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The Partnership Parade: Teaming up for Sustainable Summer Library Services

As the final school bells of the year begin to ring, a collective sigh slinks its way through the ranks of youth library workers everywhere. Some are in relief: we’ve planned it all and we’re ready to go. Some are riddled with stress: did we do enough? Are we really ready to take on our role as informal educators for the next three months? The start of Summer Reading, Summer with the Library, Summer Learning, and every other name umbrellaed by conjoining the wide-ranging ideas of ‘reading’ ‘learning’ and ‘libraries’ is upon us, and though we might be ready for all that summer brings, are the families in our communities also prepared on the same page?

For many families, the start of summer brings to fruition feelings of joy, rest, warmth, and exploration, but for many others it also brings to the forefront unique insecurities and unsureness. Children who were being fed at school every day may now have limited access to nutritious breakfasts, lunches, and/or dinners. Children who were engaged in learning are now left to their own devices, and guided education is put on hold for numerous weeks. In underserved communities, the equity gaps grow larger. More demanding questions now bubble to the surface: how can we even begin to get a handle on all of these new troubles? How can we provide library services that help reduce the number of families being left behind? The answer is: not alone.

Partnerships and collaborations are vital for any public library, but during the summer they become even more critically important. Librarians are asked all year round to take on social services that they may not be equipped to handle, and yet they rise to the challenge and attempt to offer whatever help they can to their communities. By collaborating with local organizations that already serve children and families, some of the pressure can be lifted off the shoulders of library workers, and more sustainable programs can be developed and employed.

City Support and Summer Feeding Programs

I enjoy likening building partnerships to running a parade in which one great collaboration can lead to acquiring other partners with related goals, who then hop in to support new or ongoing programs. Some of the following suggestions may not work in all libraries, (urban, suburban, and rural communities all have different resources available to them), but the idea of getting the ball rolling and then keeping it going remains the same throughout.

Here’s how my library’s ‘Parade’ began: In our small historic city of New Castle, Delaware, we were able to forage strong partnerships with schools through the help of just one key local resource: our city council. Any library is lucky to have the support of its city, but having a councilperson who is easy to reach and eager to combine efforts to improve the lives of underserved families in their community can be even more of a boon. 

This councilperson was able to connect us with the local school summer feeding program, by bringing our location to the program coordinator’s attention. We of course let them know that this is something we wanted to do, but the sheer speed of the responses we got was a stark difference in what we’re used to experiencing, which is usually a disheartening series of emails that are never answered, or phone calls that lead nowhere. By having a city official vouching for the library and being the connection between the library and school system, we were able to have productive talks and put together a plan for summer lunch pickup at the library. This program is now fully supported by the school, and there is a plan to continue in summers to come.

Summer Outreach

Once summer feeding became a service we could reliably provide, we were then able to tack on more related services, and develop an entire library outreach program around it. Due to the library’s limited ability to store hot food items, we are only able to provide lunches on Tuesday and Friday; however, we reached out to the Food Bank of Delaware, securing another partnership which will provide cold lunches for the other days of the week. Now we find ourselves with a lot of great resources to help our families, and are turning to figuring out how to get the news out to our families.

As anyone with a passion for serving underserved communities will tell you, the best way to reach families in these communities is by meeting them where they are, which is why I developed our “Library on the Loose” program. The first day of this program will play out in June, but the idea is that we will be bringing the library to key neighborhoods in our community. The plan is a fun outdoors event, where we visit two separate locations on the day we’re out, staying for an hour at each location. In that hour, we’ll be giving out free books, ice cream coupons (in partnership with a local restaurant, also secured by our councilperson), signing children up for library cards, and providing all of our summer lunch program information.

Another example of partnerships feeding into even more connection building opportunities – our local police force caught wind of our joint outreach program with the city, and decided they wanted in too! Now children will be able to meet their local city council and police, and see how there are people in their community that are looking out for them and truly care to speak with them.

Bottom Line: We’re Stronger Together

Public libraries have taken on their new role as community centers in stride, but as the problems of our patrons persist and compound, and a lack of government programs to assist them remains, we would do better to lean on our partners rather than trying to tackle everything on our own. Today we’re focusing on programs for summer that we can continue to offer year to year, but these partnerships will certainly stretch throughout the year, morphing to accommodate our community’s needs far beyond these next summer months.

This post addresses ALSC Core Competencies I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, and V. Outreach and Advocacy.

Ewa Wojciechowska is a Youth Services Librarian at the New Castle Public Library in Delaware and a member of ALSC’s Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers Committee. All views in this blog post are her own.

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