Hook the library in to the issues your community faces!

Around 2016, a parent (and yoga instructor in training) in the city of High Point, North Carolina, noticed that there was no place in the city where youth could learn yoga. This parent approached Jim Zola, Head of Children’s Services at the library, with the idea of teaching a free 6-week yoga program for kids. Zola embraced the idea. The classes were so popular that Jim found a way to keep offering them after the six-week series. Jim helped sustain the momentum by encouraging a library paraprofessional to earn her yoga certificate – including finding funds in the library budget to pay for her training. Encouraging library paraprofessionals to be multi-faceted, and supporting their personal and professional growth, enabled this library to do more for and with its community. The original yoga instructor has also remained an enthusiastic partner, working hand-in-hand with the library to sustain their kids yoga classes. All of this work was done with the full support of the library administration.

This little story illustrates the path to success taken by the High Point Public Library. Librarians look for community needs not being met elsewhere, find committed partners willing to work with them to meet the needs, and then work to sustain the momentum so that the need continues to be met over time. We’ll look in greater detail below at how this process works and how you can replicate this process around unmet needs in your communities.

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:

– When community members come to you with new ideas, try to work with them to bring them to fruition

– Build momentum around what is working – focus your energy and resources there

– Find and cultivate partners willing and ready to work with you around the issues your community faces

Background on High Point, North Carolina

High Point is a city of 114,086 located in central North Carolina, historically known for its furniture industry and for the annual Furniture Market attended by companies around the world. During the 1970s, the city lost much of its industrial base, but between 1990 and 2020 the city entered a new phase of growth, increasing in population during that period from 69,428 to 113,887. This new phase of growth was driven by the burgeoning High Point University and increased proximity to the cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, which together with High Point make up the Triad Metro area (total population 1,611,243).

As the population grew, the High Point Public Library has been strategically located at the north end of downtown to participate in the city’s revival and renaissance. As library director Mary Sizemore stated on a Downtown High Point blog post “The Library is the center of the community:”

“My staff and I have always been community oriented,” said Sizemore. “We go out into the community to try and understand particular needs within our community, then we try to tailor our services to fit those needs.”

Sizemore has been the library director since 2011, and has worked to support, recruit, and retain library staff who see the value and necessity of working alongside community members striving to make the city of High Point a thriving, inclusive environment for all.

Those efforts culminated in the library becoming a finalist for the 2022 National Medal for Museum and Library Service awarded by the U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services.

By connecting the library’s growth to the growth and revitalization of downtown High Point and of High Point University, the High Point Public Library has been a key institution in the city. With its eyes on the most vulnerable, the library also works to ensure that as the city enters a new renaissance no one is left behind.

High Point Public Library
  • Location: High Point, NC
  • Population: 115,067
  • Service Area: 113,457
  • Demographics: 50% White, 35% African American, 10% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 61
  • Operating Budget: $4,805464
  • Annual Library Visits: 205,168
  • Annual Library Programs: 2,488
  • Annual Program Audience: 61,320

Support visionary library staff at all levels

The success of the High Point Public Library comes down to three ingredients:

  • Visionary library staff who were connected to the community and saw the opportunities associated with working more closely with community partners
  • Strong library leadership focused on trying bold new things in collaboration with high-level city leadership
  • A local community looking to change and interested in trying new things to bring about community revitalization

High Point Public Library entered a new phase in its community partnerships and relationships around the year 2011. The library has always been community-oriented, but around 2011, under the new leadership of Mary Sizemore, the library started looking for new opportunities to be a community leader around community health.

Two visionary library staff members played key roles in orchestrating this work: Nic Covington and Maxine Days (pictured above).

Nic joined the library in 2007 as the Marketing Manager and Maxine Days joined the library around 1998 as an after school program coordinator.

Both had done great work for the library previous to 2011, but under Sizemore’s leadership they were encouraged to think even more creatively about how the library could be a community partner.

Around 2011, Library staff member Maxine Days started adult health programming in collaboration with partners, while Nic simultaneously started working with partners to plant the library’s teaching garden (still going strong 12 years later!).

Nic was instrumental in getting the teaching garden going by being involved in the early days of the farmer’s market and working with the children’s department to get the Culinary kids program set up. He was a catalyst for a lot of health programming and partnerships, and got the ball rolling before he left, handing over the garden and his partnership with the Greater High Point Food Alliance to his collaborator Mark Taylor, who continues to passionately support this work to this day. Nic was a gardener and was personally interested in physical health as well. He had an outgoing personality and had connections in the community that he wove into his professional practices

Maxine Days also had many connections in the community formed during the previous 15+ years working at the library, which she was able to mobilize in support of health programming and partnerships when she was provided a platform to do so by Mary Sizemore.

