Working with another person or group to produce something — whatever that something might be — is pretty much what I think of as core library business. At least for public libraries anyway. Although it does sometimes feel like no-one knows this except librarians. And even they aren’t always clear on this. But when you look at the breadth and depth of library programs and events across the world, and you hear the stories told by library staff, you realise that the most successful and sustainable programs are those which utilise the strengths of collaboration. Libraries who think of themselves as the connective tissue of a community often seem to be the ones doing the most interesting things in partnership with a whole variety of organisations and at all levels in the community.
Something I have been very proud to have worked on in 2017 was the Keepingalookout.com website. A key concept behind this was collaboration. If we know what others (libraries, local government departments, external agencies) are doing to help support and empower vulnerable and minority communities then we can be inspired, we can reach out, we can try something different and maybe make a difference to someone.
It’s not always easy though, so many people seem shocked when you contact them and ask how you can help them support their communities, or suggest a potential partnership program etc… There is often a moment of ‘I didn’t know libraries did that.’
So how do we go about changing the perception of libraries as centered around a thing, ie. a book, to an organisation centered around values, ie. supporting and empowering community and how does this help with collaboration?
From an architectural point of view the idea of Library as Community Living Room is an interesting take on the concept of connective tissue.
“The building represents a continuous relationship that enables books as a cross-pollinator of activities, binding community individuals together as it evolves and transcends time and history. The place the library generates for its community is not a hollow frame or an architecture of permanence in the city … In this instance, the library becomes an all-inclusive place that forms a connective tissue with the occupant’s activity and experiences.”
But you don’t need a building designed around connecting community to create a library service which becomes that connective tissue. There are so many community groups out there who would be happy to collaborate with libraries. And not just community groups but other Council departments too.
The important thing is to start having the conversations, start thinking about how the library can support the wider community and discover which organisations/groups might be willing to chat about this.
One collaboration which I am particularly proud of, and which is ongoing, is with my library’s local Men’s Shed. They are always on the lookout for community work the men can do together as a project and so we came up with the idea of building Street Libraries and placing them in locations where there are no libraries close by to encourage access, literacy levels etc…
So far the feedback from the public has been positive, however the Men’s Shed has become really invested and are already building their next one! That’s a win to me.
Another interesting collaboration in the works is with the Community Grocer. They are about to start a weekly Pop Up market in Flemington, at a Community Centre right next to Council housing. What a great opportunity to collaborate! The library will Pop Up once a month at the same location, offering a value add to the market and leveraging off the Community Grocer’s audience to connect with people in our community who are often hard to reach. This all happened because I attended an event for local traders and made a point to speak to as many people as I could.
These are small examples, and I have many more. We don’t always have to think big to make a difference. In fact, so often it is the small things which have the most impact on the ground. Simply putting the library out there as an organisation which cares can be eye-opening for many members of the community who don’t know what libraries are like these days.
My philosophy on collaboration is that it is always possible. I also think that it leads to better community outcomes because library staff can sometimes come to think they know their community best, however they often forget (or ignore) those vulnerable or hard to reach groups/individuals who don’t visit a public library for whatever reason. It also gives library staff an opportunity to be inclusive, to encourage diversity and to potentially offer a wider variety of programs/events to their community.
In short, if you aren’t already reaching out to community groups, attending local traders functions and talking to other Council departments about what your library service can offer them then you aren’t doing your community justice.
It doesn’t take much, a conversation to start and before you know it you’ll be neck deep in potential ideas for ways to support and empower your community.
So go on, get out there and collaborate!