A simple step to get started: ‘Forget’ to take off your name-tag, and have your talking points ready

In Clinton, Massachusetts, library director Marie Letarte has adroitly transformed partnerships with particular organizations into coalitions that encompass multiple sectors of the community.

A simple step Marie recommends to get started is to ‘forget’ to take off your name-tag. Marie said since joining the library in 2013 she’s made amazing connections with potential partners simply by being visible in the community as the library director. She’ll sometimes have her name-tag on at the grocery store, while taking walks around town, and doing her other day-to-day tasks: A seemingly simple step that has prompted spontaneous conversations with many about what she does, what the library does, and how the library can help make the community a better place for everyone.

But to be successful, Marie needs to have her talking points ready to go when she meets potential partners. One of those long-standing partners, Chelsey Patriss, told us that one key to Marie’s success has been her “ability to see the big picture, to identify community needs, to know what resources are in the community, and then to be able and willing to pursue those relationships and those connections.”

Patriss went on to describe how Marie does not so much organize programs as much as she organizes communities. Describing a successful grant application she worked with Marie on “if she had applied for the grant, gotten the grant, done the program, it could have just been a one off thing. But the fact that she was willing to follow that grant up by attending meetings, and actually meeting people face to face, and talking about the program, and the impact it had, and throwing ideas around with other people. That was what made it not just a grant program, but a relationship, and a partnership that was sustainable.”

Programs come and go, but relationships can endure more easily.

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:

– ‘Forget’ to take off your name-tag, and have your talking points ready.

– Look for the “big picture” and identify what your community needs, what resources are available, and how the library can create those connections.

Background on Bigelow Free Public Library

Image above: Logo for Bigelow Free Public Library’s Everyone is Welcome at the Table initiative.

  • Location: Clinton, MA
  • Population:
  • Service Area: 14,022
  • Demographics: 87% White, 5% African American, 23% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 6
  • Operating Budget: $423,594
  • Annual Library Visits: 42,118
  • Annual Programs: 290
  • Annual Program Audience: 3,219

What is at the heart of this library’s success? Connections, connections, connections 

Here’s how this library has successfully supported community health:

  • Looking for opportunities to turn library programs into partnership programs
  • Getting involved in existing coalitions that include those partners
  • Using contacts formed through those coalitions to construct new coalitions organized around library initiatives, particularly grant applications.

The following story illustrates how this work proceeds: In 2016, the Adult Summer Reading Theme was “Exercise Your Mind: Read.” Like libraries across the country, librarians in Clinton were looking to tie exercise into summer programming.

One of the Bigelow staff members came up with “Library Laps in the Park.” Every Tuesday at 5:30, right before the library closed, she invited the community to join her walk in the park across the street from the library. It was well attended, and so Marie and the library kept offering it after the summer ended, and even after this particular employee left the library.

Through her community connections, Marie learned that the local hospital was offering a Walk with a Doc program, a national initiative to have doctor-led walking groups available to all. The hospital came to the library and said they wanted to partner with them. Marie told the hospital “look, we’re already doing this Tuesday afternoon walk, we have a core group of people,” and the hospital outreach person decided to provide resources for the library’s walking program because it was “the best attended one” among all the walking groups the hospital had tried to start.

The partnership continued up to the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The library decided they could bring it back, with masks and social distancing, in July 20 2020. Marie said “people were so happy.”

Looking for opportunities to turn hospital programs into partnership programs

Rosa Fernandez-Penaloza from the hospital told us an almost identical story to Marie’s. It’s worth hearing this story from her perspective because it illustrates how other organizations are also often looking to transform programs they offer by themselves into partnership programs.

Rosa said: “The library had this walking lap program, and to me it only made sense not to reinvent the wheel. So I asked Marie, ‘Would it be possible to coordinate efforts with her walkers, and probably invite other members of the community, maybe our patients and so forth, and have a doctor lead the effort?’” Marie embraced the idea.

Out of this partnership came the co-branded “Library Laps in the Park/Walk n’ Talk with a Doc.”

‘Getting involved in existing coalitions that include those partnersMarie became library director in November 2013, and immediately sought out community connections. She joined a group called Clinton Area Community Partners (CACP), established in 2011 to bring together organizations working to make Clinton the best community it can be. Through CACP, Marie got to know the outreach person for the local hospital.

The CACP came into existence in part due to the unique needs of the community. Marie said the library, despite serving a small town, has many challenges more commonly associated with urban librarianship. Marie said “there’s so much need in Clinton. For the most part, the surrounding towns do not have the same needs that Clinton residents do. [Other libraries] are not being worried about homeless people sleeping in the library. [Their issues are more like dealing with patrons] who say ‘I don’t want to pay for this book [I lost].’ Whereas at my library we haven’t had fines in forever. And there’s good reason for that,” namely the poverty that exists.

Use contacts formed through coalitions to construct new funding opportunities

Rosa went on to say that “now it’s the flip side: Marie has asked me to sit on her committee for the library to kind of advise the library on efforts that the library can implement, that aligns with healthy eating and active living.” This committee is the group of organizations Marie brought together to successfully apply to a number of funding opportunities, including both library funding opportunities made available by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (via the IMLS), and the Massachusetts Community Health Network Areas (via the Department of Public Health).

