Orchestrate and organize to launch and sustain bold new initiatives

The success of the Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, Illinois comes down to a culture in which library staff are empowered and supported in launching bold new initiatives by changing how they work: Shifting from dedicating their time to direct service provision to orchestrating and organizing, typically in close collaboration with a range of community partners.

In 2004, Carole Medal became the Executive Director of the Gail Borden Public Library District. She came on board one year after the library’s current main branch opened to the public in 2003. She immediately wanted to get the library more involved in what was happening in the community, and of the library’s first successes came in 2005 with Dinos on Parade and African Dinosaurs @ Gail Borden Library. By joining and helping to lead this city-wide initiative to increase knowledge about paleontology, Medal and the Gail Borden Public Library cemented its reputation as a community-engaged public library.

The initiative also transformed how the library operates. For the first time, the library relied on a large number of volunteers. For the first time, the library participated in and helped to lead a large, multi-sector community effort.

Mounting a museum-quality exhibit in a public library is a challenge. Leading a community-wide public art initiative as a public library as a challenge. Doing this work requires trying new things and new ways of working.

Hundreds of volunteer docents were trained to take people through the library’s exhibit. Also for the first time the library worked with others in the community on a large, public event.

Looking back on that history, Danielle Henson, retired community collaboration coordinator for the library, reflected that “I don’t know any other library that did something that interactive and integrated into the community the way she did at that time.”

As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, “Dinos on Parade was Elgin’s first community art project tied into a Gail Borden event or summer reading program. A total of 26 fiberglass dinos were sponsored, embellished, and then sold at auction. Many are still found at various sites in Elgin.”

The relationships formed by this initiative, and the changed orientation to working with community that resulted, planted seeds that led to the library getting involved in a broad range of community health initiatives.

After Dinos on Parade started to wrap up, Danielle Henson and the library leadership sought to permanently transform how the library supports community volunteers. It was not easy – at least not at first.

Henson recalled that many parts of the library were at first wary of having volunteers come into their departments. They feared that if volunteers started to do some of their work, they themselves could be seen as obsolete. It took time and support to help library workers see that volunteers did not make them redundant. It instead freed up library workers to do more creative work with community partners.

For instance, Glenna Godinsky, Life Enrichment Coordinator for older adults, trains and supervises hundreds of volunteers who go out and provide high quality library programs and services in older adult care communities. Glenna is the facilitator, not the direct service provider. Librarians now often work as community organizers, orchestrating services rather than directly delivering them.

This model, which started in Dinos on Parade, has transformed how this library operates.

Let’s look below at how this process worked in Elgin, and how it may in your community as well.

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:

– Hitch your wagon to where there is a lot of community energy and need

– Don’t be afraid to try new things, and to change how you work to be able to do them

– When something is working, look for ways to transform your organization around that success

– Embrace the idea that what you do out in the community is at least as important as what you do inside your buildings

– Work smarter by tapping into volunteerism in your community

Background on the Gail Borden Public Library District

The Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, Illinois, serves the fifth largest population in Illinois, and is known nationally for its innovation in community engagement: In 2021, the library received one of two honorable mentions in Library Journal’s prestigious annual Jerry Klein Community Impact Prize.

Around 2010, the library fundamentally changed its organizational structure to prioritize community engagement and community partnerships. For the first time, the library created staff positions for employees whose job would be to work out in the community, rather than at a branch or bookmobile.

One of those new employees is Glenna Godinsky, Life Enrichment Liaison for the library, hired in 2016. As was noted when she received an award for being one of Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers in 2020, “she and her team of 22 volunteers have traveled to 23 locations across Elgin, IL, every month to bring rich programming to seniors and developmentally disabled youth and adults. In 2019, they provided 368 programs to 4,772 people—a value of $71,580—on a shoestring budget. Her volunteers donated 1,028 hours of time, worth an additional $26,123.”

This screenshot of the library’s website illustrates how Glenna Godinsky does her work – through volunteers and partners.

In addition to Godinsky, engagement librarians include Julia Langlois, Elementary Education Librarian, and Tina Viglucci, Hispanic Services Librarian.

Describing her work, Langlois said that over the years she and her colleagues have come to learn that “little did we know that being outside the library was more important than being inside the library. And if you want to transform yourself, this is the way to do it.”

As these new positions were being created, so too was the size of the library. In 2009 the library opened a second branch – The Rakow Branch Library – and in 2016 the library opened a third branch, the South Elgin Branch.

This physical and personnel expansion of the library out into the community dovetailed with the expansion of the city of Elgin and surrounding Kane County, which grew from 317,471 to 516,522  between 1990 and 2020.

  • Location: Elgin, IL
  • Population: 113,177
  • Service Area: 144,597
  • Demographics: 55% White, 5% African American, 1% American Indian, 5% Asian, 47% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 132
  • Operating Budget: $13,492,097
  • Annual Library Visits: 545,578
  • Annual Library Programs: 2,141
  • Annual Program Audience: 69,056

From a library thing to a ‘community thing’

In terms of health promotion, one of the library’s signature partnerships is Activate Elgin, “an initiative to engage all sectors of the community to work in harmony providing all residents with opportunities to improve their health, well-being, and overall quality of life.” Activate Elgin began in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the public library got involved, and it wasn’t until a few years later that the library started becoming a critical partner in the overall coalition.

