Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 2004

Introduction: Partnerships and Outreach for Public Access Computing

by Scott Bradbury, U.S. Library Program Curriculum Manager, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

In addition to fund raising, many resourceful librarians are thinking creatively about leveraging their programs and services through partnerships with other organizations. A true partnership forms a mutually beneficial association between the library and other organizations. According to surveys conducted by the Public Access Computing Project, relatively few libraries reported receiving support for their computing program through forming partnerships (9 percent). Rural libraries were more likely to identify partnerships than were urban libraries, and the most frequently named partners in the rural areas were the local schools or colleges and the local Internet service providers.

In developing successful partnerships, libraries were able to articulate what the library can offer the potential partner (business/organization) and assess what the business/organization can offer the library. A partnership that is mutually beneficial to both sides is one that has the best chance of being successful.

The Webster County Library in Missouri found a mutually beneficial arrangement when they partnered with the local University Extension Service to teach computer skills classes. The small library did not have staff to develop curriculum or teach the classes, so the UES provided an experienced instructor who had a curriculum and handouts prepared. The library provided a meeting space with a fast Internet connection, a lab with ten laptop computers, and assistants for the class. The University was required to charge to cover expenses, but the collaboration kept the prices low—$15 for a two-hour class—and the presentations were professional and extremely effective. The public was exposed to both the library and the UES in this way; many people realized that both organizations offer more services than traditionally expected, and traffic at the branch with Internet access increased after patrons participated in the computer classes.

Partnerships can play an important role in assisting library’s efforts to reach out to new audiences and segments of the community as well. In fact, successful outreach—when a library works to spread the message about library programs and resources to underserved communities—often occurs most readily when a library is able to partner with people and organizations in the community. Other factors of success for effective outreach include the ability of the library to assess unique needs of a target audience and be explicit about the value of library resources for the target population.

The Cornelius Public Library in Oregon was able to successfully reach out to the town’s Hispanic community by partnering with the local Centro Cultural Community Center to offer computer training classes in Spanish. In this case, Centro developed the training and provided the Spanish language instructor, while the library provided on-going access to equipment and resources to conduct the classes. This partnership effort on behalf of outreach brought both organizations closer to their mission of closing the digital divide, and enabled the library to gain a broader base of support in the community.

As illustrated by these examples, and by many others around the country, some general rules about building partnerships apply:

  • Libraries must remember they are presenting organizations and businesses with an opportunity and emphasize the benefits to the organization.
  • Forming partnerships takes time; libraries can start small and nurture strong relationships with just a few other community groups at the beginning.
  • Partnerships don’t have to be financial; partnering with local organizations and agencies that work with non-traditional library users can help libraries reach these populations.
The story of a library that invested a great deal of time and effort in nurturing its relationship with an underserved group in the community follows. Sheila Pfeifer, Chief Librarian at the Lillooet Public Library in British Columbia, shares her experience in building a partnership with the First Nations community.