These grants, and the partnerships that undergird them, have helped the library offer food education programs both at the library and off-site at a food pantry, and online during COVID-19, as well as other innovative programs, like a Salsa class that combined learning to make salsa and learning to dance salsa on the library lawn.

The library has been able to do an amazing amount of things to promote community health, but it has been able to do so because the library staff have tapped into the existing network of institutions that want to make Clinton the best place it can be. What networks could you tap into in your community?

Marie’s efforts were documented by The Boston Globe in an article entitled “Food programming has helped libraries nurture communities during COVID.” They report

“The Bigelow Library is an At the Table grant recipient. It partners with local organizations like WHEAT, a United Way program, and Growing Places, a community gardens program, to provide cooking tips along with free food to those in need.”

Marie, always looking for opportunities to collaborate, told the Boston Globe Reporter that there are so many virtual food and cooking programs being made available in the state’s public libraries during COVID-19. Marie Letarte “wishes libraries would collaborate on virtual listings. It looks good for your library when everyone is cross promoting.”

Other networks to look for: Local businesses

In addition to networks of nonprofit organizations, most communities also have networks of for-profit businesses. The library has looked to them as well. Marie started going to the meetings of Discover Clinton, a network of small business owners, “because I felt the library needed to reach out and do more outreach” according to Marie.

When Marie approaches a network like Discover Clinton here are the questions she asks:

  • How can we help?
  • What can I do?
  • How can we work together?
  • What can we do for you and what can you do for us?

These last two questions are key to ask because sometimes library outreach falls into the trap of merely seeking to offer more to communities, rather than turning things around and asking how the community can work with (and help to improve) the library.

As Marie said, in the best partnerships “we would sort of cross pollinate each other.” That cross pollination led Marie to start talking with the owner of a local family fitness center about the idea of library patrons being able to use their library cards to access the fitness center.

Marie recalled the partnership beginning as follows:

“I went up to [the business owner] after one of the Discover Clinton meetings and said, ‘how would you like to do this [partnership,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s see how it works.’”

And from there they were off to the races. The business owner had her gym manager work out the math, and Marie and the library staff developed a survey they would have people who accessed the program fill out. Marie also approached her contacts in the local philanthropic community to see if someone would help fund the program to get it going. Ultimately the hospital was able to fund the pilot project, which had a delayed start in late Fall 2021, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The key part of this story though is that it all started with a conversation that occurred because the library was part of a community coalition. You can have the best ideas for programs, but if you aren’t talking with the right people, they won’t happen.

The second major take-away from this story is that you don’t need to have all the details worked out to start a conversation. Marie had heard through her involvement in the public library profession that some library somewhere had started checking out gym passes. That was enough information for her to go to a gym owner and her town and pitch an idea. They worked out the details from there.

Even though, as of February 2022, the program has only been going for a few months, it has already generated a lot of buzz and interest, which has led the partners to start talking about possible expansion ideas.

Read the following articles published in the local paper to learn more about the logistics:

Grant to Clinton library allows access to Clinton fitness center. Telegram & Gazette.

Clinton library director invites readers to watch a movie or work out. Telegram & Gazette.

Conclusions and additional information

Let’s revisit how this library found success working with its community, and how you can too! Strategies deployed included:

  • Look for opportunities to turn library programs into partnership programs (from Library Laps to Walk with a Doc)
  • Get involved in existing coalitions that include those partners (from a hospital partnership to a member of Clinton Area Community Partners)
  • Use contacts formed through those coalitions to construct new coalitions organized around library initiatives, particularly grant applications (e.g. the library’s culinary literacy application funded by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners)

How could you use these strategies at your library and in your community?

What’s new at the Bigelow Free Public Library? News stories that came out after the interviews

Clinton’s Central Park home for Storywalk featuring “Zinnia’s Flower Garden.” Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved July 4, 2021, from https://www.telegram.com/story/news/local/the-item/2021/07/04/central-park-home-storywalk-featuring-zinnias-flower-garden/5314700001/

Community health grant funds several programs at Clinton library, from dancing to obstacles. Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.telegram.com/story/news/local/the-item/2021/07/31/community-health-grant-funds-several-programs-clinton-library/5390345001/

Grant to Clinton library allows access to Clinton fitness center. Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from https://www.telegram.com/story/news/local/the-item/2021/08/29/grant-clinton-library-allows-access-clinton-fitness-center/8215265002/

Letter to the Item editor: Author talk will be chance to support Clinton library programs. Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://www.telegram.com/story/news/local/the-item/2021/09/24/letter-editor-author-talk-chance-support-clinton-library-programs/8351554002/

Guest Column: Clinton library director invites readers to watch a movie or work out. Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.telegram.com/story/news/local/the-item/2021/12/17/clinton-library-director-invites-readers-watch-movie-work-out/6463801001/

Wellness for Working Women. (n.d.). Assabet Interactive. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://bigelowlibrary.assabetinteractive.com/calendar/wellness-for-working-women/