A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Grab Your Partner

by Marcia Warner on April 30, 2013

What makes a good community collaboration? At the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Library (GRPL), we’ve had partnerships where the library does all the work and the community partner slaps its name on it, as well as incredibly fruitful, long-lasting partnerships that make you want to believe in marriage again. Some will argue, rightfully so, that I am referring to a range of possibilities here that include cooperation and coordination rather than strict collaboration. But I am encouraging working together, not just giving a paper at a conference.

GRPL collaborations typically sort themselves into five categories:

  1. Governmental—such as parks and recreation departments and city town halls
  2. Cultural—visual and performing arts and museums
  3. Grass roots—farmers markets, neighborhood and local business associations, community clubs, festivals and fairs
  4. Networks—social services, homeless agencies, and nonprofits
  5. Educational—day care centers, schools, and universities

GRPL has partnered on movies, speakers, political panels, informational town halls, parties, programs, and anything else you can think of that would further the cause of literacy, books, information, or the library as a community institution. We have cosponsored events with bars, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, cheese makers, the ballet, and—just to cover the A to Z angle—ambulance services and the zoo.

One of the most important ways collaborations help the public library is in achieving the goals of its strategic plan. These visionary documents often include collaborations as a goal in and of themselves. If yours doesn’t specifically, breaking down community barriers or silos will help you meet other goals and expectations that are a part of your plan. To be truly strategic, a plan and its goals need to place the library within the larger context of the community.

Collaborations also recognize and capitalize on the changed or preferred work styles of our younger library workers. Every staff member at every level has a responsibility to reach out and communicate the library message to their family and social networks, whether virtual or physical. Many of our most creative partnerships come from staff members being on boards or members of other organizations.

There are some key ingredients for building lasting relationships with quality partners. These include healthy doses of trust, professionalism, flexibility, mutual benefit, creativity, and common goals. It also requires a paradigm shift from an organization sufficient unto itself, to crowd sourcing, systems thinking, and an appreciation for synchronicity.

One of the beauties of the concept of partnering or collaborating is its scalability. The very smallest library with a part-time manager can do it as well as the very largest library system and vice versa.

Where to start, or where do we go from here?

  1. Take the meeting! One of the best ways to develop collaborations is to take a half hour to meet with someone new. This could be a sales rep from a local news outlet, a community activist, or a self-published author. Also watch the newspapers and journals for new local executives or CEOs. They tend to have collaborated in other communities and bring great new ideas to the table. Some of the best community collaborations come out of taking the time to talk with someone who may not on the surface seem to fit with your mission. Giving a brief history of other community collaborations usually gets the juices flowing and each new encounter takes the ideas in new directions. Of course, leverage your staff’s connections: remember the Connectors,
    Mavens, and Salesmen of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point?1 You have all three to at least some degree among your staff. Map their connections and
    you’ll discover who they are, as well as the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen in your community whom your staff members know, all valuable resources in building collaborations.
  2. Foster a culture of “yes.” There are a million reasons to say no to possible collaborations: time, money, lack of staff, outside of mission, dislike for the person or organization. We found our organization opening up after a communications training session that taught the “yes, and . . . ” principle. “Yes,but” is the equivalent of saying “no.” When an idea is generated, we say “yes, and . . . ” even when we disagree. “Yes” is a powerful word. It opens our minds to possibilities. What would happen if your organizational culture was one of “yes”? Can the North American Choral Company hold their summer day camp in the library? At first this is a no on so many levels I can hardly wrap my mind around it, but after two summers of success where we do summer school homework help and teach computer skills to underprivileged youth, this is a prime example of the power of yes.
  3. Let go of control and order. Ah libraries—their very existence is based on order. But collaborations can be messy with outside people creating and shaping perceptions of the library. Let this happen. This is good. By letting others lead, we grow new audiences and we are seen in a different and often more relevant way. Yes, I do know what you are thinking right now. Let it go. Bring some chaos in. Hold one of our biggest annual programs  offsite? Bring in an unlikely partner? Introduce the concept of zombie preparedness to a culturally and religiously conservative Midwestern town? Sure, if it’s Max Brooks and you’re looking at reaching the greatest number of twentysomething males you’ve ever connected with!
  4. Be willing to let dying collaborations go. It was a good run while it lasted, but when it no longer meets you or your partners’ needs, let it go. Your relationship will be healthier, and you’ll be open and ready for the next collaboration. This takes some occasional finesse with boards, employees, and the external organization. I find that being direct is best and if the partnership does not just die on its own, a gentle explanation that includes the relevant justifications in writing usually does the trick. A variation on number four is the program that becomes so successful that it is no longer possible to hold it in the library. This has been the case with a neighborhood chess club, some summer reading performers, and authors whose fame is more than regional.

Last point, this article is an example in miniature of the impact good collaboration can make. While searching for a topic last week I asked the executive staff to join in and help. We decided on a topic and put an outline on Google Docs. I give many thanks to my colleagues, Kristen Kruger-Corrado and Marla Ehlers, who were collaborators on this article.


  1. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000), 30–88.