A Zoom Call to Unite Them All

In 2020, Karen Knox, the director of Michigan’s Orion Township Public Library realized she needed to transform how her public library communicated and coordinated with the local Parks & Recreation department, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and beyond.

To get that conversation going, Knox reached out to the director of Parks and Rec and told them, “Look, we’re all trying to do the same sort of stuff here. Let’s work together.”

This invitation led to “a big zoom call,” as Knox put it, which included her, the director of Parks & Recreation, and most of the full-time staff of the library and the parks & recreation department. During the call everyone engaged in “brainstorming of what [they] could do” together.

This modest effort to build relationships proved hugely impactful. After staff from the different agencies got to know each other, librarians and parks & recreation programmers worked directly on a number different projects.. Knox added that “since then they have done a few things that haven’t included me in the planning,” including Little Library Scavenger Hunts, in which library patrons are incentivized to go visit little free libraries in area parks.  The Parks & Recreation staff also set up a scavenger hunt on the grounds of the library to encourage citizens to explore the large greenspace located behind the library. 

After setting up the pathways to communication, Knox stepped and allowed her staff to do what they do best: Work collaboratively with others in the community to get things going.

This idea of creating structures that enable, empower, and sustain cross-sector communication and coordination is a strategy that has worked well in this community, and could work well in yours. Read on to learn more!

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:

Strategy | Set up pathways of communication between different organizations to enable relationships not only between agency leaders, but also between front-line staff

– Outcome | Enables and empowers cross-sector communication and coordination

– After connections are made, relationships can be leveraged without always having to go through leadership for approval

Background: Orion Township Public Library

The Orion Township Public Library is located in a small town on the northern edge of the Detroit Metro area in Lake Orion, Michigan. The library has a large open green space behind its building. That green space was recently connected to Polly Ann Trail, “a major non-motorized trail in Oakland County extending north from Orion Township in suburban Detroit on a former Pontiac, Oxford & Northern Railroad corridor.” The library is about 3 miles from downtown Lake Orion.

Due in part to its location somewhat removed from downtown, the library has worked exceedingly hard to be visible in the community. This work has paid off: Molly Lalone, Executive Director of the Lake Orion Downtown Development Authority said that the library has been a “pro-active partner: We can count on them.” This reputation has led community partners to reach out to the library on a regular basis. Lalone said “when we are thinking about doing things, we’re definitely thinking about how the library can be involved, and what makes what will make sense for them? Because we we can count on The Orion Township Public Library.”

The library tries to be visible not only in the community, but also within the Michigan library profession. Knox always encourages staff to go and present at conferences, and Knox herself led a program on partnerships for the Michigan Small and Rural Library conference. 

The Library of Orion Township
  • Location: Orion Charter Township, Oakland County, MI
  • Population: 38,392
  • Service Area: 35,394
  • Demographics: 88% White, 2% African American, 4% Asian American, 6% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 28
  • Operating Budget: $2,184,937
  • Annual Library Visits: 184,746
  • Annual Programs: 1,235
  • Annual Program Audience: 23,637

How Section: Get to know your community and become known in the community

The Zoom call to unite them all during the pandemic built on a strong foundation of library staff engaged with the staff of other organizations throughout their service area. Knox is a member of the the Chamber of Commerce and also participates in monthly meetings of the Lake Orion Area Collaboration Team – an organization that includes the library, the schools, local government, the downtown development authority.

All full-time library staff also have as part of their paid duties the expectation of being involved in some sort of community-wide agency. The agency outreach coordinator Beth Sheridan participates in is a Senior Advisory Committee in which all members share what their organization is doing related to seniors. Sheridan said “I do believe the reason we do all these collaborations, including the healthy living ones, is that our director does encourage that.”

To illustrate the benefit of participating in these community-wide agencies, Knox described how Lake Orion Area Collaboration Team led to Orion Living Magazine. Now, according to Knox “instead of doing our own [library] newsletter, now we’re part of this Orion Living Publication that is mailed to every household. It’s cheaper, if everybody comes together to share the cost. And then the information is out there too. Everybody can see how the library is doing stuff.”

