From Informal Small Town Connections to Strategic Partnerships

In the small town of Pella, Iowa, there exists a long tradition of library staff working informally with others to get things done. Jeanette Vaughhn, who oversees Community Services for the town, said over the years she’s routinely seen library staff at various community events, which prompts her to think of potential collaborations. For instance, at one community event Vaughn saw then library director Wendy Street wearing a sweatshirt featuring a Monarch butterfly, which led Vaughn to think of inviting Street and the Pella Public Library to join the parks department (part of Community Services) in a community-wide effort to support monarch butterflies

This informal culture of collaboration worked very well, but it was also limiting in the sense that it did not enable library workers to proactively plan with potential partners on what they could do together.

To make these collaborations more strategic, when Mara Strickler became the library director in 2019, she made it a priority to become actively involved in the Pella Wellness Consortium, a group founded around 2016 that had worked with the library, but in an informal fashion.

Mara really wanted to get involved, and her curiosity about the consortium opened the door to an invitation to join it. Mara joined the consortium as an active member, attending meetings and participating in community-wide planning.

That active participation in this cross-sector organization opened the door to new opportunities to be involved in community planning on everything from bicycling to mental health.

In this case study, we’ll explore how Pella achieved success through leveraging both informal and formal collaboration techniques. One is not necessarily better than the other – they’re just different! Learn about both and see what will work in your community.

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:

  • In a small town, there is a certain truth to the expression that everyone knows everyone. But that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to work together with everyone else
  • This library’s success comes from being visible in the community
  • And then seeking structured ways to be at the table with others planning for the future of the community

Background on Pella

Pella is a town of about 10,000 in central Iowa, located about an hour from the state capital of Des Moines. It’s known for being home to the Pella Corporation (a window and door company), Central College, and a sizable Dutch-American population.

In 2000, the current Pella Public Library opened. The library has the most tech-rich public space in Pella (outside of the local college) and endeavors to share its technology, tech-focused spaces, and tech know-how with others. 

the sign of the city of Pella Public Library surrounded in tulips
  • Location: Pella, IA
  • Population: 10,744
  • Service Area: 18,212
  • Demographics: 93% White, 1% African American, 4% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 9
  • Operating Budget: $661,313
  • Annual Library Visits: 89,577
  • Annual Programs: 701
  • Annual Program Audience: 9,352

Informal and formal cultures of collaboration

This library’s success built upon a long-standing tradition of librarians using connections formed in the small town of Pella to form programs and partnerships. When a new library director came in, she took this informal small town culture and strategically advanced it, transforming an informal culture of sharing into a strategic focus for the library.

Informal cultures of collaboration

Pella’s Community Services director Jeanette Vaughn said, “The window right behind me [in my office] is their back entrance door. So I’m always like [opening my window and saying], ‘Hey, Katie [youth services librarian], what do you have going on?’”

Community Services and the library collaborate all the time to share spaces, resources, and expertise, including a StoryWalk launched during the pandemic. Jeanette said that her department has access to a lot of indoor and outdoor spaces, while the library has access to a lot of technology. They try to work together, usually informally, to maximize these resources. The library shares its technology and technology-rich spaces, and community services shares its greenspaces and large meeting rooms. 

Given the dense relationships of small town life, Youth Services Librarian Katie Dreyer has had success with cold calling partners to ask them to work with her. She said it’s usually not an issue to get someone to help, and they’ll in turn seek the library’s assistance. Katie said a lot of her partnerships have been built upon her local connections in the community, which she’s established by living there since 2007. In fact, one of the coordinators of Families First of Pella said that Katie is often a good person to work with because she has so many good contacts in the community.

This same culture of collaboration also exists within the library. Library assistant Carol Weihe, whose responsibilities include adult programming, told us that the library once had a laser tag night started by Katie for teenagers, but Carol the potential for creating one for adults too. She said people loved it. 

Another great example of informal community collaboration at this library appears in this story: At a quilt retreat Carol attended as a private citizen, she started talking with a friend who works at the local hospital about nutrition programs they could do together. That conversation led to Carol formally reaching out to the hospital, both to have the library help promote the hospital’s existing nutrition programs, and to bring some of those programs to the library. A representative from the hospital we spoke to said, “Libraries are great programming spaces for hospitals because people don’t want to go to a hospital if they don’t have to.”

Jeanette said that in a small town people pick up on other people’s interests and use that knowledge to build partnerships. A powerful way to jump-start library participation in health partnerships is for library staff to demonstrate their interest in health and health promotion. For instance, Katie shared in her personal life she has become very interested in Yoga. Katie then brought that personal passion into her approach to librarianship. For instance, she said in August 2020 that the city had a workplace wellness initiative called Active August with a calendar sent out to employees listing tips for staying active each day of the month. She said if she had received that calendar a decade ago she’d probably just throw it in the trash, but she said it now resonated more with her, and so she shared the tips daily on the library’s Facebook page so that the wellness tips could reach not only town employees, but the entire community. The daily tips included things like taking a walk and looking around, and even a push up challenge, which led the library to make a video of Katie and library’s assistant director Chris doing the push-up challenge together and sharing it on Facebook. She said her recently discovered personal passion for Yoga inspired her to encourage her community to stay active during COVID-19.

