A simple strategy to get started: Empower everyone to be partnering

Memphis Public Libraries (MPL) strives to empower all members of its community, including all library employees. MPL has created a number of formal and informal systems and initiatives to try to create a library system where a growth mindsets flourishes at all levels, with all library staff empowered to seek out collaborations internally and externally.

Christine Weinreich, Executive Director at Memphis Library Foundation, explained how that system operates: “Our library director’s success over the time she’s been at the library is largely because she’s incredibly politically savvy, so she can navigate the city system better than I’d ever be able to. And she lets the staffers do what they’re good at [without worrying about navigating the city system]. Within the library ‘we trust you. Whatever staff role you might have we want you to do your job, and to do it well, and to do it in the way that you can be most successful.'”

“I speak at library meetings all the time and I tell them that we want them to take a risk. We want them to go out on a limb believe in their vision. We believe in their creativity, we know, their desire to transform their community for the better. And the role of the foundation is to enable that to happen for them. You know, the operating budget that the city provides works within a box. That’s how city budgets work. So I spend a lot of my time telling library staffers, ‘we want you to talk to us about your dreams, your dreams for your program, your vision, what you believe is the need in your neighborhood where you work because you know the need, I don’t know the need.’ And largely they live there [in those neighborhoods] too. They’re there in the library every day. They have the relationships with patrons, and they get the most wonderful ideas. I’ll give you an example: One of the applications we got for funding in our last round was from the North Branch which is a very high poverty area. The teen services person there asked us for money to buy equipment for a drumming program for tweens and teens. And he said, the schools [around] the library don’t have music programs anymore. He watches teenagers create their own percussion instruments and then sing make up their own songs. But they don’t have anything to nurture that. So we’re buying them all the all of the equipment, the drums, funding, snacks for the program, all of those kinds of things, so that he can run classes, drumming classes, and you know, those kinds of things. The city isn’t going to fund that [so the Foundation steps in].”

“The Friends of the Library support the staff in every day professional development. They have funding for the staff to go to conferences. And they give each branch a few hundred bucks each year just to spend on whatever. For example, if they have a lot of kids coming in to do their homework after school and none of them have pencils, maybe you want to just buy some pens, just make sure that those little quality of life things and professional development opportunities are met for the staff: the friends of the library are really good at supporting that piece.”

“You put all that together when you’ve got library leadership saying ‘you’re the experts at your job.’ And the Foundation saying, ‘bring us your dreams, bring us your vision,’ and the Friends of the Library saying, ‘we want you to get all the professional development that you need and we want you to have all of those interim smaller needs met, whether they be pencils or snacks or something else. And I’m not saying we don’t have any dissatisfied staff. But mostly I think they feel really supported. They know they they are empowered to do the work.”

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:

– Be visible, show up

– Take time to ask and learn

– Build relationships with staff / internal transparency

Lessons learned:

– There are multiple ways to incorporate physical activity into library programming.

– You can offer special classes like Pranayaam Yoga.

– You can also incorporate movement into programs like Memory Cafes.

– Partnerships make these programs work.

Ingredient for success: Visibility

Memphis Public Library works hard to be visible, to build awareness of all the opportunities the library currently provide and could provide through community partnerships.  MPL takes the concept of “visibility” beyond standard marketing practices by recognizing that being visible is the necessary first step to building relationships and forming partnerships. 

Christine M. Weinreich started her journey as the executive director of the Memphis Public Library Foundation by making herself visible to all the branches, visiting, asking questions, and getting to know the staff. “From the day I started until the point at which we were launching our year end, I didn’t do anything but learn,” said Christine.

Seeing her in person showed the staff her sincere interest and dedication, creating a strong foundation for building relationships between the library staff and the foundation. Acknowledging that being in a leadership position requires learning about those you lead allowed Christine to understand their needs, but also create relationships with staff so they feel seen and valued. The internal transparency has allowed Christine to become a conduit to partnerships, matching staff needs with other staff or external partners to achieve more impactful results.

