and continues to be a valuable resource for the business community. Skokie’s staff commits 6 percent of their time to developing relationships with community groups.

Gang Wise Flyer

The Ocean County Library collaborated on county and state levels – the combined knowledge resulted in a powerful program called Gang Wise.

2. Empower your community

New Jersey’s Princeton Public Library (PPL), 2013 recipient of the ALA/Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award,  has made partnerships practically an art form. Many of the library’s most successful programs were initiated by someone coming to the library with an idea. The beauty of what they do is how they allow people to keep ownership of their idea. The library’s annual Environmental  Film Festival was started at the suggestion of a local student, and Pi Day by that of a local business person. PPL has developed a culture where the community is comfortable proposing, participating, and partnering  with the library.

3. Don’t go it alone

When New Jersey’s Ocean County Library (OCL)  wanted to educate the community about gangs and offer advice to parents and teens about avoiding them, the staff looked to collaborate with other agencies with similar goals to pool the area’s collective knowledge and support to present a powerful series called, Gang Wise. They have continued those partnerships to present the training in Spanish.

Jennifer Velasquez

LJ Mover and Shaker Jennifer Velasquez listened to teens at San Antonio Public Library so that their ideas will be incorporated into the new teen center.

4. Teens want a voice too         

The San Antonio Public Library’s teen focus groups’ ideas provided the vision for a “state-of-the-art” 21st century space where teens can do homework. But it also includes a kitchen so they can learn to cook nutritious meals and a technology space that lets them learn to be “content creators and contributors.”

The size of your library won’t determine the quality of your partnerships. A library that is committed to listening to its community is taking the first step to building community awareness.

This article has been corrected to list four tips, not five, and to list Canton in Michigan rather than Ohio.

Nancy Dowd About Nancy Dowd

Nancy Dowd is the co-author of ALA’s bestselling book, Bite-Sized Marketing: Realistic Solutions for Overworked Librarians. She has recently joined NoveList as the product lead for the development of a new marketing tool to help libraries promote their programs, products and services. She writes the The M Word Blog and has spoken on the topic of marketing throughout the US and in Canada and Europe. As director of marketing for the New Jersey State Library she won many marketing awards including ALA’s John Cotton Dana Award.



  1. Great ideas, Nancy. I want to make sure that readers know that the Canton Public Library in Canton, Michigan, was the recipient of a LibraryAware Community Award. Thanks!

  2. So, where is #3?

  3. There’s certainly a lot to learn about this issue. I really like all of the points you have made.

  4. Elizabeth Neill says:

    I’d love to learn more about the Ocean County Library’s “Gang Wise” program; I imagine a lot of libraries would be interested in duplicating it.