Creating a confluence of community health at the McCracken County Public Library

McCracken County Public Library’s Secret Sauce

  1. Get out of your comfort zone: This could be going new places, meeting new people, trying new programs. Just keep it fresh!
  2. Work to the strength and passion of each staff member: Each person on your team has a unique set of skills and knowledge to share with the community. Let them!
  3. Find layers of community connections: Through civic organizations and community convenings, find others in the community with the same goals and work together.
  4. Work together in an “all hands on deck” approach: Include all staff and all partners in any initiatives, sharing ideas and information and delegating tasks so no individual is overburdened.

McCracken County Public Library utilizes some concrete strategies to make “community confluence” a core component of the library’s operations. We’ll go over these strategies in the next three sections, and then look at how they were utilized by staff to promote bicycling and food access in sections four and five.

But first, a quick introduction to this community: Located in Western Kentucky, the city of Paducah anchors a mostly rural region located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The McCracken County Public Library is also a confluence of different people and organizations.

This story shows how this library did new things by enabling both library staff and community members to share their passions and interests at the library. Under the leadership of an urban librarian from Los Angeles, the library then went further to strategically go out to spaces and conversations throughout the county. These two things – going out and using what you have – built a culture in which things came together through the library, ultimately contributing to an inclusive, healthy community.

Location: McCracken County, Kentucky (population 65,418)
Service Area (Data from IMLS FY2019 Public Library Survey): 65,397
Demographics: 85% White, 11% African American, 3% Hispanic or Latinx population
Staff size: 37.5
Operating budget: $3,137,568
Total library visits: 330,721
Annual programs: 900
Total program audience: 43,100

This case study is part of the HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living) at the Library project funded by U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services (Grant # RE-246336-OLS-20). Our goal in this and other case studies is to showcase how public librarians work collaboratively with others in their communities to advance community health.

A simple step to get started: Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Former library director Susan Baier said that key to the library’s success becoming a confluence has been catching people and organizations where they are and offering nimble support and enthusiasm for whatever goals they have.

How Susan Baier got the library out of its comfort zone

  1. Got involved in other civic groups and community coalitions
  2. Used the strengths of the library to provide support, on-site and via outreach
  3. Educated partners about the library’s community impacts, on-site and via outreach
  4. Developed mechanisms for partners to get involved with the library – starting with signing up for library cards

When Susan Baier moved to Paducah from Los Angeles, California in January 2017, many in the community saw the library very traditionally, as a place for books and lectures and storytimes, and little more.

Even though the library had already been working with community partners, as we will see below, Baier made it her mission to raise the library’s profile as a community partner. She did so by trying to get both herself and her library staff out into the community more.

While most community coalitions are eager for members and volunteers, they often don’t think of the librarians as members of their coalitions. Librarians in turn may feel out of place showing up in a new environment, like party crashers.

Mike Muscarella met Baier through a third-party organization, the local Rotary Club. Muscarella has led the community coalition, Healthy Paducah, since it started in 2014. He did a presentation to the Rotary on their health park initiative, and afterwards Baier approached him and said she and the library wanted to be involved in their coalition.

This meeting initiated a layering of community outreach. First, Baier joined the Rotary, then through the Rotary she joined Healthy Paducah. That connection positioned the library to become involved in a health fair, host flu shots, and transform the local perception of public libraries as health partners.

“I really encourage library staff to be more proactive about our worth, and to put ourselves out there, and to insert ourselves in places that maybe we had not been before, and to raise our profile. I feel like at first we were crashing their party, so to speak. But now I feel like that’s starting to flow back to us. People are more aware of the breadth of our services, and the resources we can provide, and now they are coming to us, and want to hitch their party to our wagon” – Former McCracken County Public Library Director Susan Baier

One important extra step: Empower community members to become library ambassadors

When Muscarella initially invited Baier to give the Healthy Paducah coalition a presentation on the library, she signed up every member of the coalition for a library card and continues to educate them on how the library can help them and their organizations. When she interacts with individuals like Muscarella she not only answers their questions, she also gives them a little extra information about the work the library is doing (and wants to be doing) to support the community.

Muscarella said Baier embodies the ideals of a personal touch combined with a goal of connecting the entire community to the library. He described how active and visible she is in the community, saying, “she not only gets information about what’s going on in our community, she lives it.”

