The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 07, 2019 1:00 am

Libraries' collaborations knit community closer

Stephanny Smith

Today starts National Libraries Week. And this year's theme is Libraries = Strong Communities. At the Allen County Public Library, we play an important role in the life of our community. But we're even better as a result of our partnerships and collaborations with others who are also working to make our community stronger.

That is why we partner with the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center. Each week, the NIIC hosts office hours in the main library, providing additional support to entrepreneurs in our community. Recently, graduates from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business were in the Maker Lab, developing prototypes on the 3-D printer. When they were informed that NIIC staff members were on site to guide them through the next steps of their business plan, it was a moment of perfect synergy.

The power of collaboration drives our relationship with the Purdue Extension Office, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne Children's Choir, Dance Collective and many others to provide high-quality, free programs for our community.

It is also why the Allen County Public Library proudly supports the Community Harvest Food Bank during National Library Week. ACPL's mission is to enrich our community through lifelong learning and discovery. But the reality is that it is hard to get excited about learning and discovering if you are hungry. So, this summer, eight of our library locations will serve as free lunch and snack sites for children younger than 18.

However, we realize that library customers of all ages suffer from food scarcity year-round. To serve even more of our neighbors, we hope you will join with us in supporting Community Harvest by donating non-perishable food items at any of our 15 ACPL locations during this week.

ACPL also strengthens our community by providing gathering spaces. Our meeting facilities are used by neighborhood associations and non-profit organizations. We host candidate forums and piano recitals. Hobbyists ranging from baseball historians to railroad enthusiasts use our rooms to gather and share information. On any given summer weekend, the downtown plaza is filled with people enjoying free concerts. And, in the winter, you can watch an ice carving demonstration on that same plaza.

As important as our spaces are, we are more than bricks and mortar. As an organization – as community builders – we can't sit back and wait for people to walk through our doors or many of those who need us the most might never find us. If you consider the hierarchy of needs – food, shelter, safety – coming to the library probably doesn't rank very high on the priorities list of some of our neighbors. But the magic of learning, discovery, and ideas can empower you to imagine a life other than the one you live. They can help lift you beyond your current circumstances. So, what does this mean for our work as a library?

We are now stepping away from our reference desks, and moving beyond our walls. We are taking books into the community and putting them into people's hands. We are seeking people out where they live, play, work and go to school. When one of our librarians realized that kids weren't coming into her branch to participate in the Summer Learning Program, she decided to go look for them.She found that a majority of “her kids” were spending the summer at McMillen Park Community Center, so you can now find that librarian at McMillen Park delivering programs as well as greeting kids at the Pontiac Branch.

The importance of finding our customers where they are is why our Team Read teen mentors visit parks and free lunch sites during the Summer Learning Program. They read with and to children. They play games and give away free books. Each child participating in Team Read receives up to seven new books of his or her choosing, building a home library in the process.

Team Read is another example of how partnerships enhance the work we are able to do. Ninety percent of our Summer Learning Program is made possible by the Foellinger Foundation's generous support.

Through a collaboration with the Fort Wayne Housing Authority, the Friends of the ACPL and the Urban Library Council, we have been able to create small on-site libraries at FWHA locations. Those libraries feature books for both children and adults. This is so important in developing early literacy skills, enabling caregivers to model the act of reading and strengthening the sense of community.

One of the best-kept secrets in our community has been that the library delivers books to the Allen County Juvenile Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Park Center. Our Teen librarians provide this service, and they will tell you that their most voracious readers are the teenage boys at Park Center. If you believe as we do that books can change lives, let that fact sink in for a moment.

We strongly and passionately believe in the magic of books and the power of stories. However, as a library, even as we manage our collection, we must also focus on connections.

How do libraries connect us to our community and the world at large? How can they connect us to a greater understanding of who we are and what we can become, as individuals and as a society? How do libraries connect customers to the resources they need, whether it's for a research paper, a job application or a book that will help a child understand the death of a family pet? How will our libraries connect us to the stories and ideas that have the power to transform and strengthen our community?

These are not questions that can be answered by library staff alone. Instead, it is a conversation we are engaged in with our customers, our stakeholders and other organizations that are also working to strengthen our community. AsR. David Lankes, the director of the University of South Carolina's School of Library and Information Science, wrote: “Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services. Great libraries build communities.”

Stephanny Smith is community engagement manager for the Allen County Public Library.

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