This library’s success came down to the simple fact that library staff found new ways to share the simple message that the library wants to be a community partner. This new narrative was circulated during planning meetings for a new library building, by an energetic new staff member who got involved in Rotary and local government, and by staff who, due to a natural disaster, had to physically work out of a parks and recreation facility.
Librarian Madeline Jarvis shared that “I’ve heard it from both our staff and our patrons, that we’ve gone from a place of almost sacred gatekeeping to [being] raucous and joyful door-opening. Rather than thinking about who is and who isn’t included, we are making sure that everybody who needs seats has seats at the table. [The library is a] space for multiple uses for multiple users.”
Communicating that multiplicity of uses has been key to finding new ways to partner with the community.
Madeline added that part of this change in direction has been a change in orientation to the community. Rather than start by telling the community what it can and can’t do, the library instead asks itself, “Why can’t a library do something in collaboration with the community?”
Madeline stated that in years past, the library administration’s use policy focused more on what you couldn’t do rather than what you could do. She explained the change thusly, “So instead of saying the meeting room policy does not explicitly say you can do mobile food pantry [there], so therefore you can’t do it,” the meeting room policy is now interpreted as meaning, “why not have a food pantry? And why not have a fitness program?” Madeline added that having a supportive board that asked itself “why not” rather than “you can’t” made a huge difference: “Our current board is fantastic. They are really excited and energized to learn more about ways that we connect people and resources. They are not afraid if it sounds like something [new for libraries]. And in fact, they celebrate it if I say, ‘Hey, I haven’t found anybody else [in libraries] who’s doing this, can we give it a try?'”
Madeline and other staff also looked for any and all opportunity to share this message with the community. She recalled that around 2018 she was “chatting with a nurse, just making small talk as I was waiting for my blood work to be done, and I mentioned that ‘I’m going to have mac and cheese for lunch at the senior dining site at my work.’ And [the nurse] was like, ‘What, you’re a librarian? Did you change jobs?’ And I gave my little encore cafe spiel. Then the nurse looked at me, and she was like, ‘Hold on, you’ve got to tell [the doctor] about this.’ And so she pulled my doctor back into the room. And I gave her my spiel too. And she said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s fantastic. I have some patients who I’m worried about loneliness. I’ve given them tips,'” but the doctor wanted to do more.
That serendipitous conversation led to the doctor regularly eating at the encore cafe with her patients, and in the process, expanding community awareness about the event even further afield. That conversation led to the opportunity to share menus not only at the library, but also at the doctor’s office, and when the doctor talks with her patients about loneliness, and the importance of dieting and good nutrition, she gives them the encore cafe menu and even adds, “Hey, if you want to come on taco day, I’ll see you there.”
As the program expanded, Madeline said, “We actually doubled it from an hour long to two hours long because we saw people coming to meet friends. So they would sit and they would chat and there was more of that social component.”
As you could imagine, in a small town library like Marion, having the meeting room occupied for so much of the day does take away from other uses of the room, but the library staff see the benefits, not only on older adults, but on the library itself. The library now has new patrons, new advocates, and new partners. Learn more about the nitty-gritty details of the Encore Cafe in this presentation Madeline and Dawn made for the Network of the National Library of Medicine.