When Maxine goes out in the community, her goal is always trying to get people to come into the library – whether as patrons, as partners, or as both. Maxine also maintains lifelong connections with many in the community that she is not afraid to leverage and organize for the library and for the community. Maxine has been in High Point for a long time and people know her and respect her. Maxine is also enormously respected by the staff at High Point Public Library, who support her as best they can.

Maxine and Nic laid the foundation in their early partnerships, setting the stage for the library to become a more integral part of the community under the leadership of Mary Sizemore. 

Fellow library staff report that Maxine is good for brainstorming with, is upfront about what she needs to be successful, and is very efficient throughout. In conversation she always seems like she is in a positive mood and enthusiastic about things. Maxine is really excellent at making programs sustainable. Maxine is just really good at maintaining relationships. She remembers facts about people and what is going on with them and she stays in regular contact with people. She is very humble but she also has a confidence that makes it clear that she’s got things under control and she’s an organized person to partner with.

Maxine is also a great connector. Although her official job is focused on adult services, she always connects partners to other units as fitting. For instance, one of the library’s longest partnerships is with an organization called Recipe for Success, an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase food literacy, primarily among youth. Maxine connected this partner to the children’s department, the children’s department then worked with Recipe for Success on monthly cooking classes for kids, which have now been offered almost continuously at the library (including virtually during the COVID-19 Pandemic) since 2015. Maxine initially got connected to Recipe for Success because they had a table at one of Maxine’s adult-oriented health fairs that she organizes on an annual basis in the library with an ever-growing number of community partners.  

Where will it lead?

Those early health partnerships set the stage for the library to become even more central to community health in 2015 when, in collaboration with the city of High Point and an array of community partners, the library became the official host and sponsor of the High Point Farmer’s Market.

Around that time, the library’s 5-year strategic plan focused around a new “plaza” (parking lot with farmer’s market stalls and gathering space and a new outdoor education plaza off the children’s department). Both projects were completed between 2016-2020 and are now at the center High Point’s Uptown area.

In High Point, North Carolina, a big news story around 2015 highlighted that a national report found food insecurity in the city to be among the worst in the nation. At the same time, a fledgling community farmers market was looking for a permanent home, and librarians with green thumbs had started a teaching garden at the library. These three things came together to inspire the library to make food security a strategic priority, working in collaboration with the city and non-profits to transform how the library engages the community.

The library also has a new and exciting teaching garden. This teaching garden, which can be seen on the North Elm St. side of the library, is a place that the library holds classes to teach people in the community the importance and skills of home gardening. “The focus is showing people that you can grow food in any place, whether its an apartment, a farm or even a tiny backyard,” Mrs. Sizemore says.

The teaching garden’s purpose is to tackle the food insecurity in the High Point community. The library works with The Greater High Point Food Alliance Excess and donates excess produce from the garden.

National recognition 

All of this work building relationships with community partners led the library to become one of 15 libraries across America named as a finalist for the US Institute of Museum & Library Services’s (IMLS) 2022 National Medal for Library Service, the highest award possible in America.

In the press release of the honor, Sizemore said “Public libraries, as trusted local institutions, are uniquely situated to respond to community needs through strong partnerships and shared efforts. Because of this, we’ve been able to effectively adapt existing programs and services and add new ones to address food insecurity, chronic health issues and other significant issues using our network of partners and supporters. We embrace our role and our responsibility to serve in this way and will continue to strive to meet the high expectations that our leadership and our community place on us.”

This award cemented and solidified the work that Sizemore and library staff had worked on for the past decade, building relationships and then building initiatives through those relationships.

You can see some of this work in action on the IMLS’s social media where, as part of the 2022 celebrations, they feature the many ways High Point Public Library has mobilized relationships to serve the community.

Highlights include:

  • Carl Vierling Executive Director of the Greater High Point Food Alliance, sharing about the High Point Public Library and what they have done to address food insecurity. High Point Farmers Market which is here at the library and initiated the Double the Bucks Program and the Power of Produce Club.
  • The Culinary Kids class teaches children how to cook healthy and nutritious meals safely. The High Point Public Library often uses produce from their teaching garden to teach children how to grow and cook healthy foods. This program gives children a better understanding of the importance of eating a heart-healthy, balanced diet, and the value in caring for our bodies.
  • The High Point Public Library has partnered with the Greater High Point Food Alliance to address food insecurity. The local High Point Farmers Market is held every Saturday in the library’s parking lot.
  • At the High Point Public Library, we have collaborated with many different organizations to address the issues of food insecurity and health in the High Point area. One of our partnerships is Growing High Point’s mobile market, the Growdega.
  • Julie is a Ayurveda councilor who teaches yoga and other self-care classes of all sorts at the High Point Public Library.
  • Now in its 8th year, the teaching garden has become an integrated component in the High Point Public Library’s efforts to work with dozens of other agencies who all seek to address the food insecurity in here in our community, to that end.
  • The teaching garden’s mission statement is to educate our community to the health benefits of growing their own food, eating better, losing excess weight, and living a healthier lifestyle. All produce that is gown here at the library is donated to local food pantries.
  • Even during the pandemic, the High Point Public Library was able to keep yoga and other self-care classes going, and pass out information to employees and the community about how to build a healthy, body mind, and community.
  • Recipe for Success from UNCG Greensboro has a weekly Culinary Kids class hosted at the High Point Public Library.

