A Simple strategy to get started: Ask someone to share their knowledge at the library

Dr. Kevin Siddons came to Bethlehem to study at its prestigious Lehigh University. While working on his Ed.D. in Health Education, Dr. Siddons also nurtured a personal passion for Qigong, a Chinese exercise system somewhat similar to Tai Chi. In his research into Qigong, Dr. Siddons relied on the help of reference librarians at the Bethlehem Area Public Library. Those librarians helped Dr. Siddons locate sources, and access them through interlibrary loan.

One day, a librarian suggested to Dr. Siddons that he share his passion for Qigong at the library. He had never thought of doing that before. He had led classes at a community college, but the idea of teaching at a public library was completely new to him.

Based on that simple suggestion, a multi-year partnership to bring Qigong to the community via the public library came into being. The Qigong classes grew out of the library’s successful Yoga classes, and the institutional expertise developed from that partnership (described below). 

This story could easily have gone in a different direction. The librarian could have been paralyzed by fear of legal liability – what if someone injures themselves and sues the library? – but because the library had established an “open door” ethos in which new ideas could be shared, developed, and implemented, those fears became manageable. Instead the library and Dr. Siddons walked through the open door and into a reality in which Qigong became accessible to the community, including through virtual classes offered during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

In this case study we’ll examine how this library implemented three steps to transform how it collaborates with its community, and how you can too!

  • Ask someone to share their knowledge at the library
  • Establish an “open door” ethos in which new ideas can be shared, developed, and implemented
  • Seek out opportunities to make programs accessible to the community, both in person and online

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)

Location: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (population 75,815)
Service Area (Data from IMLS FY2020 Public Library Survey): 114,175
Demographics: 77% White, 8.5% African American, 30% Hispanic or Latinx population
Staff size: 34.9
Operating budget: $2,728,499
Total library visits: 73,189
Annual programs: 537
Total program audience: 20,098

Located in the Lehigh Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania, the Bethlehem Area Public Library serves an urban population through its main branch, its south side branch, and through outreach services.

Open door ethos: Setting the stage internally

Key to its success in supporting HEAL has been an “open door” ethos in which ideas are shared, developed, and implemented both

  1. Between library patrons and library staff, and
  2. Between community partners and the public library, as an institution

The stories below illustrate how both inter-institutional and interpersonal relationships have enabled the Bethlehem Area Public Library to do everything from check out bicycles to support food access via Community Supported Agriculture.

No one individual creates the culture of an institution, but library director Josh Berk, south side branch manager Janine Santoro, and adult services librarian M. Rayah Levy have all played critical roles in creating the library’s open door ethos. 

The entire library staff embrace the idea of not having to fit into a box, but instead using their resources, and the resources of the library to support the community. 

This ethos extends to the circulation department, where circulation manager Dawn Fritz eagerly embraced the opportunity to bring her expertise to bear on the idea of circulating bicycles from the library.  

What enables success is a culture in which trust is foundational. Library staff trust that their managers will not ask anything of them they wouldn’t do themselves, and library managers trust their staff to use their expertise to figure out things like how to check out bicycles, and how to offer Yoga and Qigong classes at the library.

Open door ethos: Extending things outwards

One of the library’s longest standing institutional health partners is the Bethlehem Health Bureau, the local public health department. 

Building this inter-institutional partnership was facilitated by three things:

  • An open space – a downtown plaza – that the city owned, and that both the library and the health bureau used to engage the public. That plaza became a kind of “neutral ground” for the two partners to work together to offer services
  • The library director’s ties to the health community, facilitated both by his personal interest in mental health, and by the fact that his wife used to work for the health bureau
  • Geographical proximity – with the health bureau’s offices located physically very close to the main library branch

Putting it into practice in your community: Librarians can not control where our libraries are located physically, but we can strive to make connections that allow us access to similar public spaces, such as parks or plazas, and build relationships with those in the health sector, no matter where they are located.

Open door ethos: Extending things outwards at the South Side location

Across the Lehigh River, a similar dynamic was in play at the South Side branch. There Santoro and other library staff were seeking to make the library a kind of neutral space for different sectors of the community to come together and work together. Those different sectors include a growing Latinx population, an aging white working class, and a more affluent creative class associated with Lehigh University, which is in the South Side of Bethlehem. 

Putting the pieces together with the Health Bureau

One of the library’s key partners has been the local health department, in Pennsylvania called the Health Bureau. This partnership has taken three forms:

  • Services for individuals experiencing homelessness
  • Bike Bethlehem bike share
  • StoryWalks

Let’s look at how the Health Bureau and the library put the pieces together!