The library system has also experienced the snowball effect of visibility in which being visible leads to partnerships which lead to better visibility. “The local news will be more likely to pick something up that is a collaboration with some pretty big players on the stage,” said Christine while talking about a collaboration of the libraries, the Library Foundation, Baptist Health, and an entrepreneur who developed a computer game called Fitnexx. 

The Memphis based company, Fitnexx, is working to reduce childhood obesity, and partnering with the library is helping them reach more youth in need of intervention. Explaining how Fitnexx is different from fitness games with handheld controllers, Tony Knox, one of the game’s designers, said, “we have a motion tracking camera that captures the participants’ movements.” Available in several branches and used during the library’s afterschool program, the collaboration has received coverage in the local news and is continuing to attract attention, gaining visibility for all those involved. 

Taking visibility to the next level, MPL is sharing their story of the library’s impact on the national level. In May of 2021 the Institute of Museum and Library Services announced that MPL was one of six winners of the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, and a story in Smithsonian Magazine was published in November of 2021 highlighting the innovative ethos of the organization.

  • Location: Memphis, TN
  • Population: 621,056
  • Service Area Population: 824,517
  • Demographics: 65% African American, 27% White, 8% Hispanic or Latinx population, 2% Asian American
  • Staff Size: 297
  • Operating Budget: $22,337,543
  • Annual Library Visits: 1,412,428
  • Annual Library Programs: 5,387
  • Annual Program Audience: 106,514

Ingredient for success: Relationships

Relationship building is pivotal in all library success stories, and this one is no different. Starting internally, the library system has put effort into “getting the right people in place. The right people in the right place has been really, really important. And I think we’ve done a great job of that,” said Lauryce Graves McIver. The library system has also nurtured relationships with their staff by allowing them to work to their strengths and support additional training in areas of interest. 

One example is the manager of the South Branch, Terrice Thomas. “This particular branch manager of our South Branch is so personally involved and engaged in the community as well, and is so energetic about the programming that they offer personal relationships and their promotion of the program through those personal relationships really successfully,” said Christine M. Weinreich. However, Terrice’s dynamic nature was only fully realized after the library encouraged her to take part in a leadership program called “I-Lead.” Lauryce Graves McIver described the transformation she saw in Terrice after the training, saying, “She’s now branch manager and knocking so many balls out of the park. It’s unbelievable.” 

Cooking classes. The internal relationships developed confidence in staff members that was translated into building external relationships. South Branch, under the guidance of Terrice, developed online cooking classes with a series of local chefs which they were able to continue when the library closed due to Covid-19. “It was so successful. They’ve done it every other month, all year long. Wow. Yeah. So how they were able to promote it and get the supplies that were needed to get to go home. And everybody was on zoom. We’ve got these great pictures of like, 12- or 13-year-olds,” said Christine M. Weinreich.

Yoga classes. Another relationship that was built with South Branch was with local yoga teacher, June Phillips, who taught their outdoor yoga classes. And that relationship was supported by a relationship with Christine Weinreich at the Library Foundation, who worked to secure grant funding for fitness programming. “We’re asking for more fitness tools. We want to expose patrons to all the things related to yoga. Not everybody can go buy a yoga mat and blocks and strap. All that stuff or sets of weights or resistance bands, or like we want you to get your hands on it. Just learn about it. So I think we are pushing in that direction, because I think our experience is that if somebody comes to a class at the library to try out yoga they might go read a book about yoga,” explained Christine.

The more we engage with groups who are out in the community, and partner and sit at their table with them, the more we can bring and they can bring to more people and more eyes and introduce people to more of the resource so they can just better the quality of their life, you know, where and meet them where they are with what their interests are?” Lauryce Graves McIver

Community grants. This South Library branch manager, Terrice Thomas, is the same person Lauryce talked about when she discussed getting a grant from the Canadian National Railway Company.

