Adventures in Outreach: Micro Partnerships & Equity

SEA Urban Academy visit to TC & CEN Fall 2010

A partner brings some skeptical-looking teens to the library for a research workshop. (I’m pretty sure we won them over in the end.)

In my last post, I talked about the importance of relationship-building in outreach and community partnerships. It’s not always easy to create the time and space necessary to figure out what a partner organization really needs from the library, but for a strong community partnership, it’s well worth the investment.

But “community partnership” is a pretty vague term. I should probably clarify what I’m talking about.

For me, library partnerships fit into one of two main categories. The first is partnerships with other major organizations, like the symphony, the zoo, or the local school system at the superintendent/library director level. For the sake of this blog post, let’s call them macro partnerships.

Macro partnerships tend to be large in scale (duh), and are often designed to give current library patrons access to cultural or other enrichment that they might not otherwise experience. For example, a library system might partner with an art museum to provide occasional free museum admission for library card holders. This kind of partnership is incredibly important and worthwhile, but in general, it’s not what I’m talking about here.

The second category of community partnerships is the one that I engage in most often: working with nonprofits or government agencies that serve high needs, marginalized, or underrepresented groups. I would also include in this category those crucial partnerships between individual librarians and school teachers.

For fun, let’s call these micro partnerships—not because the organizations involved are necessarily small (though they often are), but because the partnerships tend to be built on relationships between just a few people, perhaps one or two library staff and one or two staff from the community-based org. The library’s goal in creating micro partnerships is usually to serve patron groups that it otherwise struggles to reach; in other words, to promote equity. Micro partnerships are the kind I’ll mainly be addressing in this blog series.

Of course, as I’ve said, building relationships with partners takes time and effort. It’s much easier to create our own programs and services, in our own buildings. So why not leave it at that? Our doors are open to everyone—isn’t that enough?

Well, not really. Because as we all know, it’s harder for some people to get to our doors. Some groups of potential patrons face barriers of income, language, transportation, and a whole host of other factors. So we have to do a little more to reach them.

For example, a library might open its meeting room to host a college application workshop that’s open to everyone. That’s equality, and it’s not a bad thing.

But it’s often the case that the students who are most in need of programs like this one aren’t the ones who attend. We might end up mainly serving students who already have a lot of support in their college application process. Maybe those students were told about the event by their English-speaking parents, or their guidance counselor, or even their hired college admission coach. They may have their own transportation, and fewer after school and weekend responsibilities.

By also hosting the same program at an ethnic community center or in partnership with an organization that serves the rural poor, the library eliminates some of the barriers for underserved students. We commit resources in an attempt to “level the playing field” and promote equity.

Tell me how this looks at your library. What kinds of micro partnerships are you involved in? How are your partnerships helping you reach target audiences? I want to hear all your success stories!

About Hayden Bass

Hayden Bass is a Teen Services Librarian in Seattle. She chairs YALSA's Programming Guidelines Taskforce and is a member of the 2015 Printz Committee.
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