Services for individuals experiencing homelessness. Physical proximity made the Bethlehem Area Public Library and the Bethlehem Health Bureau a natural partnership. The library and the Health Bureau shared an interest in leveraging community spaces – like the open plaza between their two facilities – to build community. These downtown neighbors began their collaboration with a desire to serve the homeless population, who used the library as a day shelter. A nurse began visiting the library to help address any needs within the homeless community, but the people were wary of any interaction. Library Director, Josh Berk, said, “it didn’t work at all,” but he recognized the potential of the partnership and began thinking about other ways the two organizations could benefit one another. 

The health department had experts that could provide information, and the library had patrons looking for information. So staff from the health department began coming into the library to run information tables, hold flu clinics, and lead exercise programs. The relationship flourished and the health department proposed more ideas for collaboration. 

Bike Bethlehem bike share. Bike Bethlehem brought together more community organizations. “The Bethlehem Health Bureau (our City Health Department) spearheaded the project. It was their idea to start a bike-share around the City and they reached out to us because (1) we are right next door to the Health Bureau (2) we are open more hours than they are (3) we are good at loaning things out!” Bike Bethlehem – Bethlehem Area Public Library. The health department had an idea, but to make that idea successful, they needed the library’s partnership, since the library has resources the health department does not, including physical space, a system to check things in and out, and a much higher volume of foot traffic.

Funded through St. Luke’s Hospital HIV prevention, the bike share program was designed “to help some of our patients in the area have a way to be able to travel and get them engaged in things like the library and activity,” said Kelly Berk. The program was offered to the general public to help reduce the stigma surrounding HIV and alternate forms of transportation. 

The Citizens Traffic Advisory Committee and the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation, or CAT, participated in the planning of the bike share program. CAT got more involved with the library through Bike to Work Week. Then the organization moved their board meetings to a space within the library. 

Library Circulation Manager, Dawn Fritz, organized the logistics of the check out process, such as creating a spreadsheet and filing waiver forms. “We can do it with half a million books a year; we can do it with a few dozen bikes,” said Berk. 

While there were many parties interested in seeing this program developed and implemented, there were also some hurdles to overcome. The planning committee met weekly to discuss any issues and find solutions. 

One issue was maintenance. The team had engaged a local bike shop, however they were not always available when repairs and maintenance were needed. 

And because the bikes could not be returned after hours, they struggled with timely returns. The return time was adjusted to one hour before closing, and it was printed on the check out receipts. 

Storage was also a challenge. When the library closed due to COVID 19 the bike share was temporarily put on hold, so they needed a place to store the bicycles. The library staff made space for them in their basement.

The library staff has a strong appreciation for the collaborations that have made this type of extra program within the library available. According to Fritz, they try to always credit community partners when checking out the bikes. 

StoryWalks and beyond. Having worked together through multiple complications and nurtured the relationship with the health department, the library felt comfortable taking on new projects with them. The partnership went on to develop a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), StoryWalks, Community Health Needs Assessment, and a painted courtyard called Play Roll Plaza. The ability to reassess and adapt when challenges arise was key in allowing this partnership to continue and thrive.

The Bethlehem Health Bureau, officially founded in 1980, ensures the health of the Bethlehem City community by utilizing the three core functions of public health: monitor health status to identify community health problems, diagnose and investigate health problems and hazards in the community, and evaluate effectiveness, accessibility and quality of personal and population-based health services.

Its mission is to provide high quality public health services that protect and promote optimal health and well-being to assure Bethlehem is a safe and healthy community.

The library is a common health bureau partner, as in the following program led by the Health Bureau.

Putting the pieces together into a seed/tool library

Connor Burbridge became a regular patron at the Southside Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library after graduating from the nearby LeHigh University, but he didn’t see the library as a potential partner until it was suggested to him. 

His interests centered around urban ecology and environmental sustainability, so in 2019 he began working with the Southside Garden Alliance to develop community gardens. His boss mentioned the library as a possible collaborator for the garden alliance, and Burbridge reached out to Janine Santoro at the Southside Branch. She agreed to provide space and marketing for classes and workshops organized by the garden alliance and led by Penn State Master Gardeners. 

Striving to be inclusive in the community with a large Latinx population, the garden alliance purchased books about gardening in both English and Spanish for the library. Some of the workshops were offered virtually and bilingually. The classes were met with enthusiasm from the community and the librarians. 

Their success led to new ideas taking hold. Burbridge suggested adding tool and seed libraries at the Southside Branch, funded by the Community Action Development Corps. This is when he began to feel resistance. The city council initially said no due to concerns about liability. 

