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Outreach in a Box

by on January 6, 2014

Reading the Situation
There are many reasons community partnerships might fail – unclear or undefined roles, an inadequately defined or differently interpreted vision, unfocused or uncommunicated (and thus assumed) hierarchy of leadership and delegation, more hugs than decisions (confusing the goal of collaborating as being collaboration or team work, when it actually should be solutions and results) – but naturally, even get to these, you have to show up. And that was the issue for our library – TIME. These other dilemmas seemed luxurious therapy sessions we could only aspire to. We had scheduled to meet many times (I think about 6-7), but we kept canceling and rescheduling. They are a big non-profit, we’re a big library – we’ve both got big, busy work to do. But we meant well. We really did. But then it just, well, faded and died. And we’re not alone. I’d wager that more attempts at community partnership fail than succeed – though, however conveniently, failures aren’t logged and/or accounted for. And maybe they shouldn’t be.

Blame isn’t Productive
It’s often nobody’s fault, and besides looking for blame  won’t get you anywhere – but we are wired to look for it (and often become stuck there). Typically, after a failure, you’ll process what went wrong, make notes on what/how you might have done things differently and vow not to repeat the missteps. But what do you do if you’re only setting yourself up for failure again, because the variable that killed the project is outside of your control? The more and more we attempt and fail, the more dispirited we will become towards the idea of collaboration, and the less we will pursue – confusing the culprit (so-and-so “dropped the ball,” “they never got back to us”) and missing the diagnosis (they lacked enthusiasm, they were unorganized, etc.).

Embracing Timelessness
After a few community partnership attempts went awry at my library, we came up with an idea.  We were determined to prevent our time challenges from getting in the way of these meetings. Scouring our initial spirited emails (when the idea of collaboration was truly at its more energetic – the courting phase) for language about what we’d hoped a specific collaboration might be or look like, we decided that maybe we didn’t have to meet with these outside organizations at all.  In this car, the organization we wanted to partner with was a neighborhood health association nonprofit that wanted to provide its clientele with community resources and didactic guidance and instruction – so that’s what we did. And that’s when we thought of Outreach in a Box.

The Concept
In essence, the idea and development, is very similar to that of a book group in a box, but more service-oriented and directed. We would pack up a box full of specifically tailored pathfinders, collection spotlights, resource guides, card signup links, and library promo materials. But we also wanted to have a physical presence there – a little satellite library that could maybe even be eventually used as a community reads distribution center, or at least have a more substantial presence than a couple bookmarks and flyers lying on a countertop.

The Design
Inspiration strikes at the most unexpected times. After nailing down the concept – yet still uncertain as to the vehicle that would deliver the most bang for our buck – a friend anecdotally passed on a bit of trivia regarding Chinese takeout boxes being purposefully designed to not only carry (or deliver) the food, but also to serve as plates. And boom, it came to me. The design concept would not just be a Tupperware style/cardboard box, merely transporting the items, but it would also be substantial and attractive (indeed representative of and projecting our library’s branding, colors, fonts, and style) enough for display and to house our materials.

What We Learned
Take the work out of their hands. On the simplest level, this is no different than the literal explication a librarian shares with any patron approaching the reference desk with a question regarding public/social services. Don’t make it more (work) than it really is. Remove the ego, the blame, etc. and focus on the end product. It’s not about whom, it’s about what. We contacted the organization with our idea and they loved it. Our box is in its developmental stages, and I’ll be sure to post once we’ve completed it.