ICMA Publications / PM Magazine / May 2014

Check Out the New Library

A vital, multiservice hub for all generations

by Craig Gerhart and Kira Hasbargen

In order to successfully improve the complex and interconnected issues facing communities today, local government managers are looking across their organizations to find the capabilities and skill sets that can influence creative and leading-edge solutions. One resource that might be undervalued and overlooked by managers is the public library.

Highly Relevant Places

When you hear the word library, what immediately comes to mind? Digital media labs? 3-D printers? Virtual and in-person homework help? Internet and information safety? GED and post-secondary education? Resume and interview skill building? Job search centers? Language instruction?

Early life experiences have left many of us with the image of libraries as quiet places surrounded by books. Yet, public libraries have become much more now, providing highly relevant services and engaging directly with residents. With this interaction and relevancy, library services and programs are constantly evolving.

In addition to providing residents with general developmental and educational opportunities, libraries also provide access to the Internet as well as technology training. In our technology-driven world, 30 percent of American adults ages 18 and older don’t have access to broadband or wireless transmission in their homes.2 As businesses, medical providers, and local governments transition to online-only registration, bill paying, and customer support, where do people turn? The free and welcoming library.

Here are a few statistics on what is happening at today’s public library:

  • 97 percent of libraries help people apply for e-Government services.
  • 92 percent of libraries help people access online job databases and resources. 
  • 90 percent of libraries provide formal or informal technology training.
  • 76 percent of libraries help people apply for jobs online.
  • 62 percent of libraries report that they are the only free provider of public Internet access.3

Our preconceived notions of what libraries “are” have created barriers to engaging them in strategic problem solving and community building. Now is the time to step back into your library to recognize and strategically plan how libraries can help with community issues.


of Americans ages 16 and older say that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community.1

A Holistic Approach

A manager’s openness to engage the library demonstrates a willingness to take a holistic approach to community problem solving and the enhancement of his or her organizational toolkit. ICMA’s work with public libraries began more than five years ago4 with a series of community-specific projects intended to demonstrate that a strong partnership between the local government manager's office and the library staff is a productive strategy.

The goal of these efforts is to provide resources that help strengthen the manager-library partnership and to develop strategic and innovative ways to improve the lives of residents. While the library director and local government manager may be separately offering dynamic, relevant, and innovative services, the sky’s the limit when the two partner together (see sidebar, “Working Together” for tips on building effective partnerships). Here are two case studies that provide a closer look at what is possible.


Miami Public Library

Library organization: City department

Area served: Miami, Oklahoma5

Population served: 13,570

Percentage of students eligible for free/reduced lunch: 69.9 percent

After Miami Public Library’s (Miami PL) participation in Edge, a national assessment and toolkit intended to help libraries evaluate their public-access technology and services to better serve the community, the library began to develop a long-range strategic plan. Library Director Marcia Johnson’s first step was convening a focus group to understand the community’s needs.

To ensure full representation from community supporters and promote library staff and board buy-in, specific names were submitted by the staff and board members. The library director and board selected the attendees. Invitations were then made either in person or on the phone.

After the focus group invitations were accepted, Johnson sent out a packet of material to enable group attendees to have a solid working knowledge of the services offered by the library and show how it compared to peer libraries.

Attendees represented diverse constituencies and areas of government, which included the former mayor, acting mayor, city manager, assistant city manager, local business owners, and representatives from the school district, hospital, tribal nation, and state workforce development office.

Through the focus group, Johnson was able to educate attendees on the services offered at the library and create a shared understanding of community issues, allowing focus group members to work together to solve them.

In addition to including community partnerships as a key element in the strategic plan, more opportunities for tangible partnerships were identified. Besides developing a three-year strategic plan, the library implemented a partnership with Oklahoma Workforce—a website at www.ok.gov/okworks that connects job seekers, employers, and community partners—to improve community employment through skills-building and training, along with a partnership with the hospital and tribal council to improve community health.

“Our issues are probably similar to many communities: an aging infrastructure, underemployment/unemployment, and literacy,” says Johnson. “In response, the library has partnered with our local workforce development office to provide skills training. In fact, the courses have doubled in size since changing the venue to the library’s computer lab.


Sacramento Public Library

Library organization: Joint Powers Authority

Areas served: Sacramento County and the cities of Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Galt, Isleton, Rancho Cordova, and Sacramento

Population served: 1.3 million

Percentage of students eligible for free/reduced lunch: 42 percent

Seeking to decrease crime, engage residents, and assist in improving educational outcomes, Sacramento Public Library (SAC PL) partnered with the News10 television station to transform a unit in a transitional living center into a resource center/children’s library for the station’s 2013 “Make a Difference Day” project.6 The team expanded on the success it built through the “10 Books to Read” program, which was designed to encourage parents, grandparents, and caregivers to read aloud and spend time with their children. The program still exists today.

