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Public Libraries as Partners

Collaborative Initiatives That Serve Local Governments

by Susan Brown

Public libraries can hold a great deal of value for their internal constituencies--local governments and their employees.

Early literacy programs. Community maker spaces. Small business development initiatives. In both traditional and innovative ways, public libraries are creating and delivering value for their communities. More than ever before, today's libraries are identifying the unique goals, hopes, needs, and aspirations of the communities they serve and aligning themselves with them.

While a public library's external community the residents—is the most important constituency, it is not the only group that a library serves. Public libraries can hold a great deal of value for what might be called their internal constituencies—local governments and their employees.

Local governments have their own goals, hopes, needs, and aspirations. Whether a small municipal library, a multi-branch county library system, or a large regional network, public libraries can also do for local governments what they do for resident communities at large: understand and align their goals and create and deliver value.

Here are some practical ways that public libraries might do this for the local governments they serve:

Training resources. Local governments that place an emphasis on employee development and training have a wealth of resources available at the library. From online learning systems like to regular computer classes for all skill levels, many public libraries are already invested in community workforce development and stand ready to help with internal efforts.

Tech initiatives. Whether revamping a website or trying to close the digital divide, local governments working on technology-related initiatives will find tech-savvy professionals at their public library who are attuned to both the back-end, high-tech aspects of a project and the front-end, user experience.

Community outreach. Libraries are bustling community hubs where residents of all ages and stages gather and engage. Local governments seeking to access a broad swath of their community, perhaps for a town hall meeting or a bond referendum information session, can reach a diverse population at and through the library.

Information sources. Librarians connect people to the information they need. Whether a local government is establishing a 411-style information service or considering a larger scale open-data program, librarians are skilled information professionals who can assist and libraries are recognized as trusted community information resources.

These are just a few ways that libraries can collaborate with local government generally. What follows are a few of the ways that one public library specifically has partnered with local government and contributed to its goals and aspirations.

Chapel Hill Public Library (CHPL) is a municipal public library serving Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a college town of some 60,000 people. As a town department, CHPL is, by default, closely aligned with other town departments and staff members. In recent years, CHPL has positioned itself as a key partner in a number of the town's organizational initiatives:

Library accounts for all employees. All of the more than 700 Chapel Hill employees are eligible for a library account at no cost, regardless of where they live, and many live outside the legal service population area. The library made it easier for them to get a card by including an application form in new employee orientation sessions.

Employees fill out the application at the same time as health insurance and tax forms, and CHPL can send them a card using interoffice mail. With it, they have access to a wealth of resources to support their personal and professional goals.

Joint programming. Both the Chapel Hill fire and police departments are focusing on community education and engagement, and the library is working on increasing its capacity for educational programming. Recent programs, including Coffee with a Cop and the Fire Department's "Sci Why&" STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program for upper elementary and middle school students, successfully leveraged the library's space and reach and the fire and police’s subject matter expertise to achieve shared goals.

Open data. In recent years, Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil, along with the town council, have shared a growing interest in increasing transparency and facilitating access to public information. As a trusted community institution whose core values include making information available in a neutral, nonbiased way, CHPL has been a natural candidate to shepherd an open data portal into existence. The site launched this summer at

Leadership resources. One of Manager Stancil's goals is to develop leaders across the organization and at all levels. To help meet this goal, the library contributes a regular “Leaders Are Readers” column in TownTalk, the monthly newsletter for Chapel Hill employees.

The column highlights relevant library resources on everything from presentations and public speaking to stress management and leading change. Since all employees can easily get a card, they can readily access these resources.

While these ideas might seem simple and straightforward, that doesn't mean they will necessarily be easy to implement. While closely collaborating with the library may well be a new idea for local governments and staff, engaging deeply with local governments might be new territory for libraries, too.

Assumptions will need to be tested, mutual learning will be required, silos will need to be broken down, and either side might be met with "No, thanks," before "Yes, please!"

The result of this work, however, is well worth it. When public libraries understand the goals and aspirations of local government and local governments understand the strengths and skills of public libraries, then all boats can truly rise together, thereby creating an environment that brings more value to all — the library, the local government, and all the people they serve together.

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Town of Chapel Hill, NC

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