Tell people how the library can partner with them.

Around 2016, the Marion Public Library facilitated a community planning meeting focused on the design of a new library building that they intended to create within the next few years.

Someone from the Heritage Area on Aging (AAA) came and shared some of the data they had been analyzing about serious food insecurity issues among older adults in the Marion area. An Area Agency on Aging is a public or private non-profit agency, designated by the state to address the needs and concerns of all older persons at the regional and local levels.

Dawn Cline, Community Outreach Services Coordinator for the library, said that “they really wanted us to carve out a space in the [new] building that would be dedicated as a community center for the senior population.” Given that Marion did not have a dedicated senior center, the Heritage AAA was thinking the library’s new building could have a dedicated senior center within it.

Such a space was beyond the scope of what the new library design could accommodate, but Dawn told the AAA, “There’s no reason why [you] can’t use our building, in the meeting room.”

That simple gesture of telling the community, “Hey, we have this space. Let’s work together to leverage it for the community,” lead to enormous impacts.

Dawn said after sharing with the AAA that information about the library’s meeting room “we started to get together, and they were very excited about that. They didn’t know that we have meeting rooms to use that were free to the public.”

Ultimately, the group expanded to include the mayor, a grocery store, and a food bank. The group all came together around the realization that the library’s meeting space would be perfect to use during the lunch hour for what in the gerontology community is called congregate meals, but in the library they decided to call it an Encore Cafe.

The group all got together and their orienting question was, “Why can’t we do this? If you have the funding, we have the space. Let’s do this,” Dawn recalled.

With the support of a local grocery store, the library started the award-winning Encore Cafe, which, even with the disruptions of the COVID-19 Pandemic, as of 2023, continues to be a vital source of nourishment, social connections, and collaboration in the small town of Marion, Iowa.

As Madeline Jarvis from the library shared, “There was a gentleman who said this was the first time he had lunch with somebody since his wife died seven years ago. We heard from another gentleman who said that he hadn’t slept so well in years, because he felt like he had a purpose” in coming to the library’s Encore Cafes.

This case study explores how informing and educating a community about how to work with the library creates enormous dividends, for the library and for the community as a whole. Join us in this exploration.

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:

– Assume that most agencies and organizations in your community or region do not know how the library operates.

– Assume that all agencies need help learning how to work collaboratively with you or the library.

– Pro-actively work with agencies to educate them, and then to find service models that work for all organizations (win-wins).

Background to Marion, Iowa

Marion is a city in Linn County, Iowa, United States. The population was 26,294 at the 2000 census and was 41,535 in 2020, an increase of 58%. The city is located next to Cedar Rapids and part of the Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Statistical Area.

In 2020, an extreme wind event called a derecho tore across much of Iowa, including Marion. The Mayor called it the largest natural disaster in Marion history. The public library was destroyed.

There were at least two silver linings to this tragedy: 1) The library had already been planning to build a new building that would accommodate its growing population, and those plans accelerated after the derecho, and 2) The library staff began working out of the Marion Parks & Recreation Department office, setting the stage for closer working relationships between public library staff and parks & recreation staff. Indeed staff of the two units started working together closely on a variety of outdoor programs, including StoryWalks, during this time period.

The library’s new building opened to the public in November 2022.

  • Location: Marion, IA
  • Population: 41,864
  • Service Area: 46,148
  • Demographics: 92% White, 2% African American, 2% Asian American, 3% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 18
  • Operating Budget: $2,018,983
  • Annual Library Visits: 190,440
  • Annual Programs: 917
  • Annual Program Audience: 17,563

It starts with a conversation. It grows to a collaboration.

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.

Where will it lead?

As the library has become more integrated and attuned to what’s happening in Marion and beyond, it’s become better able to assess what opportunities would be best for the library to lead and what opportunities would be best for partners. Madeline shared that over the years they have developed “a pretty good ear for, say, oh, this is a good library thing, or that is a great parks thing.” Madeline said that differentiation and delegation is “more based on relationships and personalities as opposed to actual areas of strength.”

She gave the example of their first walking book club, which started when a friend opened a bookstore in Marion. That friend reached out to Madeline after the George Floyd murder and said they wanted to do some reading about antiracism and wanted to partner with the library, which lead to a conversation about what a community read could look like in the COVID world. They agreed that outdoors would be best.

