Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NELA, Day 2 (Part 2)

Howdy Partner!

A library consultant shared lots of great advice on partnering with community organizations such as other libraries, schools, non-profits and businesses. She emphasized good planning - well-thought out partnerships can solve real problems and result in new resources and services. Libraries are desirable partners because of our expertise, resources, and our reputations - we are trusted and valued in our communities. But be selective - your partners should support your strategic goals, share a mission and core values. They should compliment what you have, not duplicate it. They should have a good reputation, adequate resources, be well-managed, and understand win/win. Libraries are often taken advantage of. Davis also highly recommended having a signed agreement, and recommended the book Partnering with Purpose for more good advice.

Interestingly, she cautioned against the most common type of partnerships - that between libraries and local schools. They seem like obvious choices because of a shared mission of learning, but frequently fail because of the vast difference in policies, cultures, and rules.

Much of the session was an open discussion of participants' partnership examples. There were some great ideas such as a library that holds an open mic night at a local coffee shop, and customers who show a library card get a discount on their orders. Another library secured an LSTA grant for a One Book program centered around Last Child in the Woods. They partnered with some local conservation groups - all parties planned programs, and they were all promoted jointly.

But I was troubled by some of the so-called partnerships some of the librarians were sharing. For instance, one library described an attempted partnership with a large business. Librarians submitted an application to the company and in return they were supposed to get $500 and some volunteers to help run a barbecue the library was sponsoring. They depended on the money to be able to execute the event, but at the last minute the company said they couldn't drum  up the 5 needed volunteers and so the library lost out on the volunteers AND the money. In another instance, a bank offered up a table to a local library so they could promote their wares, but when the library called to follow-up, other bank officials insisted they only offered such tables to businesses. In another instance, a library shared this "partnership": they gave us money and we put their logo on all our stuff.

I asked a question: I understand why we would partner with businesses, because they are part of our communities just like other organizations. But how can we do so without crossing a line into something else? If a company gives us money and we in turn put their logo all over our promotional materials, isn't that just advertising?

The speaker's answer was "You know, there was a time when we could take the high road but these days..." I tried to clarify. I asked for examples of library/company partnerships that were ACTUAL partnerships, but the speaker appeared to think my question was rhetorical. I may have come across as though I was criticizing the very idea of partnering with businesses, but I honestly wanted to know the answer.

After the session was over, I talked about it with a colleague. We tried to come up with ways in which a library and a business could partner within the constraints the speaker had outlined, but honestly how many businesses have a shared mission and values with public libraries? I think the coffee shop open mic night was a good example, and I could see partnering with a bookstore, but it seems like the very idea is fraught with ethical as well as practical issues.

I'm not criticizing the speaker, only her answer to that one question. I truly enjoyed her presentation and found her advice invaluable and the discussions inspiring. I'm only troubled by this one issue I'm struggling to understand.

I'm really interested in investigating this: do you know of any successful partnerships between public libraries and private businesses? If so, I'd love to hear about them!

(And for the record, I believe we can ALWAYS take the high road.)

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