Libraries work because we do! Workplace wellness plants the seed

Gale Bacon has been the library director in the city of Belgrade, Montana, since 2006. Gale said, “personally, I’m a strong wellness advocate, I walk my talk, I workout every day, so I see the benefit and the value in it. I also very much advocate for workplace wellness. It’s just a part of how I live and work and breathe.”

Gale’s advocacy for workplace wellness inspires her employees to see their work in a new light. Gale said that her passion for workplace wellness and fitness leads her to make different choices than other library directors that she knows. She said, “I think that because I had an interest or a passion in this, it made it easier for my programming staff to say, ‘this is something that we care about, this is something that is on our radar.'”

By making wellness a priority, Gale created space for her staff to also make wellness a priority, not only in their lives, but also in their programs and partnerships. Gale said, “other library directors are very strong, for example, in technology. And so their technology and their technology programs are probably amazing. This just happens to be something that I care about. And so we’ve gotten more involved in it.”

Since college, Gale has been personally interested in fitness, becoming a part-time fitness instructor at a YMCA. One of her first jobs was at a medical device company in Minneapolis. There, Gale led after-hours aerobic programs for employees as part of the company’s workplace wellness program. Later, when Gale was raising her kids, she continued to lead fitness classes at churches and other community centers.

Eventually, Gale became a branch librarian in the Minneapolis area, but continued to lead fitness classes on the side. When Gale became a library director, she wanted to bring the worlds of librarianship and worlds of wellness together. She said “there was a desire for some fitness programming that we were picking up on” in the community. Gale said that given “the size and type of our library, the community looks to us to be not only as the library, but also as a community hub.”

Since Gale’s duties as library director precluded her from always leading the classes, she did some research and discovered they could use the library’s public performance licenses to play a self-paced DVD for aerobic workouts in the library’s meeting room. Gale said, “I attracted more of those 50 and older to do the workout [at the library], because it’s non-threatening, and because it’s self-paced.”

After doing the DVD-based exercise classes for five years, Gale thought people might be bored with it. But when she pivoted to offering something different “I got phone calls from the people in [the class] and they were like, ‘No, we really want this program, we want you to bring it back. Now that we have this little group of people, we feel comfortable together, we feel not threatened, we don’t feel challenged. It’s free, it’s affordable, it’s also not going to the health club and standing next to a 25 year old and going through all that. And we’re just really comfortable with it. And we want you to continue it.’ so we did.”

Gale also makes a point of supporting wellness among her staff. She recalled that during the COVID lockdown, “we were all reading about or hearing about mental capacity issues that have arisen. So the first thing I said is, every one of my staff was entitled to a 20 minute walk break sometime in the afternoon, in addition to your lunch break or your coffee break. I told the city manager this is important. We’re going to be hunkered down at our computers, we’re going to be more virtual than ever before, they have got to get up and walk away from their desk, and he had no problem with it.”

With Gale’s encouragement library staff have led or gotten involved in a range of wellness initiatives, which we will explore in further detail in this case study.

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)

Key Take-Aways:

– Fostering a community culture of health can start within institutions.

– Supporting library staff can empower them to start new partnerships

– Supporting health in your library can empower potential partners to see your library as a health partner

– Staff wellness leads to community wellness

Background: 2015’s Best Small Library in America

When the Belgrade Community Library was named as the “Best Small Library in America in 2015,” Library Journal proclaimed that the library “leverages partnerships to deliver award-winning service.”

Since 2006, when Gale came to the community, Belgrade has grown and shifted from a small agricultural town to a diverse community of more than 10,000 in the exurbs of nearby Bozeman.

In accepting the award, Gale said that, “This library thrives because it truly lives up to its name as the Belgrade Community Library. The success of the library comes from the people who believe in that library. They give their time, they give their skills, they give their talent. Ironically, I would like to spend a lot more time out there nurturing and building those relationships, but we are so short-staffed that I don’t feel I have the freedom to be out of the building as much as I probably should. Still, a great product like ours sells itself.”

By empowering her staff and volunteers to be the face of the library, and supporting them in their work, Gale has created a culture of excellence, in which health partnerships flourish.

Belgrade Community Library
  • Location: Belgrade, MT
  • Population: 11,966
  • Service Area: 12,960
  • Demographics: 94% White, 2% American Indian, 2% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 8
  • Operating Budget: $630,450
  • Annual Library Visits: 65,261
  • Annual Programs: 365
  • Annual Program Audience: 9,740

Setting staff up for success

As part of her focus on workplace wellness, Gale says it is critical to focus on positive onboarding and retention for staff, providing them a framework to succeed, instead of making them flounder trying to “figure it out” by themselves.

For instance, when Benjamin Elliott joined the library in 2019 he was enrolled in a community development course organized through the chamber of commerce. The course had a cohort process and enabled Benjamin to immediately make a lot of community relationships he has been able to use in his programming.

Benjamin said it also helped immensely that his predecessor kept detailed records on community contacts that we was able to pick up and mobilize immediately.

The library’s binders of documentation ensures that if a staff member leaves, or is sick, there is no break in services or partnerships. In this binders, staff essentially describe the work that they do, and who they do it with.

Kathleen Godfrey is the library’s Circulation Specialist. She said that, “several staff members have been shown the basics of what to do, so that if we have an absence, we don’t necessarily have to cancel the program.”

Gale herself embraces this ethos by filling in at the circulation desk as needed. Rather than get caught up on staff roles, everyone pitches in at this library.

Where will it lead? Library seen as critical community partner

This section shows the “action” part of this case study, and how Gale supported her staff by giving them freedom to step into partnership & leadership roles, particularly during the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020.

Lida Beedy and her husband run the Belgrade Senior Center. Lisa said, “it’s just the two of them, plus a lot of volunteers.”

In September 2020, Lisa tested positive for COVID-19, causing her to be unable to participate in the meals on wheels service the senior center ramped up during the pandemic.

To ensure a minimal disruption in community services, Lisa called her key community contacts to let them know what had happened, and to brainstorm about what they could do to keep services going.

One of Lisa’s first phone calls was to Sarah Creech, then Adult Services and Cataloging Librarian in Belgrade.

When Lisa joined the senior center in July 2017, she wanted to rebuild its membership and to do so went looking for “community minded people” and Sarah was exactly that.

Since then, the two worked closely on everything from Yoga classes to a large annual senior expo at the library.

Lisa said “Sarah has her finger on the pulse” of what’s going on in the community, and has been able to bring a lot of resources into the community.

Lisa said that historically the library had always brought books over to the senior center, but that was the extent of the relationship.

With the support of Gale Bacon, who gave Sarah a lot of freedom and autonomy, Sarah, Lisa, and Andrea ‘Andi’ Salsbury from a regional non-profit started meeting regularly to brainstorm ways to work together to support older adults. They now work together closely on almost everything, and even when something is offered solely by the library or solely by the senior center, they always cross-promote each others’ offerings.

“It takes a village,” said Lisa.

Action Steps: Getting Started and Conclusions