Care about Yourself, Care about Your Partners, Care about Your Community

The core ethos of the McArthur Public Library is caring. This caring spirit of culture shows up in large and small ways. Emily A. Estell, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of New England in the Department of Nutrition does cooking and nutrition classes in collaboration with the McArthur Public Library. She recalled that the library always reserved a parking space for her. She said that this small gesture exceeded her expectations and represented the type of care that the library exhibits when working with its staff, partners, and community.

Emily added that the library staff themselves show up and engage in the cooking classes she does at the library, which makes a big difference. Because the library staff care, the community cares too. Since librarians are trusted members of the community, Emily was able to establish trust with participants that came to her classes. It made the patrons feel more comfortable. The librarians asked questions and participated and that helped break the ice.

Danielle Fortin conveys how that ethos also pervades how library staff treat one another: “We feed really well off each other. When I first got there, we were talking about like diversity programs and I said I know this organization in New Hampshire that would come do a thing for us. And so we did a drag queen story hour with this outside organization. [Another library staff member] has the local ties, I have the wider net, and we work really well together with each of our strengths, and they feed off each other. And it’s amazing. It’s really rewarding. And it’s one reason why I really love MacArthur so much. People have said to me, ‘I’m so glad you found your library. You fit so well there.’ It really is true. We all just kind of feed on each other’s strengths and like bolster each other’s weaknesses. And there’s no judgement, like [another library staff member] knows I’m not great at at small social interactions. So she’s that liaison for me. And I’m good at that wider range kind of networking. So it’s really amazing how well we feed off each other.”

Below we’ll see how this ethos of care and collaboration has led to new opportunities to be a part of community health in Biddeford, Maine.

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:

  • Small gestures speak volumes
  • Show up and be engaged
  • Care about others in your library and in your community
  • Be willing to collaborate

Background / Setting Up the Case Study:

For years, Biddeford, Maine (pop. 21,000) was known as “Trash Town” because of the industrial garbage incinerator right downtown. But the facility provided 80 jobs and was the largest taxpayer in a town without a lot of options.

The McArthur Public Library has been a cornerstone of downtown Biddeford since it opened in 1902. The library has been a key partner in efforts to revitalize and transform both the downtown area and the community as a whole. This multi-sector organizing made it clear that residents wanted the incinerator gone. That gave officials the backing they needed to buy the facility and close it. The move triggered major reinvestment with more than 90 new businesses and $90 million invested into the downtown area, including a $50 million boutique hotel and $15 million in affordable housing.

The town has been very careful in its downtown revitalization to avoid gentrifying and pricing out long-term residents. “We are creating successful economic development that pays tribute to where we came from. Without that base, we risk becoming ‘some revitalized city’ instead of an evolving Biddeford with culture and flavor and strengths that need to be maintained while adding the new,” said Delilah Poupore, Executive Director, Heart of Biddeford.

Holly Culloton, another leader in Heart of Biddeford, said that the McArthur Library is an integral part of downtown. Library staff are always there for any celebratory events or special events happening in downtown, which makes a huge difference both in the community and in how the library is perceived as a partner.

Biddeford is also home to a college and is the youngest city in Maine. This point matters because, with so many young people, there is a palpable energy in the town oriented towards change and innovation.  

  • Location: Biddeford, ME
  • Population: 22,552
  • Service Area: 21,500
  • Demographics: 91% White, 1% African American, 3% Hispanic, 3% Asian American, 2% Other
  • Staff Size: 13
  • Operating Budget: $1,231,514
  • Total Library Visits: 11,536
  • Total Program Audience: 11,741

How MacArthur Cares

Caring means that even if things don’t work out you trust that people are trying and you’re committed to keep trying. This caring ethos was put into place in this library.

During the pandemic the library helped local businesses by spending their programming money on gift certificates to local places as prizes for the book club. Then they promoted the business during that time at the library.

In turn, the town has been very supportive of the library, inviting the library to participate in civic events and even helping to mark walking paths with paint when the library has done walking programs in the past. Holly Cullotan described it as a “boots on the ground library.”

Given this ethos of caring, the library staff also have a very fluid mindset. If a partnership doesn’t work out, it’s okay, it just may not be the right time. They don’t assume the partner failed or let them down, they just assumed it wasn’t the right time. 

Library staff try to go in with a listening ear, asking what the community needs first.