Although he has been an avid patron of the McCracken County Library for 29 years, it wasn’t until Baier reached out to him that he started seeing the librarians as partners for health promotion. Now Muscarella himself signs people up for library cards, reporting that he brings applications for library cards to the meetings he attends, and advocates for the library and the critical work librarians do for the community whenever he can.

Anne Bidwell, Community Impact Manager, United Way of Paducah-McCracken County, on how to get started working with the library: “Please call the director – you should be meeting with them anyway – to start that partnership, and then request that you have an in depth interview so that you talk about your mutual goals and mission, and see what you do together. You will want to invite somebody from the library to join any of the programs that that the United Way has, coalition meetings, reading pals program — we’ve had quite a few librarians be our mentors — having somebody from the library be on your board would be critical, inviting the library staff to do agency tours.”

Section 2: Use what you have, Starting with your staff

A visionary library director can only go so far. To truly transform communities, the entire library has to be engaged and excited. The McCracken County Public Library has a long history of being a place where different ideas and individuals come together.

Indeed, Baier reflected on how she herself was transformed by her library staff.

She told us, “Physical fitness is something that’s never been a big part of my life. I was that awkward kid that was inside reading a book that didn’t want to go outside and play.

“P.E. [Physical Education] was torture for me because I was just so horrible at it. I look at [library fitness programming] through that lens: When we offer these kinds of programs, would it be something that somebody [like me] would be willing to do?”

“But, honestly, the staff here have inspired me to make some changes. I am not an athlete, never will be, you’re not going to catch me on a bike. But now I do semi regularly practice yoga. And that’s because of this library and the staff we have here, and just seeing that model.”

Over her time at the McCracken County Public Library, Baier was transformed from a skeptic of library fitness programming to now even leading her own programs: As library director in Allen County, Indiana, Baier leads a Walk & Talk Book Club in which community members invited to join the Library Director to talk and walk about reading.

Through the confluence of people and organizations at the McCracken County Public Library people’s lives are changed, including the library director!

How did this happen? Everyone’s contributions valued

Since the early 1990’s, the library’s Evening Upstairs and 101 lecture series programs have brought in local experts and enthusiasts, met through various outreach avenues, that are not library staff. These adult programs have enabled the library to highlight all the amazing talents and interests of people in the county, featuring everything from beekeeping to cooking to rock climbing.

Just as the library has long showcased local talent, it has more recently sought to empower library staff to share their interests and passions with the community.

In McCracken County librarians seek and identify people with unique skill sets and find ways to partner with them. This ethos begins with the library staff, all of whom have been encouraged to share their passions with other staff and community members.

Jordan Williams works part-time in the library’s Youth Services Department. She has been dancing most of her life, and she also works at a local dance studio. The library invited Jordan to share her passion for dance in programming, on Tik Tok videos, and throughout her work as a librarian. She said that “it was very mind blowing for those two worlds to cross. The library offers arts in its own way, and dance is an art form. But for those two to completely collide, it was something that I didn’t foresee happening, but I was very excited that they did.”

Nearly identical stories were shared with us by youth services paraprofessionals who also were invited to share their personal passions with the communities. Youth Services Manager Linda Bartley said she relies on her staff’s different backgrounds and interests to utilize their existing connections with potential partners. Like Williams, neither Nicole Brown nor Michelle Batcher imagined that they would bring their personal passions into their work as librarians, but thanks to a supportive administration both have done just that.

Brown is a business owner who runs her own yoga studio. The library director helped Brown see how yoga and librarianship could come together with movement-based storytelling for youth during summer programs and school outreach.

As a farmer, Batcher has a lot of experience with agricultural groups like 4-H. During the COVID-19 pandemic shut-down, Baier and other librarians encouraged Batcher to start a series of Nature Kids virtual programs, described by the library as “an exciting new series starring Ms. Michelle and the natural wonders she finds in her very own backyard!” Batcher said the Nature Kids virtual program was “the most rewarding thing I’ve done over 15 years at the library.”

Similar stories occur again and again at this library, not just in the Youth Services Department. The Public Services Librarian, who in her personal life is an avid biker, was encouraged to mobilize her connections with the local bicycling community to start a book bike program and to begin a monthly community bike ride program. The School Outreach Coordinator, who also has a background in history, started a series of local history walking tours offered successfully both with adults and with teenagers. The Interim Library Director got interested in sharing yoga programs at the library when she herself started practicing yoga – she wanted to share her passion, and initially did so through collaborations with the Kentucky KY Yoga Initiative, a loose conglomerate of Yoga instructors and studios that provided volunteers (and then paid presenters) to do Yoga in the library’s outdoor space.