During the pandemic the Lake Orion Area Collaboration Team expanded even further to include other community leaders and faith leaders, who all come together online to figure out how everyone can stay connected and support each other, and the community. 

Knox’s advice about how to get started doing this work is “to be out in the community. You have to get to know who’s out there in the community. If I was talking to a new library director that was trying to figure out how do I do this, [I would say] go to the chamber meetings, go to the municipalities, talk to parks and rec, talk to your schools and make a relationship with your superintendent, so that you can become known as the library person in their community. And then invite them in to your library, invite them in to see what you have.”

Knox also acknowledged that the work never ends. She told a reporter, “Even with all of the things that we try to do outreach-wise, partnership-wise, when Orion Living Magazine came to be, all of this stuff — I still feel like there is a very large lack of awareness of what our library offers this community and what an amazing resource it is. I also think libraries have that across the country. How do you get people to understand when they’re so focused on so many other things? There’s just so much going on in the lives of people.”

Library staff also said that building a culture of collaboration takes time. Knox and Sheridan said that in the past there was less interest in outreach among some of the library’s staff, but as outreach work has been successful – and when others in the library see the benefits of that outreach work – then more library staff want to be part of that culture, and want to do it themselves.

According to Head of Youth Services Ashley Lehman, at the end of the day this work comes down to building relationships between people. Discussing her work to build working relationships with local schools, Lehman called it her “grassroots campaign to start a school partnership: I tried to talk with whoever was in charge, like the principal. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, great. That’s awesome.’ But really, the person who got it going was one fifth grade teacher. Specifically with that battle the books program, it was myself and one teacher were the ones that put it together. And it kind of just grew from there.”

As this quote illustrates, sometimes the most successful way to build relationships is to start with organization leadership. In other instances, the most successful approach is to start with front-line staff. There is no one way to build inter-organizational collaboration. Having the persistence to keep searching for a partner is key to success.

The final part of this library’s success has been to be up-front about what the library needs in these partnerships. Molly Lalone shared that Knox “is very clear about what she thinks that the downtown should be doing to help support the library. She very clearly lets us know what we should and shouldn’t be doing. And that’s good. That’s it’s important that we understand what the needs [of the library] are, and and what our role is. And I appreciate that she communicates those things with us.” 

As the library strives to work collaboratively with others, it never loses sight of the fact that it also needs others to work collaboratively with it. Being up front about what the library needs is key to long-term success.

Where will it lead? Librarians led the way!

The culture of collaboration in this community has produced so many health benefits!

This section briefly describes some of those health impacts.

Molly Lalone described how the library staff have increased awareness of the community’s trail system, while inspiring all to get out walking and biking on those trails to explore the community. Lalone stated that “this area has has an extensive Rails-to-Trails [greenway] system, and the downtown is connected to that [as is the public library]. When the book bike comes in to downtown from the library, people are reminded that we have a trail system that allows the library on the other side of town to come see us downtown by using their bike. Furthermore, having a librarian ride their bikes, these book bikes are big, gigantic — and they’re wearing their bike safety gear — really helps remind the public that everybody can be healthy. And it’s clean energy! It is a point of delight for the children, when they see their librarian that they know, from their library, at their playground in the park, or, you know, somehow in their town where they didn’t expect to see them [such as downtown]. They are just so delighted to see their friends, the librarians, on the street instead of at the library.”

This quote illustrates the power of librarians physically out in the community, using book bikes and greenways to model healthy habits and inspire others to be active as well. Learn more in this segment on Books on Bikes made by the local public television channel.

The library now volunteers that also take the book bike out into the community. Director Karen Knox encourages all staff to give the book bike a try as well. The bike goes to bus stop routes to meet kids after school, and the model was shared with the Michigan Library Association to inspire other librarians to consider getting active outside. 

According to Sheridan, the book bike was made possible entirely through community partnership – a community member donated the money for it and Holy Spokes, a non-profit community organization maintains it for the library. The library and Holy Spokes have also organized biking and walking programs on the local Rails-to-Trails greenway to get local residents active outside on this amenity. 

