Connect, Create, Collaborate: Think Locally, Act Locally!

Now that fall has arrived and school has started again, life is returning to normal after a hectic summer. I just reached my two-year anniversary at my library (the longest I’ve ever worked for one organization!), so I’m finding myself in a contemplative mood, reflecting on what I’ve accomplished and where I’d like to go from here. With everyone back in town after summer vacations, it seems like it’s time to connect or reconnect with other youth-serving organizations in my community.

While building these connections can take time, I know that they’re going to help me reach teens who aren’t already using the library — and that’s how I make my program grow! When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I just think about it in small steps: I have time for one extra email today. I can make time for a meeting this month. I can work on this project for these fifteen minutes I have before lunch, and if I do that each day this week, I’ll have made significant progress.

From the start I’ve had a pretty good relationship with our high school. They have a stellar head librarian (Michelle Luhtala — one of the most recent winners of the I Love My Librarian Award), and I’ve also been invited to monthly Reading Team meetings where teachers across disciplines discuss reading strategies and how to incorporate them into different kinds of classes. It’s sometimes not always apparent how what they’re talking about applies to my work at the town library, but through these regular meetings, I’ve gotten to know a couple of teachers, including one who wants to create a digital civics textbook with video and audio recordings of local elected officials talking about what their job responsibilities are and how they fit in to the rest of the town’s government. The project was put on hold over the summer, but our next Reading Team meeting is this week, and I can’t wait to get back in touch with her and see how we can work together! Sometimes connections can yield unexpected opportunities.

The middle school in my town has been a tougher nut to crack. The teachers are harder to get in touch with and the librarians are more overworked, but I had a breakthrough last spring when I was invited to speak to every incoming 7th and 8th grader about our summer reading club. Participation increased 60% over the previous year, and now I’ve started to establish a relationship with the head librarian. To strengthen that connection, I’ll be spending an hour or two a week at the circulation desk at the middle school library, which will put me in contact with students I don’t ever see at the town library, teachers, staff members, and parent volunteers. I’m really looking forward to making those connections and spreading the word to new people about what we’re doing at my library.

But it’s not just the schools that have regular contact with teens: we have a teen center and a YMCA that I need to approach. There’s a parochial school across the street whose kids we see every afternoon, but we don’t have a formal relationship with the teachers administration there. There are a number of private schools in town that have their own libraries and librarians but who may still be interested in working together on a joint summer reading list or a One Book, One Town project. I just need to get to know those people and make those connections!

It’s possible — probable! — that not every connection will yield some interesting new project or bring a lot of teens into my library, but they might be a springboard to a new connection that yields more fruit. Or they may fizzle entirely, but that’s the risk we run for anything we do. (Hands up if you’ve had a program that no one showed up for!)

One of the new connections that I’m most excited about is the one I’m building now with the librarian at a residential drug treatment facility and psychiatric hospital in town. We’re still in the early stages of getting to know one another and coming up with ways to work together, but by the end of the school year, I’m hoping that we’ll have had her teach a class at my library on how to find accurate medical information and that I’ll have gotten to do a book talk or a book discussion with the teens living at her facility. In the mean time, we’ll be exchanging emails and ideas and I’ll be sending donated books to her to supplement her collection.

I’m still in the early stages of building connections to other youth-serving organizations in town, and I sometimes rely on other people to be my bridge. For example, one of my TAB members is also on the student governing board of the teen center, so she keeps me informed about what they’re planning. Another TAB member is on the student council at the high school. And, of course, I rely on our reference librarians to connect me to parents looking for books for their kids and on the children’s librarians to connect me with tweens who are ready to start exploring what our YA collection has to offer.

Because I’m still pretty new to my library, I feel very much like I’m still building our teen services program. I think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on what’s going on within our walls (and within our control — like our newsletters and web content and so on), so now it’s time to really hit outreach efforts hard. I want to make connections with lots of other organizations so that I can bring the message of the library to as many teens as possible — especially the ones who aren’t already library users.

But most of my connections are still fledgling ones, so I’m looking to more experienced librarians for ideas and models. Have you partnered with another organization (maybe a detention center, an alternative school, or a Head Start group)? Have you made connections that you weren’t necessarily expecting to be helpful but that turned out to be a great opportunity? Do you know of other libraries who are making interesting connections? Let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Connect, Create, Collaborate: Think Locally, Act Locally!

  1. Gretchen, thank you for sharing! As a GSLIS students at the University of Illinois, planning to become a youth services librarian at a public library, I found this post to have a wealth of inspiration. It is so important for the youth services librarian to connect with the schools in his or her town. I really appreciate all of the relationships that you are building with other librarians in your community. It’s very cool to see how you have broken through at the middle school and are beginning to develop your relationship with students and staff.

    Best of luck to you this year!

    • I’m really glad this post inspired you, Lindsay! I you want to dig deeper into school/library partnerships, check out Tasha Squires’s Library Partnerships: Making Connections Between School and Public Libraries (Information Today, Inc., 2009 — ISBN 9781573873628). I read it when I was in library school and found it thought-provoking, and I’ve since revisited it as a working librarian.

  2. Thanks for the great post Gretchen. It can be difficult sometimes to build relationships in the community, but the benefits of the relationships far outweigh the challenges to making them happen. The fall issue of YALS, which should be in YALSA member mailboxes in mid-October, is all about advocacy. There’s an article by Maureen Hartman titled, Great Teen Librarians Make Great Library Advocates that is a really good companion to this post. YALSAblog readers will definitely want to check it out.

  3. Thank you so much for the great and inspiring post! You’re focus on making connections with not only the schools, but other organizations that interact with teens really showed how you are trying so many different ways to find out not only what the teens want/need. I love how even though you’ve made connections with some organizations, you are still looking forwards to look for ways to continue to improve you’re relationships with your community. And even though some have been put on hold you’re not giving up. Its hard when you’re jumping into a new situation where you need to forge your own way, but i hope that your endeavors this year are successful.

    Good luck with all you do this year!

  4. @Maggie: Thanks so much! I think you’re right — it’s important to always be looking for ways to do more, or to do new things, even if what you’re doing now is working. Until I have my finger in every pie in town, I’m not going to stop! ;)

    Thanks a lot for the encouragement. Most of the time I feel really good about my job and the work I do, but sometimes it can be tough to feel like I’m making any progress. Being able to talk about it with other people, hear abou their experiences, and encourage each other always lifts my spirits and helps me find new things to try.

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