In this environment where everyone shares, library staff themselves learn from each other. Former library director Susan Baier said that prior to joining the staff of the McCracken County Public Library she had not been an avid exerciser – like a lot of librarians she associated exercise and sports with the culture of jocks and gym rats. Seeing her staff share their passions inspired her to see physical activity differently. Now the library director of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Baier leads her own physical activity program, a walk-and-talk book club.

There are always opportunities for staff and patrons to learn something new at the library!

How McCracken County Public Library leveraged the expertise and interests of both library staff and community members:

Evening Upstairs and 101 lecture series programs – all invited to share their passions

Jordan Williams – shares her passion for dance as library employee

Nicole Brown – shares her passion for Yoga as library employee

Michelle Batcher – shares her passion for nature and agriculture as library employee

Erin Lewis – shares her passion for bicycling as library employee

What passions and interests can your library unleash?

Section 3 – Reaching out: All hands on deck!

McCracken County only has one public library location, and so reaching the whole population requires leaving the building. Susan decided that the library had to find a way to have a presence at every single school’s Back to School Festival. With a dozen McCracken County Public Schools locations, this was not a trivial matter. But Susan and her staff made it work, embracing the ethos of “all hands on deck.” Everyone went out, including Susan herself, to ensure that every single student and family in the county knew about the library and its resources.

Youth Services Manager, Linda Bartley, also embraced this ethos with her staff, taking library staff to schools and after-school settings so that connections can be formed across the institution, and not just with library administrators.

The library’s community partners, such as the local United Way, have also adopted the idea that more can be accomplished for the community when multiple organizations contribute their own unique strengths. Anne Bidwell of the United Way says that the library is perhaps the strongest non-profit in all of McCracken County, in part because of working alongside and with the community to address concerns.

Bidwell said that through her work with the United Way she developed a close working relationship with the school’s coordinator for transitional (i.e. homeless) youth. With Paducah’s winter temperatures averaging in the 30s, staying warm is a critical need. A partnership between the schools and United Way ensures these students have the clothing they need for the winter months. When the school had some winter coats leftover, Bidwell connected the school to the library.

The United Way, the school, and the library then worked together to figure out how to distribute the coats. Because there was no day shelter for the homeless in Paducah, the library is that shelter. Many agencies that serve the low income population require documentation that cannot be produced by those who are homeless, but the library, with no stipulations, has built trusting relationships within the homeless community. “None make you feel safe, like the library can and does,” said Bidwell. So it made sense for these three partners to join forces to get coats to those in need.

The success of this project was possible because of the outreach and engagement Susan Baier and her staff had cultivated with the many community partners striving to improve health and wellness in McCracken County. “I did not know half the stuff that Susan was doing with our homeless population until we brought that committee together. And she shared and that was just mind blowing. So it really opened up my eyes to just how important our library is. And the reach it has.” said Muscarella.

The library started weaving itself into the community by empowering library staff to integrate their passions into their librarianship and inviting the community to become engaged. Emerging organically over thirty years, these layers were reinforced by a library director who prioritized joining committees, and getting involved in multi sector projects, like Healthy Paducah. Library administration worked alongside staff and provided them with the resources to be successful as they were encouraged to get outside of their comfort zone.

Section 4 – Putting the pieces together around bicycling

McCracken lost its bookmobile decades ago due to funding shortages, but their long-term goal of reviving the bookmobile was expanded to include the new health literacy focus, with Brary Bike.

Like many cities in the southern United States, Paducah, Kentucky has historically not been considered bicycle friendly. Avid biker and librarian Erin Lewis recalls times when angry motorists cut her off, flipped her off, and in other ways expressed their displeasure that she was commuting by bicycle. Nevertheless, a growing number of Paducahans embrace cycling.

A major catalyst for the library’s support of biking came in 1987, when Martha Emmons started the local business Bike World in Paducah. Growing up in Appalachia, Emmons’ first job at the age of 14 was to ride in the bookmobile and help people in circulation. She is a lifelong lover of libraries, and so when she moved to Paducah she immediately sought out a partnership with the library.