Food as an outcome of opening the library up to the community

Another product of this culture of collaboration is the ability for those in need to drop off food at the library. The library has facilitated food drives, or the collection of food, to be distributed by Oxford/Orion FISH Food Pantry. Knox said “it’s important for the library to be seen as a key service in the community” and offering the space to help out, not only in food drives, but by hosting blood drives at the library as well.

Another example of the library opening up to the community appears in the Gardening Angels community initiative. Local residents volunteer to build and maintain the gardens around the library, which ensures the outside of the library always looks great. It also creates opportunities for community members to learn about gardening and to share information and expertise about gardening.

Building interest in health is critical

Beth Sheridan said that it takes time to build staff interest in health, and that without that personal interest it can be hard for library staff to feel motivated to engage in community health partnerships. Sheridan said, “I really think it takes having a staff member that’s interested in the topic to make it happen. The [Youth Services Librarian] has developed a lot of healthy living programs for for youth, more than the person before, although the person before was a great youth department head, but maybe didn’t have the interest. I’m looking at all the programs I’ve done over the years, and I think I’m the only one [doing adult health programs]. It just helps to have a staff member that is very interested in the topic to make it happen at the library.”

Karen Knox said in her previous library work she had not been engaged in health promotion partnerships, but she is a huge proponent of workplace wellness, and she sees community wellness as an extension of workplace wellness. Furthermore, by prioritizing the health of library staff, Knox also inspires them to consider the health of the community. Knox embraces a broad approach to workplace wellness, which has included everything from January weightloss challenges to making sure staff have good insurance coverage to prioritizing mental health.

As an example of how workplace wellness can become community wellness, Knox shared that during a staff in-service day the library brought in a holistic nutritionist to do a program for staff. That program went so well that they brought back the nutritionist to do a public program.

Getting Started: 9 lessons from this library

1) Create a list of potential partners and the contacts you plan to use for that organization. Example: Beth keeps an updated spreadsheet of contacts.

2) If you hit a dead end think about who else you could contact in priority organizations. Example: Ashley had trouble with the school leadership, so started with a classroom teacher

3) Consider creating the expectation that all staff participate in community-wide agencies, and model how to do this work. Example: Karen participates in Chamber of Commerce and makes sure to prioritize what library needs from partnerships, as well as what library can contribute

4) Email priority partners and ask them to meet with you

5) Ask yourself ‘where is our library strong, and where is our library weak.’ If your library has historically not done much in terms of health partnerships, perhaps you need to get library staff excited about health and wellness. That excitement could start from something as simple as a workplace wellness event featuring a fun, interactive healthy cooking demonstration.

6) Whenever you do something collaboratively with a partner, take time to debrief. Enquire as how it worked for them, and also share with them how it went for you and for your library. Library staff here have found that partners appreciate this opportunity to reflect with library staff.

7) Be open to ideas from your partners. In this community, the Downtown Development Association say that a nearby community did a poetry walk in which poems were posted in the pages of downtown businesses. Molly took this idea to Ashley and they then worked together to make it happen.

8) Be aware that your partners may not always work the same way you do. When working with grassroots non-profits, capacity can ebb-and-flow over time. The library has found that it is key to be understanding when non-profits and faith-based partners do not always work at the same professional level that they and other governmental institutions are accustomed to.

9) Keep the momentum going to inspire change! This library has over time built momentum internally and externally. Historically, the library had not been very involved in community partnerships or health promotion work. A few staff members made huge changes. Start where you are and see where it leads!