The Sacramento Friends of the Library and SAC PL also worked with News10 to create a safe and fun place for residents at the Salvation Army’s E. Claire Raley Transitional Living to model positive family interaction, help children with their homework, and increase literacy skills.

Also, to ensure mission alignment and manage expectations, all participating organizations agreed that the difference made could be small: one mom reading to her son, one dad playing reading games with his daughter on the iPad, or one child graduating from high school or even going to college.

The remodeling and installation took place in one day. “Like public libraries, local TV stations provide information and serve the community. When we join resources, we truly can make a tangible difference in people's lives,” says Maria Barrs, general manager, News10.

The television station also donated $5,000 and provided media coverage and volunteers to design and set up the library room. SAC PL provided computers, shelving, expertise, and labor, while the Friends of Library provided books and materials.


It’s All Good


of Americans 16 and older say that public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.

The past five years have forever changed the way professional local government managers lead their organizations. Building partnerships with libraries to proactively and effectively provide services and programs is, and will continue to be, integral to building communities where residents can happily live, work, and play.


1 Pew Research Center, December 2013, “How Americans Value Public Libraries in their Communities.”

2 Pew Home Broadband 2013: http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/08/26/home-broadband-2013.

3 iPAC publications: http://ipac.umd.edu/publications.

4 icma.org/libraries: http://icma.org/en/icma/knowledge_network/topics/kn/Topic/161/Libraries.

5 Because Miami Public Library is the only library in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, residents of the county that live outside of the city limits are able to obtain complimentary Miami Public Library cards. The library does not receive funding from the county.

6 “Make a Difference Day,” which was launched more than 20 years ago by USA Weekend magazine and the Points of Light volunteer program, encourages volunteers to complete local community projects.

Working Together

Here are five ways for managers to build effective working partnerships with library directors.

  1. Reach out. Sometimes it’s all about relationships. Reach out to your library director. Visit the library and get out to all the branches. Invite the library director for coffee or lunch.

     A good way to get a firm handle on your community’s needs is to ensure that representatives from all facets of your organization are invited to the table. If the library director is not already a member of your leadership team, invite him or her on board and encourage active participation.

  2. Seek understanding. Keep an open mind. The two most important factors of a successful partnership are to understand your community’s needs and focus on what you have in common.
    Recognize that sound partnerships create benefits for all parties and that engaging the library in community-wide problem solving must also work for the library system.

  3. Define the pluses and minuses. Identifying where you can make the most difference is one key to being relevant. Defining the key assets each party brings to the partnership is a great way to start the dialogue.
    Another key to being relevant is to understand the real (and imagined) barriers. Sometimes you’ll have to create opportunities and be open to nontraditional solutions with nontraditional partners.

  4. Be patient. Some partnerships may go off without a hitch, whereas others may be a little more difficult to implement. Think of collaborating like fishing.
    You may not catch fish with every cast. Look for ways to expand the manager-library partnership through engaging such other community groups as nonprofit organizations, service clubs, and the media.
     And remember, it’s okay for partners to benefit from the relationship. Bringing attention to a group, getting its name out there, networking, and raising a group’s community profile are not reasons to forgo implementing a partnership that will positively impact your community.

  5. Develop benchmarks. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Develop measures of success, establish ownership for outcomes and activities to hold partners accountable, and build in an evaluation plan. That way, you can incorporate the partnerships into decision making and operations.


"Today’s libraries are demonstrating a flexible approach to problem-solving by leveraging resources, finding partnerships in unusual places, and doing what they do efficiently and economically.”

                                                                                        —John Shirey, City Manager, Sacramento, California

“After engaging with the library, it is evident that it leverages technology and education to help our community meet our greatest challenges.”

                                                                                        —Jeff Bishop, City Manager, Miami, Oklahoma

“Education is what makes the difference. If people can read, they can learn. If people can learn, they can make informed decisions. By making informed decisions, people can participate in democracy.”

                                                                                         —Rivkah Sass, Library Director,
                                                                                             Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento, California

Gerhart , Craig - Feat_fmt

Craig Gerhart
President, Gerhart Enterprises
Woodbridge, Virginia
and former county executive, Prince William County, Virginia

Hasbargen, Kira - Feature1

Kira Hasbargen
Senior management associate
ICMA, Washington, D.C.


The authors thank Edge Coalition, Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Oklahoma; Miami Public Library; Sacramento, California; and Sacramento Public Library for their contributions to this article’s content.

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Anonymous said

Great article about building partnerships to meet community needs.

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