Action Steps: Getting Started and Conclusions

Perhaps you too would like to have an award-winning library that has a dense network of community partners you can call on and work with?

Remember that it took the library over a decade to get where they are. All of these things took time, they took energy, and they took community partners.

Action steps:

  • Start small — find something the community cares about and that library staff care about, and try to connect the two to take small steps towards big impacts. Library staff at all levels can mobilize their community connections to build new programs and partnerships that benefit the library, the community, and library staff.
    • In High Point, Nic Covington was a gardener and he was passionate about sharing his gardening expertise with others. That small seed led to a web of partnerships and programs related to food and gardening.
      • As the library learned more about the issue of food insecurity in the community, it saw other opportunities to get involved.
      • Nic passed the baton to fellow librarian Mark Taylor, who continues to energize, sustain, and expand the library’s gardening efforts.
    • Similarly, Maxine Days say an opportunity to mobilize her connections to create new opportunities for people to be healthy.
      • Maxine continues her health partnerships.
    • And Mary Sizemore has made the farmers market a permanent feature of the High Point Public Library, even renovating the library’s parking lot to create permanent awnings to make it easier for vendors to set up on Saturdays.
  • Reflect and brainstorm – What are you passionate about? What is your community passionate about? How can you bring that passion together to generate sparks and generate change?
  • If you are working in library administration, look for ways to create an atmosphere of supporting your staff in pursuing and sustaining collaborations as well as increasing their individual skills.
    • This support could look like paying for trainings (like yoga certifications to teach programs/classes) or providing off-desk time to work on building community collaborations.
    • Library leadership can look for opportunities to build collaborations with city leaders around critical community issues, such as food security and downtown development.
  • Having a community that is open and interested in collaboration makes a huge difference. High Point was going through a lot of changes around 2010 – which set the stage for many in the community being open to working collaboratively with the library. What changes is your community going through that collaborations could support?

Put these lessons into action by using our Cultivating the Relationship-Driven Library Toolkit.

Learn more about this library:

About Us | Recipe for Success. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://anthropology.uncg.edu/rfs/about-us/
Cooking class for tweens (4 episode virtual program summer 2020). (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=264750744957722
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Farmer’s Market Website. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.highpointnc.gov/1753/High-Point-Farmers-Market
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High Point Farmer’s Market Moves Beyond Food. (2021, May 15). The Rhino Times of Greensboro. https://www.rhinotimes.com/news/high-point-farmers-market-moves-beyond-food/
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HIGH POINT PUBLIC LIBRARY TO HOST FREE HEALTH SCREENING. (n.d.). YES! Weekly. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.yesweekly.com/coronavirus/high-point-public-library-to-host-free-health-screening/article_06d0953e-8389-11ec-9117-2bd3ed65eba5.html
High Point’s Summer Jubilee Bigger Than Ever This Year. (2022, July 20). The Rhino Times of Greensboro. https://www.rhinotimes.com/news/high-points-summer-jubilee-bigger-than-ever-this-year/
HPE, P. B. C. I. |. (n.d.). Local farmers market sees rebound. High Point Enterprise. Retrieved July 12, 2021, from https://www.hpenews.com/archives/local-farmers-market-sees-rebound/image_dc9bdd63-e4b7-5b9a-8a28-66e0ca17139d.html
HPU to Host HPUniverse Day at High Point Public Library—High Point University. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.highpoint.edu/blog/2021/10/hpu-to-host-hpuniverse-day-at-high-point-public-library/
If You Need A Harvest Extension, High Point Library Can Help. (2022, August 31). The Rhino Times of Greensboro. https://www.rhinotimes.com/news/if-you-need-a-harvest-extension-high-point-library-can-help/
Innovative programming: Library gardens ← Library Development. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://statelibrarync.org/ldblog/2014/06/04/innovative-programming-haywood-countys-giving-garden/
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NCAH Word of the Week. (n.d.). Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://ncallianceforhealth.salsalabs.org/weeklynewsletteraug5/index.html
Panel Discussion: How to Start a Community Garden. (2019, March 14). Programming Librarian. https://programminglibrarian.org/programs/panel-discussion-how-start-community-garden
Planting Seeds of Hope: Growing High Point. (2021, June 24). High Point Discovered. https://www.highpointdiscovered.org/stories/planting-seeds-of-hope-growing-high-point/
Public can take part in art project. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://news.yahoo.com/public-part-art-project-231900016.html
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