Noticing that the library had a monthly display of some sort, Emmons requested bike month be highlighted each May. Emmons also noticed a lack of parking for the number of people who rode their bikes to the library. Her first project with the library in 1990 was to install a bike rack in a parking spot, which was eventually moved closer to the entrance for more convenience. Then she worked with the library to offer locks for check out to people who rode to the library without their own locks.

In 2012 Emmons fulfilled her dream of a bike camp for kids, a camp that would help instill both leadership and bicycling skills. As part of the camp, she always took kids to the library and behind the scenes to show them how libraries are managed. Her advocacy for libraries extended to the growing cycling community. She’d advise other bike shop owners to reach a new audience through the library, but not everyone in the community sees how bicycling and public libraries come together in the way Emmons does.

Before 2013, Emmons did not have a kindred spirit within the McCracken County Public Library. Sure, the library staff loved to work with her and to bring her bike camp kids into the library, but that was the extent of the relationship.

That changed dramatically in August 2013 when Erin Lewis was promoted from part-time Library Clerk to full-time Adult Services Library Assistant. Immediately after moving to Paducah, Lewis sought out connections to the cycling community, but the new position gave her more autonomy to develop programming and partnerships. She increasingly mobilized those connections, and in the summer of 2015 she and Emmons developed their first program together in which Emmons led a bicycle safety program at the library.

Two signature collaborations between Lewis, Emmons, and others in the local bike community, most notably the local cycling club, are: 1) Pedal in Paducah’s monthly group bike rides at the library, and 2) Brary Bike, a library book bike.

Pedal in Paducah began because Lewis participated in the weekly Tuesday group rides that started at Emmons’ Bike World. They noticed that the rides would attract the same cyclists every week and considered changing the route to start and end at the library once a month to reach a wider audience.

When the Tuesday night ride moved to the library on the last week of each month they got a huge reception. People of all ages, fitness levels, and backgrounds showed up. The library setting helped cycling feel accessible to those who did not see themselves as athletes. The Bike World rides averaged 25 people, but 40 to 60 attended at the library.

Just as Pedal in Paducah inspired more community members to bike together, Brary Bike inspired more librarians to bicycle.

Emmons and Lewis worked with all library staff who wanted to use the book bike to help them feel safe riding it around the downtown area. Emmons and Lewis offered library staff free hands-on urban bike safety classes, taken during paid staff time, that enabled them to get a feel for riding the Brary Bike through downtown Paducah. About ten library staff eagerly embraced the opportunity.

Lewis said that when she and other staff ride Brary Bike around town the reaction they get is so much different from when they bike as private citizens. Lewis said sometimes she experiences hostility from motorists as a bike commuter, but when she rides Brary Bike people are more courteous, respectful, and accommodating. Brary Bike could be making bicycling safer for all in Paducah.

Emmons said “we’re always there” for the library. Even in summer, Bike World’s busiest time, if there is a maintenance issue with Brary Bike she’ll drop everything to fix it for the library.

As Lewis fostered this partnership with Emmons, she also built a collaboration with current library director, and former adult services librarian, Sarah McGowan. McGowan and Lewis became the catalysts for physical activity for adults at the library, helping each other out with bicycling and yoga programming.

Through this work, fostering connections with the bike community helped to amplify the library’s efforts to leverage all assets of library staff – empowering both internal (Erin & Sarah) and external (Bike World plus the library) partnerships. What an example of a confluence!

In Spring 2019, the McCracken County Public Library was honored with a Public Relations and Marketing Award at the Kentucky Public Library Association conference in Lexington. The award was given in recognition of the library’s book bike — Brary Bike. It’s a cargo bike the library uses to pedal free books out in the community.

Brary Bike had been up to that point in four parades and had been a regular sight at festivals and other community events since it rolled out in late 2017. It inspired the creation of the library’s Pedal in Paducah community bike ride program in collaboration with Chain Reaction Cycling Club, and it delivers free books to students at Paducah Independent Schools’ summer Nutrition Bus meal sites.

Section 5: Putting the pieces together around food security

The story of how the library became a distributor of summer meals illustrates how these pieces come together. When she got to Paducah, Baier learned about Project Pomona, a nonprofit focused on setting up tiny pantries with churches. With just a few texts back-and-forth with Project Pomona’s director, and clearance from her library board, Susan was able to set up a little food pantry at the library in June 2019, and it took off immediately, both with people giving and taking food. The community provides ongoing status updates on the Paducah Mini Food Pantry Facebook page, so people are aware of when it has been restocked.

