Building Partnerships Together

A library combines forces to extend the greater good
Greenville, South Carolina
Jill Cornwell

The Greenville County Library System in South Carolina has extended its influence and impact throughout the region by creating and fostering partnerships with other community organizations. Not only have these collaborations increased access and instruction to technology, their success demonstrates that library services need not be direct to have an effect on the population — and underscore the power of combining energy and resources to achieve common goals.

Edge Benchmark 5 takes librarians beyond the walls of the library in order to build relationships with local individuals and organizations to ensure access to technology resources and services provided by the library. At the Greenville County Library System in South Carolina, which serves just under half a million residents through its eleven locations, Administrative Projects Coordinator Jill Cornwell works with her colleagues to broaden the library’s service area and reach through formal and informal partnerships with local groups and community organizations.

In talking with TechSoup for Libraries, Cornwell offered many examples of these alliances, illustrating how a library can take advantage of existing staff resources and partnerships to offer a wealth of services and opportunities to the community. These include:

  • Test preparation. The Greenville County Library System is a Worldwide Interactive Network (WIN) administrator for the WorkKeys job assessment test, a state program that works with over 250 South Carolina employers. The library program supports exam-takers by offering self-paced, self-directed practice tests to help them become familiar with the information and format.
  • Small business support. Greenville’s Business Information Librarian is a contributor to the local Chamber of Commerce online portal and library partner organization ACCESS, which provides programs and services to help people start their own small businesses. Site visitors can learn what it takes to start, maintain, and expand a business.
  • Student support. The library also partners with a local technical college, where the library’s IT manager serves on a network advisory committee. By coordinating with instructors at the local college and providing programs on-site, the library’s public computers have become an extension of the college's resources. Students find the same software that they use in the classroom available to them at the library during hours when the college computer labs are closed.
  • Programs and services for those with special needs. In working with the local agency Family Connections, the library is creating a special story time for children with autism. In turn, Family Connections has offered the library valuable input when purchasing assistive technologies for the special needs groups it serves.
  • A Senior Health Information Project. One of the biggest community projects the library has undertaken came through a grant from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine to create a senior health information program (otherwise known as SHIP). Working with city and county recreation departments, the library gained access to locations all over the area to introduce seniors to consumer health information via the library’s electronic resources. In writing the grant, the library secured commitments from various community centers to ensure a captive audience would be available.

Cornwell notes that relationships can be formed informally as well. For example, the branch manager at one of Greenville’s locations started offering computer programs at a senior center after some casual conversations with the center’s program coordinator. The center provides the seniors with signups for classes and the library comes to the center to show seniors how to use computers and other technology.  

Through these many partnerships with local community groups, the Greenville County Library System has extended its services well beyond its official branches and into the community at large. Its outreach programs also work to bring people to the library for training, support, and other services.  Whether on site or off, the library’s relationship-building skills have been vital in ensuring that technology skills and resources are available to all members of the community.

What made your library successful?

Cornwell notes that finding other institutions with common values and goals has been crucial. Other service organizations in the community can offer a reciprocal support system, she says, by sharing both resources and staff. In helping each other, the library and its partners are able to bolster their influence and effects on their targeted audiences.

You have to look at your other local community organizations and try and see who has similar goals that you have and then reach out to them," said Cornwell. "I think a lot of times we know outreach is important to our patrons but it’s also very important for our fellow service organizations."

What did you learn during this process?

While it is important for an organization to have a defined list of goals, Cornwell stresses that it is equally important for the roles to be defined between the library and their partner organizations. Putting the arrangement into writing lets both parties know what their roles and responsibilities are when it comes to the joint project. It tackles obvious problems early on, establishes cooperative efficiencies, and ensures that efforts or actions aren’t being duplicated.

"Some back-and-forth will ensure that people are on the same page," said Cornwell. "I think a key to that on our end has been initiating and just agreeing to draft a Memorandum of Understanding from the get-go. We’ll take a shot putting this together based on our understanding of what we’ve discussed and ask the partnering group to give us some feedback on it."

The SHIP program solidified through practice the importance of outreach for activities that many people tend to take for granted, such as conducting online research.

"Most of the seniors who took part in [the SHIP program] were not aware of health resources that were available electronically; they were having family members help them locate information when they needed to use the Internet,” said Cornwell. "[SHIP] really opened up a whole new world for them. There are people every day that [could] benefit from our services who may not be aware of them and we just need to reach out and inform them that the resources exist."

Partnership results come in many different forms, Cornwell notes. For example, with the SHIP program, a vanload of seniors showed up at the library one day so that they could get library cards. They had heard about the great online resources and wanted to make certain that they could access them.

"Okay, that’s a success," she said.

Where did you run into trouble?

Cornwell said that issues and challenges often emerge project-to-project. "In the case of the SHIP project, staff would probably choose a bit fewer community centers to target and divide the presentation into parts instead of presenting everything at once," said Cornwell.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Staff recognized that a program about learning how to use online resources could be even more beneficial if participants were given more time to get comfortable with using a computer as well as the resources themselves. Ideally, more time could be dedicated to the hands-on aspect of such a program by increasing the frequency of staff visits to allow the participants to become more comfortable with one topic before introducing another one.

What was the key to your success?

In most of the cases, Cornwell says it was the persistence of staff involved in contacting and continuing the conversations with potential organizations. Even if the initial contact doesn’t result in an immediate project, she notes, that doesn’t rule out future projects or initiatives.

"People get excited about an idea and it’s easy to lose that excitement in the midst of our everyday lives," said Cornwell. "Just maintaining contact; constant contact and persistence are key. In addition, having a team of staff is working together is always essential when you’re dealing with a large outreach project and groups. One person cannot do it on their own."

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Don’t spread yourself too thin, Cornwell advises. While there are many opportunities, you only have a limited amount of time, staff, and resources. As complicated as a partner project can be, it is important to focus on the areas you think you can build on.

"One of my colleagues said that you need to be ready to [address] any part of the project plan that is not working and focus on the parts that do," said Cornwell. "The same goes with any aspect of trying to maintain a partnership or be involved in a strategic relationship as part of this benchmark.

"You have to be willing to let go of some things that you can’t focus on and focus on the things that you can tackle and that are obtainable and achievable."

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

Some preparation is required to find partners in the community, Cornwell shared. Doing some research on other local organizations will give a better idea as to who will be an ideal partner and how their mission intersects with the library's. Being able to match goals and purpose closely with the library’s mission will make for a better overall relationship.

To take an even more direct approach, initiate contact with a potential partner organization, Cornwell suggests, by inviting them to come and tour the library, speak with staff members, and meet about common purposes and actions. In bringing these groups to the library, it gives you the opportunity to showcase the library's resources and generate ideas for possible partnerships.

- Andy Woodworth

Librarian and blogger, Agnostic, Maybe