Additional resources to learn more

$30K donated for Orion Township Public Library renovations. (n.d.). The Oakland Press. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.theoaklandpress.com/news/nation-world-news/30k-donated-for-orion-township-public-library-renovations/article_b3c3dfdc-f52e-5cc4-ba42-30d0c8d7d81b.html

2016 MLA Partners in Your Community | Powered by Box. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://uncg.app.box.com/file/735142394105

Bike Bookmobile—GoFundME. (n.d.). Gofundme.Com. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.gofundme.com/f/28rbz7md

‘Enjoy the Ride’ kids: Holy Spokes donates 110 children’s bicycles to Free Bikes 4 Kidz | Lake Orion Review. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://lakeorionreview.com/enjoy-the-ride-kids-holy-spokes-donates-110-childrens-bicycles-to-free-bikes-4-kidz/

Holy Spokes is here until 12:00 today for our… – Orion Township Public Library | Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://m.facebook.com/OrionLibrary/posts/10157176786329049

Home—Orion Area Chamber of Commerce, MI. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from http://www.orionareachamber.com/

Journal, L. (n.d.). Karen Knox | Movers & Shakers 2012—Recession Busters. Library Journal. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.libraryjournal.com?detailStory=karen-knox-movers-shakers-2012-recession-busters

Karen Knox. (n.d.). Bike Bookmobile Fundraising | Orion Township Public Library. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://orionlibrary.org/bikebookmobile/

Karen Knox: Local librarian wins a national award. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://rochestermedia.com/local-librarian-wins-a-national-award/

Knox, K. (2016). Partners in Your Community. Michigan Library Association.

Library of Michigan—Loleta Fyan Small and Rural Libraries Conference. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan/0,9327,7-381-88855_89737-142226–,00.html

Meet Karen Knox, Orion Library Director. (2012, March 30). Oakland Township-Lake Orion, MI Patch. https://patch.com/michigan/oaklandtownship/ev–meet-karen-knox-orion-library-director

Meet Karen Knox: Orion Township’s Library Director | Lake Orion Review. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://lakeorionreview.com/meet-karen-knox-orion-townships-library-director/

Newell, J. (n.d.). Orion Library presented with gift from “Friends.” 28.

Orion Library. (2021, March 27). Have you been to @LakeOrionDDA lately? Check out our story walk featuring the family favorite “Five Little Ducks”. Read the story as you follow the path and explore the downtown area! There will be a new story next month, so get downtown ASAP! https://t.co/IbrbmvOkBn [Tweet]. @OrionLibrary. https://twitter.com/OrionLibrary/status/1375907704305111043

Orion Township Public Library: Books on Bikes Promo. (2016, December 12). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uKdKYDN2hs

Orion Township Public Library Rides Into Events With New Bookbike. (n.d.). Innovative Interfaces Inc. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.iii.com/blog/orion-township-public-library-rides-events-new-bookbike/

Orion Township Youth Services examples. (n.d.).

Orion Twp. Library hits the streets with StoryWalk in downtown Lake Orion | Lake Orion Review. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://lakeorionreview.com/orion-twp-library-hits-the-streets-with-storywalk-in-downtown-lake-orion/

Our Library Bookbike | Orion Township Public Library. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://orionlibrary.org/bookbike/

Oxford/Orion FISH Food Pantry. (n.d.). Oxford/Orion FISH Food Pantry. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from http://oxfordorionfish.org/

Partners- Holispokes. (n.d.). Holy Spokes. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://holyspokes.org/partners

The Oakland Press (Director). (2017, June 17). Karen Knox, director of Orion Township Public Library, talks about bringing the Family Place Library to Orien Township Library. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Jz03xfGQdI

Treck or Ride the Trail with the Orion Township Library—Saturday, September 24, 2016, 10:00 AM – Orion Township Public Library. (n.d.). LocalHop. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://getlocalhop.com/treck-or-ride-the-trail-with-the-orion-township-library/event/RZzr3UhIn0/

Twitter, J. M. jessica mclean@oakpress com @jessmax1hope on. (n.d.). Orion Township library hosts close-up look at Japanese culture at annual “Passport to Spring” event. Macomb Daily. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.macombdaily.com/news/nation-world-news/orion-township-library-hosts-close-up-look-at-japanese-culture-at-annual-passport-to-spring/article_df8ee6bc-f7bb-51eb-8f19-60b980b07dea.html

Welcome to the Michigan Library Association—MLA – Lansing, MI | Michigan Library Association. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.milibraries.org/