“There’s lots of ways that things happen in our county” : Making connections to transform health in Anne Arundel County, Maryland

In interviews with library staff and partners about how this goal supports community health, we discovered that this library is not afraid to try new things with partners. In fact, supporting “entrepreneurial staff” is another goal in the library’s strategic plan. But this culture of innovation is balanced with a focus of being aware, deliberate, and intentional in partnership work. The library does not try to be all things to all people, but instead leverages its ever-expanding web of community partners to be creative in developing initiatives and programs to effectively and impactfully meet local needs.

Nancy L. Allred coordinates the Master Garden program for the University of Maryland Extension in Anne Arundel County. In an interview, she shared “there’s lots of ways that things happen in our county.” This ethos was conveyed again and again throughout our conversations in this community. As Rebecca ‘Becky’ Hass, Programming and Outreach Manager, Anne Arundel County Public Library, put it, her job is “scheming on a good day,” being a people person and making connections – bringing people together to get things done.

Let’s take a look at how this work happens, and what you can take back to try at your library.

This case study is part of HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living) at the Library, funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services (# RE-246336-OLS-20)

Learn more about heal at the library >

Key Take-Aways:

Foster effective partnerships by forging community partnerships

– Position the library as a connector and vital community partner

– Support “entrepreneurial staff”

Background / Setting Up the Case Study:

Anne Arundel County Public Library (AACPL) is a public library system located in central Maryland. Established in 1921 as the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Public Library, Inc, the system now includes 16 locations throughout Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Anne Arundel County is located in the U.S. state of Maryland. As of the 2020 United States census, its population was 588,261, an increase of just under 10% since 2010. Its county seat is Annapolis, which is also the capital of the state.

Anne Arundel County is included in the Baltimore–Columbia–Towson metropolitan statistical area, which is also included in the Washington–Baltimore–Arlington combined statistical area.

  • Location: Annapolis, MD
  • Population: 573,235
  • Service Area: same
  • Demographics: 63% White, 17% African American, 4% Asian American, 10% Latinx, 6% Multi-Racial
  • Staff Size: 291
  • Operating Budget: $29, 977,484
  • Annual Library Visits: 1,335,973
  • Annual Programs: 4,967
  • Annual Program Audience: 173,923

A simple strategy to get started: Form letter to introduce the library to prospective partners

In a mostly urban community like Anne Arundel County, there are a nearly limitless number of potential community partners. How do you beat the bushes to figure out who your best partners will be? When the library opened a new branch in a shopping mall, one of the first things staff did was let all the other entities in the mall, as well as surrounding businesses and nonprofits, know that the library was open and ready to work with them.  

Staff from this branch told us that success came through “just reaching out to and asking as many partners as you can, because you know you’re only going to get so many responses back. We have a lot of like outreach email templates for that purpose.” Branch staff went on to share how they developed an email template for a health fair they were organizing at the branch. These templates help the staff do outreach in a quick and easy way – planting the seed of partnership without spending a lot of time meeting one-on-one with every potential partner.

“When we started [the branch at the mall] there were only eight of us. So saving email templates is always helpful to have that in your back pocket. As you do it over and over again, it becomes second nature.” 

As the branch has established itself in the mall, it has used things like these template letters to save time and quickly build up the idea of the library as a community partner. 

These templates do not work by themselves, though. They are combined with library staff eager to connect with potential partners and have more in-depth conversations about how they could work together.

Where will it lead?

When the library is seen as a partner with which other organizations work to figure out how best to support the community, there is no telling where it will lead. But this story from Anne Arundel County illustrates one path the journey may take.

A staff member from the health department stressed that in their coalition meetings library staff contribute in all kinds of different ways, giving this example about how library staff contributed to a community effort to create a food pantry in an urban food desert. The coalition was grappling with the question of “How can we have a better volunteer system?” given that the pantry would require mostly volunteer staffing, and in one of those meetings a librarian shared that they run a volunteer management system. This sharing of knowledge led the health department to “connect with her on how to develop that volunteer system for the food pantry: What kinds of things should we be thinking about, and what kinds of job descriptions. The librarian advised in an important way for that.”

