You Can Do It: Successful Partnerships (Fall 2014)

working together photo by woodly wonderworksIn this interview YALS Editorial Advisory Board member, Nicola L. McDonald, talks with Hennepin County Library’ Youth Services Coordinator and YALSA Board member, Maureen Hartman. The two talk about why partnerships are important, how to make them happen, and some successful examples.

NM – How would you define partnership and how can library services, particularly teen services, benefit from partnerships?

MH – I’ve heard a lot of talk about “collaboration” vs “partnership.” In my head, a partnership is something more formal than a collaboration, but I often use them interchangeably, which is probably incorrect. I define them both as an opportunity for the library and another organization to mutually benefit from a joint undertaking ‘ working together to maximize the resources of both organizations and reach a goal they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own. Libraries in general, but especially teen services, benefit from these partnerships because the library can’t do everything well ‘ we need to cultivate, nurture and rely on partners to reach audiences we wouldn’t already serve, to create services that patrons see a need for but that we don’t have experience with, and to share resources in the community with our patrons.

NM – What are two of the most innovative partnerships you’ve been a part of, how did they develop, and what made each successful?

MH – There are two that I’d like to talk about, and both had really different outcomes. The first is one I began but that other library staff ‘ and the partner ‘ have continued to nurture far beyond our initial brainstorming. I think we’re in our 6th or 7th year of partnering with the Minnesota Historical Society around providing resources to students working on their History Day projects. This is a national program where 6th-12th graders work on an original research project based on a theme. Students need to create a thesis, identify primary sources and then prepare a final project, which can be in a variety of formats. The library has always been a resource for students working on their projects, so we began working closely with the Minnesota History Day staff to highlight library resources and create special events where additional help was available at the library ‘ both from staff and MN History Day staff ‘ to help with crafting their thesis and provide examples of projects. This has been a great way to count some of the work we’ve always done with these students, and to rely on our partners to help promote the events by talking about them with teachers and students. The partnership developed by meeting the right person at the Minnesota Historical Society. Both he and I were in the right position to be able to begin something, and then have it grow and develop over several years. I pursued it because I knew it was a topic that our information services staff would value and be excited about – and so was an opportunity for teen services to work more closely with our colleagues. Over time it has become coordinated by information services staff, not teen services. It has grown into a statewide movement as well.

Another example is very different. Some years ago, when my library system served just the city of Minneapolis, many of us were talking about teen jobs ‘ how to support teens in getting them, where to find out about them, etc. The library took the lead on both the planning and hosting of a teen job fair. In the first year it was not successful ‘ too many kids from rival high schools required the police to be called, etc. The second year, we moved it to our new Central Library, and it has grown, at one point reaching its peak of 1200 teens over a 3-hour period. While there was always a planning group made up of partners from throughout the city, over time library staff ended up with the majority of the work, including a lot of logistics, follow-up with vendors, etc. While my library is committed to continuing to host the event, it was important to bring the partnership back. This year, another partner will be convening and coordinating the partners; the library is at the table but other partners will take the lead in reaching out to vendors and promoting the program. This feels right ‘ the library had become so competent, organized and planful (like we always are!) that other partners didn’t need to step up. A true collaboration can’t be so dependent on just one organization. In order for libraries to cultivate real, sustainable partnerships, we have to give up some control.

NM – In Adrienne L. Strock’s article Reaching Beyond Library Walls (YALS Fall 2014 issue) she says, “partnering can relieve us of the burden of being an expert in all things…” How have you found this to be true in your own partnerships?

MH – My Teen Job Fair example is a good reminder of this. Our biggest challenge comes in reminding ourselves that we don’t HAVE to be an expert in all things. When we hear from teens that they’re interested in learning more about a topic or subject, our inclination can often be to run out and learn more about that topic; whereas we should think, instead, about how to find partners that might know about the topic and are willing to share with others. I think most library staff value lifelong learning ‘ so we get a lot of personal enjoyment in learning about new things and digging in. And because many of us are more introverted, our instinct tells us to go and research a topic rather than reaching out to a possible partner.

NM – In the Future of Library Services for and with Teens report, it notes an importance in building partnerships with “local partners who, in many cases, had not previously seen the library as a partner in their work.” What’s the importance of this?

MH – I think one of the worst things we can do in our work is to only work with the partners who see us as a warehouse for books. I’ve observed that often partners approach us with possible roles already identified ‘ i.e. maybe the library can give away free books; maybe the library can get everyone library cards ‘ but when I’m able to articulate some other roles and value, they are very willing to follow my lead ‘ it’s just that they haven’t worked with the library before, so have a pretty traditional view of the ways they might be able to partner with us.

NM – What are some advantages you’ve found of partnering with the organizations you developed relationships with?

MH – They bring a perspective you never could ‘ it’s a good reminder that you get smarter the more people you add into a dilemma or challenge. Partners are bringing different perspectives and nuances that we wouldn’t see otherwise.

It’s also helped me tremendously to feel like I’m surrounded by a community of people with very similar goals and beliefs. We can often get very isolated in library world, and that’s to our disadvantage ‘ many, many organizations share our challenges and our victories. I’ve built some of my closet professional colleagues outside the library, and have been invited to their trainings to learn more, to talk with their staff about the library, to jointly apply for a grant, and to try all kinds of things we aren’t sure will work. When you’ve nurtured a relationship over time, they remember you ‘ and they remember the library.

NM – What are some disadvantages and what advice would you give to others to help them avoid such pitfalls?

MH – As library staff, we are trained to respond to inquiries with a “yes, we can help you.” In partnership work, it is important not to respond with a “yes” every time, but to take the time to identify what the library will get out of the partnership, and to stay true to it. I still find it personally quite difficult ‘ my natural inclination is to say “yes.”

It is very hard, and I’m still working on it, to build the relationship between the library and the organization, and not the two individuals involved. I think the personal relationship is the foundation of a partnership, but as my responsibilities have changed over time, I’m continuing to experiment with what happens when I have the initial relationship, and then assign the development of the service to someone else. This often doesn’t work as well, so instead I’m looking for opportunities for other staff to nurture their own relationships and projects. The other thing that’s worked well for me is that as I’ve been promoted, so have many of my initial partners, so we’re both in the position to delegate some of the work. Like with all library staff, this is an area I’m especially energized and excited by, so it’s an ongoing challenge for me to get out of the way so others can build their own partnerships. I’ve come to accept that sometimes there isn’t a way to transition a partnership from the two individuals involved to the larger organization. And I’m okay with that.

NM – What would you tell other professionals about how forming partnerships can help them in their daily roles with teens?

MH – It can be very hard to leave your building to do this work, but it’s critical that we do it. And that we’re strategic and slow about this work, not biting off more than we can chew, proceeding planfully when possible, but staying open to new opportunities as they present themselves. Some of the best partnerships I’ve been involved with haven’t been in my work plan for the year, but have come up after a meeting and a connection. When that happens, however, we have to be prepared to put another part of our work on the back burner

NM – Is there anything else you would like to share with those looking to develop partnerships with organizations/members in their library communities?

MH – What I hear from library staff is that they don’t know where to start. We can’t be afraid to have a meeting that doesn’t go anywhere, or to have an idea that the partner doesn’t like. We also can’t be afraid to leave our buildings. It’s true there will be people coming into our buildings that we see that day. We may miss an opportunity to hear an update from one of our regulars, but that’s a concession we have to give in order to pursue something new.

You can learn more about partnerships in the fall issue of YALS.

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