That decision led Madeline to the town’s Parks & Recreation department, where she knew someone who had always wanted to do a walking book club. The library and its partners then started working together to brainstorm would could be done. There first community read in the park featured Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning, co-authored by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

This ability to put the pieces together is where your relationships may lead in your community.

Impacts beyond Marion

Area Agencies of Aging typically serve regions, not communities. As a result of the amazing success the Heritage AAA had working with Marion Public Library, it has since invested time and energy to cultivate similarly close working relationships with other libraries in its service areas. A staff member from Heritage AAA said that they they’ve had conversations with a bunch of librarians in their service area, which have lead to Tai Chi programs, and so much more. She said her approach to those conversations is to always say, “We both have groups in common that we need to serve. So how do we meet and serve them together?”

Get started working with your AAA by finding them at the Eldercare Locator maintained by the U.S. Agency on Community Living.

Action Steps: Connections on connections

Take a look at how your library communicates the fact that it is a community partner: Are there new techniques you could use to more effectively get the message out that you want to work collaboratively with your community?

Action Steps:

  • Work together to use what is available in your community. For example, use the library’s meeting room to fill gaps in community services.
    • 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?”
  • Look for ways to turn “no’s” into “yes’s”. A request to set aside space in the library for a senior center turned into on ongoing partnership (Encore Cafe).
  • Library staff can continue to ‘bust myths’ about what libraries are about (not just books and computers, but also meeting rooms, programs, community collaborations).
  • Tell each other (library staff) and tell the community “Why not?” rather than “You can’t!”
  • Look for opportunities to share with the community what the library is doing, even in small day-to-day conversations. These conversations can boost opportunities to build collaborations.

Madeline Jarvis discusses using outreach to better represent library users, by asking relevant potential community partners to participate in official library administrative support roles such, as the library board of foundation. 

“The most important move in my career was the American Library Association Emerging Leaders Program, because not only did it model different methods of engagement, but it gave me my closest collaborators and comrades. Our work focuses more on governing boards and what we can do to be more representative with our stakeholder groups. Our original research question was if millennials use the library more than any other generation, according to Pew, why are they historically underrepresented on friends boards, foundation boards, library boards? That work has really helped me talk about how advocacy is such a strong tool for community engagement. If you’re trying to get a closer relationship with your school, why not invite a teacher to be on your library board? If you’re trying to get the word out there in the business community, why not have a business member on your foundation? Small steps like that to capture the attention of the right audience at the right time. So I would say that is something that was has been really helpful to talk about things like community engagement and community advocacy.” 

In her own work, Madeline used this approach to weaving together engagement and advocacy to build a strong working relationship with the Mayor and the Mayor’s office. She added, “One day we heard the mayor ask why there’s not really a lot for seniors to do in this community. I perked up my ears and I was like, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. So I invited him to coffee, and I said, Hey, could we sit down and chat a little bit more about this. I’d love to tell you all that’s available for seniors at the library. And at the time, it wasn’t a whole heck of a lot. I’ll be honest with you. But I talked about the programs that we did have like, Hey, we have a Scrabble club, hey, we have a knitting circle. And after that, I said, Who else should I be talking to? And he suggested I talk to the Chamber of Commerce, which I’ve since been volunteering with on their Special Events Committee – they have a group called The Winner’s Circle, which is a group of retired business leaders. So I was able to repeat my little spiel about the library to The Winner’s Circle. And that got me in touch with a senior living facility, who had questions about large print books. And they asked if I could do a pop up library at the senior living facility, and even though I wasn’t able to, I formed a great connection with a staff member. And that staff member came to a library board meeting after that conversation. And they said, hey, we’ve heard a lot about what you’re doing in the community for seniors. And that kind of opened the door.”

Within this series of connections we can trace the overall strategies that have enabled the Marion Public Library to achieve success in its community. These strategies include:

  • Assume that most agencies and organizations in your community or region do not know how the library operates.
  • Assume that all agencies need help learning how to work collaboratively with you or the library.
  • Pro-actively work with agencies to educate them, and then to find service models that work for all organizations (win-win’s).

How could you deploy these strategies in your community?