This style of informal collaboration served the library well, but it also has its limitations. Katie Dryer, Youth Services Librarian, told us that the Pella Regional Hospital has an annual health fair that the library has never been invited to, although they would like to be invited. Since the collaborative relationship the library has with the hospital is so informal, there is no mechanism the library can use to strategically plan with the hospital about how they can be part of their health fair, or other community health offerings. Hopefully, in the future with the library’s more intentional focus on building partnerships that opportunity to participate in the hospital health fair will arise!

A formal culture of collaboration

To make these collaborations more strategic, when Mara Strickler became the library director in 2019, she made it a priority to become actively involved in the Pella Wellness Consortium, a group founded around 2016.

Krista Leonard, who started the Wellness Consortium, told us that from its beginning members had worked with the library, but in an informal way. The library was a partner on their Community Common Read Experience series, but neither Kristi nor Wendy thought that the library should actually join the consortium as a member. 

Mara really wanted to get involved, and her curiosity about the consortium opened the door to an invitation to join it. At the time of the interview, in addition to being an active member, Mara was the treasurer for the Pella Wellness Consortium. Mara also helped the Consortium develop their conflict of interest document by sharing the library’s form as a model. 

Through the consortium, new opportunities have emerged. In addition to hosting wellness programs at the library, the library has also used these new connections to discuss the possibility of using the local college’s kitchen for virtual cooking programs. Consortium members lift each other up and promote what each other are doing. For instance, the library helped advertise walking and running programs, as well as mental health first aid programs, organized by other members. 

Kristi said that she learned from her work with Mara that it’s important for health coalitions like hers to see the importance of giving librarians a voice at the table, and not just seeing libraries as resources to be utilized. 

Mara learned about the critical importance of these strategic health partnerships during her experience living and working in Algona, Iowa, as the library director. In 2014, Algona became the first U.S. small community to participate in the Blue Zone Project. A press release from that time stated that “To become a Blue Zone community, the Algona team had to look at six sectors: schools, grocery stores, restaurants, work sites, community policy and individuals. Each sector was asked to make small changes toward improving the community’s physical, mental and social well-being.” Mara participated in the Blue Zones Project, and she saw how powerful it can be for libraries to be involved in cross-sector work focused on improving overall community health. Mara also wanted to make sure that the library’s approach to health was complementary rather than competitive. In Algona, she worked with others to install a garden at the library. Pella already had a garden, but Mara saw opportunities to further promote it through seed give-aways. 

The Pella Wellness Consortium, and things like it, help the library and its partners accelerate their pre-existing culture of collaboration. As Jeanette said in a small town like Pella, “It’s really just that visual – just seeing each other and greeting each other every day – that I think helps us.” The library and community services collaborate. Having a structured, regular convening helps ensure that this collaboration is given the structure and attention it deserves and does not fall through the cracks.  

Balancing formal and informal

Mara said that this attempt to make collaboration more strategic has not been completely successful yet. One of her ongoing challenges is to ensure that everyone in the library is in the loop about what everyone else is doing, so opportunities to collaborate become obvious. Technology and shared calendars have helped with that, but it remains a work in progress. Similar, Mara has tried to instill consistency in communication with outside partners, through participation in things like the Wellness Consortium, as well as policies on consistency in the library’s use of social media. She tries to balance these procedural changes with an open door policy – everyone is welcome to drop in and talk with her. Through this open door policy, Mara strives to have the best of both worlds: Formal procedures and structures combined with informal opportunities to share, dream, and perhaps even commiserate and support one another. 

Where will it lead?

This image from July 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, illustrates how the different cultures of collaboration in this town came together. The informal cultures of collaboration that enabled the library to work closely with community services around butterfly conservation, enabled the library and community services (which oversees the city’s parks and the town’s Art Center) to continue working collaboratively during the pandemic.

The two partners worked to create this joyful public art that also encourages some fun physical activity in nature.

The signal boost from the Pella Wellness Consortium reflects the library’s increasing engagement in more formal collaboration structures, including active participation in the consortium.

How are informal and formal cultures of collaboration woven together in your community? Let us know at the bottom of this page!

Action Steps for Increasing Collaboration and Community

Take stock of your library’s existing relationships, including those formed by part-time and paraprofessional staff. Start to record this network and then think strategically about how to make this work more efficient, visible, and supported.

Making time for meeting/collaboration

  • Structured, regular convening ensures collaboration is established and given the attention it deserves 
  • Open door policy allowing for flexible meeting times
  • Greeting people is important, just for touching base and such 

Seeking out partnerships

  • Cold calling can be successful. And a bonus is the partner will seek the library’s assistance as well.
  • Taking interest in active community groups can lead to partnerships and boosting community services.
    • Example: Mara becoming a part of the Pella Wellness Consortium and really taking an interest in that group’s endeavors led to solid partnership.
    • Already existing entities like PWC accelerate preexisting culture of collaboration.
  • Tap local connections for additional collaboration opportunities.
    • Example: Katie living in Pella for a while has built local connections. Living locally also pertains to visibility; people see you as part of the community and may have more trust in you.
  • Informal communication at community events can lead to collaborations.
    • Example: A quilt retreat leads to hospital-library collaboration, including nutritional programs and promotion and hosting of more programs.

It all comes down to taking stock of your library’s existing relationships starting to think strategically about how to enhance impact, visibility, and support.

Learn more in our Cultivating the Relationship-Driven Library Toolkit.