As the library got started working on Activate Elgin, it found itself working with many of the same partners the library had worked with on 2005’s Dinosaur initiative, including the local school district, the YMCA, and the city of Elgin. The relationships formed on the Dinosaur initiative spilled over into the library’s involvement in this community health group.

According to a 2018 webinar on the Activate Elgin Coaltion, Gail Borden Public Library District, Elgin Parks and Recreation, and Presence Saint Joseph’s Hospital work together to build valuable programs promoting health and wellness by collaborating among themselves and also collaborating with a ton of community partners. Gail Borden Public Library District joined community network Activate Elgin in 2007 to develop and launch March Into Health, an annual series of programs celebrating National Nutrition Month. Throughout March, thousands of attendees benefit from multi-generational, bilingual and multi-instructional presentations, classes, and events highlighting local wellness resources.

Here’s how the library got started with Activate Elgin, according to Danielle Henson: “Gail Borden Public Library sits at many tables in the district including Kane County Health Department (KCHD Executive Committee and KCHD sub-committees. Erin Donlan, Information Services Librarian, serves  on KCHD Executive Committee I serve on the KDHD  Community Health Council.  Activate Elgin is a coalition of health and fitness organizations engaging all sectors in the community to provide free healthy lifestyle and wellness education to build a healthy Elgin. We see these health and education initiatives as a natural fit for us as we support literacy and overall community vibrancy.”

Henson added, “I think community engagement, as we were experiencing it, became obvious to more people in the library, like this is where libraries are headed. At the time we were developing that relationship with Activate Elgin, I was also creating the walking book club with my partner, Nancy.” Learn more about the library’s Walking Book Club in this American Library Association webinar.

As the library pivoted from doing library things to community things (like Activate Elgin), library staff also realized that many of their partners had the same priorities around community engagement that they did. For instance, Randy Reopelle, retired Elgin Parks and Rec Director, looked back on the history of the Activate Elgin Committee in this way:

“Part of the requirement [of the funders] was they wanted to see partnerships. I wrote grants for the Parks and Rec department through the Army Corps of Engineers, and to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And often there was a question, ‘do you have any other partners’ and  you got more points for partnerships. So whether that’s a partnership for Activate Elgin, or if it would be a partnership for the city, if I had other partners, people that I could pull in there and again, I could put that on this application. But if you can figure out how they do that the partnership thing can get to some really good points, not to mention, you know, just another set of eyes and ears about the project community.”

The success of the library’s involvement in Activate Elgin had broad ripple effects, including:

  • The opportunity for library staff to collaborate with staff from the local hospital, and parks & recreation on presentations on their model made at both national and state-wide forums
  • Close working relations with city leadership in Elgin. In fact, Mayor David Kaptain and his wife are both active members of Activate Elgin and continued to participate in the library’s walking book club, even during the COVID-19 Pandemic, when social distancing was in effect for this outdoor program.
  • A transformation in the library’s services for Latinx populations, with family programming launched during Activate Elgin’s March into Health celebration at the library paving the way for a much larger focus on family programming system wide

Where will it lead? Continuing to collaborate during a pandemic

During the pandemic, a lot of the library’s initiatives ground to a halt. The State of Illinois had a strict lock-down and as such the library was closed to both staff and to the public. During these trying times, the library realized that its volunteer workforce could be productively redirected to where the need was. Julia Langlois recalled that based on the strength of the library’s relationship with the local food bank, library volunteers (who numbered in the thousands) were encouraged to, if they felt safe, volunteer at the food bank, which was in desperate need of assistance as food insecurity increased during the pandemic’s disruptions to global food supply.

Miriam Lytle, who oversees the library’s Community Services & Program Services team, described how the library works, in bad times and good, “We are part of a network, we are not the big enchilada alone here, we’re all part of the network. And I think that perception of seeing ourselves as not isolated has developed over time. When I first started here, in 2004, it was a very ivory tower isolated type [of library]. It took a new director with a new direction for it to become what we are today. And, we’re not a huge library in comparison to some of the big, big systems by any means. But being connected with the community is what it’s all about.”

Miriam and Julia embrace the idea that library work is a team sport. And the team includes both library employees as well as library patrons, many of whom are also library volunteers.

Action Steps: Getting Started as an Orchestrator/Organizer

The success of the Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, Illinois comes down to a culture in which library staff are empowered and supported in launching bold new initiatives by changing how they work: Shifting from dedicating their time to direct service provision to orchestrating and organizing, typically in close collaboration with a range of community partners.

Action steps:

  • The library got started in this work by hitching its wagon to a community effort to increase education on dinosaurs.
    • Are there large community efforts you could hitch your wagon too? Where is there energy in your community you could help organize and orchestrate, and in the process transform how you work?
      • Which organizations are doing work you want to expand? Reach out to see if you can collaborate on expanding services through combined staff/volunteeer availability and resources.
  • A smaller way to get started is to engage your library staff around the question of volunteers. Everyone in libraries knows there is way too much work for the amount of time: How can you and your library work smarter by tapping into the goodwill of volunteerism in your community?
  • If you work in admin, help create and support a culture of collaboration between library staff and community partners. Working together helps the community!

Learn more in our Cultivating the Relationship-Driven Library Toolkit, in part around the experiences of the Gail Borden Public Library District.

Learn more about this library

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