They also use their unique life experiences to find novel partnership opportunities. For instance Melanie Coombs, Adult Services Librarian, moved to town in order to care for an aging parent. This background makes her uniquely able to see how the town is set up for seniors and where the gaps are in services, which in turn led her to become actively involved in an Age-Friendly Biddeford Community Coalition

The library got involved in physical survey of the community to see how walkable it is for seniors, and the library now supports seniors to walk to the library, including providing walking maps. The library also got a grant for memory care programs. The library got involved in Age-Friendly Biddeford by simply reaching out to them and joining them: Being interested and wanting to be involved. Other initiatives of Age-Friendly Biddeford include gathering buckets of sand to de-ice seniors driveways and securing free medical equipment. These are not all library programs, but because the library is an active member of the coalition the library is always involved in whatever Age Friendly Biddeford may be working towards. 

The library has similarly been involved in a Healthy Main Street initiative and a Heart of Biddeford downtown development initiative.

Deanna McNamara is the worksite wellness coordinator for the library. She is a certified worksite wellness coordinator and she encourages staff to walk on their lunch break. She wanted staff to get out and walk, which led her to the Healthy Main Street coalition. They put in a 7-minute workout station in a park. As the Youth Services librarian, McNamara tries to focus on the whole family because modeling healthy behavior is important for the parents she feels.

Since she started at the library, Melanie has been involved with health initiatives. She credits her colleague Deana for getting her involved. Melanie is an active hiker and they got involved in mapping walking routes in the town and working on grants on staff wellness – get weight loss challenge and bought an Instapot for the library.

By being involved and caring for one another, the library creates a culture of health both within its worksite and also finds ways to get involved in creating cultures of health out in the community.

Where will it lead?

Three examples of what caring collaborations can lead to:

  • Cooking classes at MacArthur help increase diversity in program attendance. Emily Estell recalled that her most diverse cooking programs have been at the McArthur Public Library. Participants include people of all ages, immigrants, refugees, and librarians all coming together to cook!
  • This ethos of care opens the door to many opportunities to be involved in community partnerships, including Age-Friendly Biddeford initiatives, Community Gardens, Nutrition Classes, Nature/Outdoor initiatives.
  • When the library became a pick up spot for a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), the town of Biddeford’s participation in the CSA went from only 2 boxes to 15. That is the power of library partnerships!

Action Steps for Creating an Ethos of Care

Acton steps:

  • Look for partners that embody a caring ethos.
    • One of the library’s committed partners is Patrice Leary of Kids Free to Grow Maine. She said that to her it is key to “really listen to what the needs of the library are. [And asking] how can I help you in offering the best programming for your community, and in turn that helped me reach the parents that might need a little extra support.” To reach those vulnerable parents at the library, Leary says “I have to listen to what [the library’s] needs are. You can’t always go in with just your agenda. Right? You have to be very open ear, what are the needs? How can I help you?
  • Be curious about what is happening in your community, and seek out opportunities to get involved. Care about your community and what people are trying to do to make it better.
    • Melanie said there is a lot of overlap in a larger city like Biddeford so they don’t step on people’s toes (and do health programs that might draw people away from health programs offered in other places) Part of being a caring community partner is noticing what others are doing and inquiring about how you can collaborate and amplify, without competing or stepping on toes.
    • Deanna describes a snowballing example:
      • “The Good Shepherd Food Bank does a food giveaway at the kindergarten center in Biddeford and I contacted them and said, ‘Hey, since you’re doing this food giveaway, can I come and give out free books?’ And so I went, and they have a table there for me So people come in, they can get their food, they can visit me get a free book. I wanted to do it to meet families that maybe weren’t coming to the library, just to build awareness. And in conversations I had with the man running that program, we decided to make the library also a pickup location for food. And we had this great plan, it was supposed to start this summer. And that was to [be in addition to] the free lunch program we already do. I was cleaning out a storage closet, because we would need room to store the food. But I had no idea when I partnered with the school on that food giveaway program that it would turn into [this]. So I find that lots of times the conversations after the fact [after an event], if I am speaking with people, it’s to follow up on some other idea…”
      • The library does one thing with a partner, but then follows up and builds a caring relationship with that partner, transforming a transactional relationship into a caring relationship, one in which unexpected outcomes are possible.
  • Keep a fluid mindset and adaptability. If a community partnership doesn’t work out, it’s okay, it just may not be the right time. Don’t assume the partner failed or let them down, they just assumed it wasn’t the right time.
  • Go in with a listening ear, asking what the community needs first. Find out both what the library’s needs are, and be curious about what is happening in your community.
  • Take what other libraries have done and adapt them to the particular needs of your community.