There’s a railroad line, called *CN, as a Canadian line … has a lot of logistics, we have rail we have, you know, air, we have everything coming out of here. And they just gave that branch, specifically that branch $10,000 donation, because their employees locally nominated that branch for this award, because they like the brand state. And they made a compassionate pitch to their management because out of thousands of libraries in the country, because they wanted to give this money to a library that existed in a town where they had employees and had a logistical presence and whatnot. And out of all, that they gave it to us. And so what’s the $10,000, a book about the history of CN railroad, and a tree to be planted. So I mean, and she, she did something in that library to get their attention, that they wanted to nominate her and put and fight her to get that money.” Lauryce Graves McIver

Ingredient for success: Empowerment

Memphis Public Library works to lift up those in their sphere of influence, including staff, volunteers, partners, and patrons. But before they can empower all the people connected with the organization, they make a conscious effort to seek out and hire people who will thrive within that environment. Then using strategically designed professional development, staff are taught to see through the barriers, take risks, and realize their vision for the community. “I spend a lot of my time telling library staffers, we want you to talk to us about your dreams, for your dreams for your program, your vision, what you believe is the need and in your neighborhood where you work because you know the need,” said Christine M. Weinreich, explaining that the relationships built in each community lead directly to the need to empower the staff in those communities.

One example of a solid relationship with a community partner enhancing the ability of both parties to empower the community started with a non-profit called Bridges Youth Action Center, which works to teach leadership skills to youth. “Bridges reached out to me, because, again, it’s that personal relationship thing. I know their executive director and the development director quite well,” said Christine. Several library branches already hosted youth councils, and Bridges saw the opportunity to bring the two programs together to create something even better. 

The Come Back Stronger Youth Council empowers youth to engage in conversations with community leaders on issues that impact them directly, such as access to mental health resources. Christine explained that the partnership allows library staff “to be trained on truly empowering youth voices, truly having teenagers at the table where decisions are being made.” In addition to lifting the voices of the youth, this collaboration contributes to a deeper understanding of community needs among the adult leaders. After piloting the program in five branches, they plan to expand to all branches in the system empowering youth in all the communities they serve.

Lessons learned:

- Local partners can be enthusiastic to work with the library on programming.

- Participants do not need always incentives: The life change itself is often reward enough!

Action Steps: Conclusions and lessons learned

When you are dreaming big, it takes time for others to see your vision. Being an adroit communicator, being persistent, and operating in a culture that encourages dreamers can all make it possible for your dream to become a reality.

Action steps:

  • Build a culture for success.
    • If you are library admin, look for ways to actively show your staff you trust their efforts, judgments, and ideas. Trusting your staff helps empower your staff to find creative solutions and services.
    • Look for ways for community partnerships to share resources and staffing interests and availability.
  • Share your vision with your co-workers, with your community, and with potential funders & partners.
  • Think broadly about what is possible, and look for other pathways when you encounter obstacles.
  • Look for community grants as well as library-focused grants to help fund your initiatives.

How could you put these lessons to work in your community?

Learn more

How Memphis Created the Nation’s Most Innovative Public Library | Innovation | Smithsonian Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/memphis-created-nations-innovative-public-library-180978844/
Memphis FitKids app has kids on the move. (2015, April 22). Better Tennessee. https://bettertennessee.com/memphis-fitkids/
Memphis Library launches new project, Fitnexx, to help kids stay in shape. (2021, September 23). WREG.Com. https://www.wreg.com/on-air/live-at-9/memphis-library-launches-new-project-fitnexx-to-help-kids-stay-in-shape/
Memphis Public Library celebrates reconstructed Raleigh location with ribbon cutting. (2020, November 18). City of Memphis. https://www.memphistn.gov/news/memphis-public-library-celebrates-reconstructed-raleigh-location-with-ribbon-cutting/
More than a place to read: Memphis Library’s innovative transformation. (n.d.). The Urban Activist. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://theurbanactivist.com/idea/more-than-a-place-to-read-memphis-librarys-innovative-transformation/
Want Equity and Prosperity? Invest in Urban Public Spaces. (2021, November 4). Governing. https://www.governing.com/community/want-equity-and-prosperity-invest-in-urban-public-spaces