Over the past decade, libraries have increasingly invested in learning about and addressing their communities’ aspirations through programming and other services. This approach is core to the mission of libraries, as institutions that support their communities’ learning, access to resources, and ability to thrive. Library staff across the sites we visited were uniformly committed to the concept of a community-centered approach, where the definition of community is all-inclusive, taking into account the full range of diverse populations, both newer and longer-established. They had a clear understanding of strategies for ways to learn about their communities’ needs, like providing comment boxes, attending community events, having bi- or multilingual staff, and conducting formal community needs assessments. However, these strategies were often aspirational rather than currently in practice.

At the same time, libraries must find a balance between addressing communities’ needs and the constraints that necessarily shape their work. Perhaps unique to services for new Americans, libraries must navigate legal limitations as well. Services that some new Americans are interested in – particularly obtaining citizenship – are legal procedures. Many libraries are not equipped to provide legal counsel, and might better invest their skills in developing programs that have a dramatic impact on the daily lives of new Americans. Time, budget, and access to resources are concerns for all programming as well.

When a library undertakes a structured needs assessment, it can take a range of forms. One library we visited worked with community organizers to do needs assessments with a variety of local groups, including new Americans. Another library conducts interviews with members of different cultural groups in their area. Meanwhile, other libraries have committees dedicated to promoting literacy for new Americans.

Outreach Strategies

Across the libraries we visited, we found that outreach and community needs assessment are closely linked. Staff reported that no matter what a library was doing, it was not effective programming unless the community was aware of it. Libraries used a range of strategies to reach out to new Americans. Library staff attendance at general community events and meetings is essential to understanding the inner workings of communities. Partnerships with community organizations can aid in building pathways to communities where those organizations may be more involved, and vice versa. Offering or serving as a stop on city tours presents another way to get new Americans, and anyone else new to the community, into the library.

The Importance of Community Partnerships

Libraries have long partnered with other community-based organizations to enrich and expand their service to their communities. The mutual benefits are well documented – staff from other community organizations and libraries alike enjoy increased capacity, and members of the community get access to better services and resources. Partnerships designed for services for new Americans are no different. Collaboration among organizations is not necessarily an easy, organic process; it requires an investment of time and resources to build the relationship and maintain the work. Nevertheless, our site visits demonstrated that the effort is worth it: partnerships produce more than the sum of their parts.

Just as conducting an assessment of community needs is critical to understanding how to provide new American library services, it is also important to assess the landscape of community organizations to understand where the library might fit in. During the site visits, staff from multiple locations expressed the importance of assessing what other organizations are already doing in the community. That way, libraries could ensure that their programs were complementary rather than competitive with resources that already existed. Community resource fairs could be helpful in this regard, in addition to helping new Americans see all the resources provided where they live.

In the site visits, we observed several differences between libraries and their partners, as well as patterns that emerge when they work together. Library staff voiced their desire to have a dedicated staff member to focus on partnerships. Meanwhile, community organizations were more likely to have personnel in a liaison role. One library staff member said ideally there would be staff from the library at the partner organization’s space, and vice versa, every day. In practice, because libraries often provide space for partner-led programs, partner organization staff were much more aware of a library’s full suite of programs than the other way around.

While dedicated or embedded partnership staff isn’t feasible for all libraries – typically depending on size and funding – staff at site visits consistently reported that communication between partners greatly improved by having one clear point person at each organization because it led to clearer communication pathways. Having a point person is particularly important for a library system with multiple branches; the community partner organization can communicate with this one person rather than individually with each branch manager.

The structure of a partnership can vary from organization to organization. Here, we define a partnership as an ongoing relationship between a library and another organization. Across the site visits, we heard that library-community organization relationships fell into one of five categories:

  1. Parallel services: Libraries and partner organizations work on the same issues or topics in parallel but do not collaborate directly. In these cases, libraries and community organizations are often aware of each other’s resources and may refer patrons to one another.
  2. Library as space: Libraries provide space for programs or events, and partner organizations take the lead in other aspects of the program.
  3. Space plus: In addition to hosting programs in library space, libraries provide additional resources such as volunteer time or outreach materials. However, partner organizations continue to take the lead.
  4. Library as collaborator: Libraries and community organizations work together closely to provide programs and services. While staff members from nearly all locations identified this partnership model as the ideal, not all of them are able to implement it in practice due to constraints on time and resources. Programs in this category may take place inside or outside the library. For example, offsite programs may include pop-up health clinics that also provided an opportunity to sign up for a library card, or a food pantry whose baskets included free books.
  5. Library as implementer: In this model, libraries use a curriculum developed by a partner organization but are responsible for all other elements of the program. The partner organization may provide training or support, or may be entirely hands-off.

Moving Forward: The Two-Way Street of Cultural Exchange

Many new Americans are interested in sharing their culture with others. This sharing is better understood as an opportunity for cultural “exchange” – a two-way street of learning. Along with using library programming to give new Americans the opportunity to learn about “American life” in a given community, it is also an opportunity for new Americans to share their own culture with other residents through their public library. As new Americans arrive in a new place, they can simultaneously seek to be a part of the fabric of their new home and impart some of their former countries’ traditions, foods, and other parts of their culture into the new community.

Public libraries are an integral part of their local communities, bringing together diverse patrons for a variety of reasons. Libraries are an ideal space for cultural exchange programming because they serve as a place for the intersection of people and ideas, and also because Americans frequently rank public libraries as one of their most trusted institutions.15 For a city or town to successfully integrate new members, cultural awareness is key. And what better place to help foster dialogue about culture than the library? Acknowledging that many new Americans are, in fact, new to life in the US, many libraries have developed programming to draw them into the local fabric and support them in forming social connections.

15. John B. Horrigan, “How People Approach Facts and Information.” Pew Research Center. Accessed: August 15 2018. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/09/12135404/PI_2017.09.11_FactsAndInfo_FINAL.pdf.