Based on that community involvement, Project Pomona started bringing meals every other week to the library to give away to those in need. During their “#feedingpaducah Fridays” Project Ponoma set up a hot dog cart at the library to provide meals and raise funds for future meal distributions.

Stemming from this partnership, and seeing the need that Project Pomona was filling, Susan decided that in her personal life she was going to volunteer for the local food pantry. Susan encouraged her staff to get involved .

Deciding to help, Youth Services Librarian Lea Wentworth met Lynsi Barnhill at the pantry, who coordinates food and nutrition services for Paducah Schools. Lynsi also volunteered with Project Pomona, and so had met some library staff through that as well.

How Lea and Lynsi met matters because this story shows us how librarians being involved community members leads to librarians being able to do more with community members.

Through these overlapping connections, the library became ever more woven into community efforts to address food insecurity. These partnerships can happen in a community of any size, and they can be facilitated by library staff at multiple levels. Library directors can engage and work with local leaders. Library staff can engage and work with front-line staff. And everyone can be working with their colleagues and peers out in the community.

After Lynsi and Lea started talking, the library worked to take their mobile library services to food distribution points throughout the city, and during COVID-19 the school’s mobile pantry – mobile meal bus – was set up in the library parking lot.

During COVID-19, the library also helped support those stuck at home in its #HealthyAtHome Gardening Group, a space for those growing their own food to stay connected.

The library has become a leading voice on the topic of food security. In Fall 2021, librarian Linda Bartley participated in a US Department of Agriculture webinar on “Feeding Your Community: Summer Meals at Libraries” in which she highlighted how the library has supported food security efforts throughout the community.

Conclusions

Key to this success is a library system that aims to support all staff in their own areas of interest, taking what they love to the next level and sharing it with the community. Staff are encouraged to be involved in community partnerships and outreach, starting with whatever connections they may have in the community.

Institutionalizing

  1. Get out of your comfort zone
  1. Work to the strength and passion of each staff member
  1. Find layers of community connections
  1. Work together in an “all hands on deck” approach

Addendum: Where are they now?

These interviews were conducted in Fall 2020. Since then, the library has continued to work collaboratively with a wide range of community partners. To learn more about these efforts, check out the following articles.

Bookmobiles for Justice. (2021, March 1). American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/?p=121969

All aboard the Brary Bus: McCracken library’s bookmobile service to start May 1. The Paducah Sun. Retrieved November 14, 2021, from https://www.paducahsun.com/news/all-aboard-the-brary-bus-mccracken-library-s-bookmobile-service-to-start-may-1/article_e07d09a2-88d6-5f81-9f68-6f0bf0389f1e.html

Library director reflects on “challenging” 2020. The Paducah Sun. Retrieved December 23, 2020, from https://www.paducahsun.com/news/library-director-reflects-on-challenging-2020/article_4b7fb63d-145f-543d-8dba-c5dbbf76af5a.html

Fishing poles available for checkout at library | News | paducahsun.com. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.paducahsun.com/news/fishing-poles-available-for-checkout-at-library/article_1d4b37f2-f262-566a-a9d7-faee520c7a76.html

Fuller, L. (n.d.-b). McCracken County Public Library, Computer Services Inc. Collecting donations for warming center at Washington Street Baptist. WPSD Local 6. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://www.wpsdlocal6.com/news/mccracken-county-public-library-computer-services-inc-collecting-donations-for-warming-center-at-washington-street/article_23d3626a-4ca7-11ec-a3e2-5f45461d604b.html

Gangemella, R. (n.d.). New tiny food pantry to make its home at public library. WPSD Local 6. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.wpsdlocal6.com/news/kentucky-news/new-tiny-food-pantry-to-make-its-home-at-public-library/article_0d338ad3-2ba3-5815-9efa-9ff6080b0c04.html

Parker, M. (2021, July 9). McCracken County Public Library provides life-saving Narcan to public. WSIL. https://wsiltv.com/2021/07/08/mccracken-county-public-library-provides-life-saving-narcan-to-public/

Yu, C. (n.d.). More than meals: Marcella’s Kitchen gives away hundreds of bags of groceries, gifts. WPSD Local 6. Retrieved December 20, 2020, from https://www.wpsdlocal6.com/news/more-than-meals-marcella-s-kitchen-gives-away-hundreds-of-bags-of-groceries-gifts/article_a15e8422-4199-11eb-94c7-57dcfa0e68c1.html

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