With dedication, perseverance, and more conversations the team was able to educate the city government about the growing trend of “libraries of things” and find ways to alleviate any road blocks. The Tool & Seed Library officially launched on May 24, 2021.

Key to this success of the Southside Tool Library located in the Southside branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library was the behind-the-scenes process of partners meeting together at the library once a month, or once every other month, to talk about project development, as well as to socialize and form relationships: the informal back & forth helped move things along. Having that relationship built on that trust spurred things on.

Putting the pieces together into Yoga & Qigong classes

Yoga has been a solid piece of the programming at Bethlehem Area Public Library since 2008. Wendy Litner Thompson approached the library with the idea while employed at St. Luke’s hospital hospice program as a bereavement counselor. She was also a yoga practitioner and knew yoga could benefit those struggling with grief as well as many others in the community. Located within walking distance for Thompson, the library’s large meeting rooms seemed an ideal place for the classes. 

The library agreed to the arrangement. Over the years the class has adapted from monthly to weekly, and from a ground floor room to an upstairs room. The transitions were smooth for the most part, maintaining about 25 participants each session. 

However in 2012, Thompson left her position with St. Luke’s. The library no longer saw her as a community partner, but rather an individual person, and decided that she needed to pay the standard room rental rate to continue the yoga classes. The rate was higher than Thompson was willing to pay, and the class went on hiatus.

However, through open dialogue and a foundation of trust, the library and the Yoga instructor found an arrangement that works for everyone.

The Friends of the Library put out at Yoga (and now Qi Gong) classes a donation bin, and anyone who can is invited to leave a donation to the Friends of the Library, which in turn pays the Yoga and Qi Gong instructors.

This arrangement, pioneered by M. Rayah Levy, has been in place for years. No one is turned away. The class is free. But the instructors are also compensated for their time. It’s a win-win.

The Yoga and Qi Gong classes morphed into virtual classes during the Covid 19 library closure, and continue to be offered, both at the library’s main branch, and at the Southside location. 

These classes have been among the most impactful the library has ever offered.

“We’re getting in people who would have not normally come into the library. Because because of yoga we’re getting new faces, and people that sometimes will just come into the library to borrow a book and then leave now actually stay around for an hour or more. Yoga is one of those programs that would bring people into the library,” said M. Rayah Levy

Learn more about this library and its partnerships!

In this case study we examined how this library implemented three steps to transform how it collaborates with its community, and how you can too!

  • Ask someone to share their knowledge at the library
  • Establish an “open door” ethos in which new ideas can be shared, developed, and implemented
  • Seek out opportunities to make programs accessible to the community, both in person and online

How could you implement these three steps in your community?

Learn more about this library

BAPL: Janine Santoro Wins Community Star Award From The IronPigs. (2021b, September 23). Bethlehem, PA Patch. https://patch.com/pennsylvania/bethlehem/bapl-janine-santoro-wins-community-star-award-ironpigs
Bike Bethlehem is Back at BAPL – Bethlehem Area Public Library. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.bapl.org/bike-bethlehem-is-back-at-bapl/
Launch your summer garden with the Bethlehem’s library’s new seed and tool library—Lehighvalleylive.com. (n.d.). Retrieved May 28, 2021, from https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/news/2021/05/launch-your-summer-garden-with-the-bethlehems-librarys-new-seed-and-tool-library.html
(2015, March 1). Bethlehem Area Public Library launching farm share program with Bechdolt’s Orchard. Lehighvalleylive. https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/bethlehem/2015/02/bethlehem_area_public_library_27.html
Mallett, K. (n.d.). Borrow a bike from the Bethlehem library. WFMZ.Com. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://www.wfmz.com/news/good-news/borrow-a-bike-from-the-bethlehem-library/article_33159b0c-d98a-11eb-86b4-f3ae8ce8114c.html
National StoryWalk Week event for children of all ages at the Main Library – Bethlehem Area Public Library. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.bapl.org/events/national-storywalk-week-event-for-children-of-all-ages-at-the-main-library/
Official Launch: Tool & Seed Library | Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/events/182117287124727
Tatu, C. (n.d.). Grow your garden with the new Bethlehem ‘tool and seed library.’ Mcall.Com. Retrieved June 1, 2021, from https://www.mcall.com/news/local/bethlehem/mc-nws-bethlehem-seed-library-20210528-migy7za64zhnjma5paptyqy6sa-story.html
Virtual & In-Person Qigong at the Main Library (Saturdays)—Bethlehem Area Public Library, 2021-12-04. (n.d.). Dates.Cloud. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://datescloud.com/virtual-in-person-qigong-at-the-main-library-saturdays-bethlehem-area-public-library-2036631-306940320.html