This experience led to other opportunities for the health department and the library to brainstorm together. The health department employee we interviewed shared that “we have a garden right across the parking lot from the library. And they have brainstormed with us multiple times on how they can be involved in that, how they can be a resource for the students who run it. That garden has had tons of challenges and to understand that the library is there as a resource,” means a great deal to the initiative’s success. 

What conversations will you participate in your community? Coming back to the title of this case study, “There’s lots of ways that things happen” in Anne Arundel county, and in all communities. The key lessons are finding easy ways to get the message out that the library wants to collaborate, and then setting up the structures to help support that innovation.

Action Steps:

Getting Started Internally: Changing the Culture of the Library

Interviewees also stressed that the Anne Arundel Public Library has not always functioned this way. Some of the individuals we interviewed shared how the entire culture of the library has evolved over time.

A staff member who had worked at the library for over 20 years at the time of our interview said:

“Earlier in my library experience, I became aware of a pervasive culture predicated on the belief that people are going to try to get away with things – customers are going to try to get away with things and take advantage of you, and therefore here are these policies and procedures which will enable you to suss out those individuals and deny them this opportunity. Over the course of my time at the library, I have found it far more rewarding, fruitful, advantageous, pleasant, and altogether effective, if we instead came to the community with the belief that people are asking for what they need, and they may not use the language, or the specific jargon that you have been trained in. But if you believe that they are asking for what they need, and that they deserve to have it, then you will open up a much richer possibility and dialogue so that you can begin to break down those permeating invisible barriers to access that you didn’t even know.”

This transformation in how library staff engage patrons has parallels to transformations in how the library as a whole engages community partners. This library staff member went on to say her advice for partnership formation is as follows “look for where the conversations are happening. Look for the conversations that lift up the goals for the community. Get a seat at those tables, even be present. Get yourself invited. Any way you can get, start listening to where the conversations are, where people talk about the goals for the community, take that back to your people at the library. And start figuring out how you’re going to support those goals. And then when your library starts supporting those goals? Make sure people know that what you’re doing is not an accident. it’s on purpose.”

Getting Started Externally – Intentionally planting the idea of the library as a partner

 How can we most effectively transform the image of the library so that all organizations and individuals see the library as a critical community partner? Anne Arundel County Library has made progress on this front, but still has work to do.

One library staff member told us that when she joined a community health coalition around 2015 – a coalition in which she continues to be active – that “almost the whole first year, when we met I was asked to explain why the library was there. People would ask “What are you doing here? Like you’re not a member of the community care team?” Those were not the words but it was the sort of questioning? To which I said, “Oh, uh, we are.”

This, finally, is the long-term challenge of this and many other libraries – transforming the perception of the library. The library has begun to do this work with some of its most committed, long-term partners, but more work remains to be done.

One of those long-term partners, from the health department, told us “when I first started out working with the library we were just going there to do program, using them as a location, but now through the depth of the partnerships we are just trying to figure out how else we can work together.” This transformation was accelerated by the health department working side-by-side with library staff on community coalitions, and by the library staff inviting staff from the health department to come to the library administrative offices to discuss “how things are moving forward, like the Healthy Anne Arundel coalition and some of the other things” that the library and the health department were both engaged in.

Additional Resources

During interviews and follow-up emails individuals we interviewed at Anne Arundel County Public Library shared the following resources as critical ones for their process.

  1. Community of Hope Model – The Casey Family Program’s Community of Hope model had a profound influence on this library’s approach to partnership. So much so that library staff actually travelled to Florida to see it in action. Learn more about this model. And learn more about what it means to build communities of hope.
  2. Program Proposal Form – The form that library partners are required to fill out to collaborate with the library.