O Sister Library, Where Art Thou?

Libraries near and far can thrive by forming “the strongest relationship”

January 31, 2012


“Sisters function as safety nets in a chaotic world simply by being there for each other.” —Carol Saline and Sharon J. Wohlmuth, coauthors of Sisters (Running Press, 2004)

What if libraries, like sisters, could be there for one another? What if public libraries with more resources partnered with underfunded ones to help them reach their fullest potential? Across the country, our libraries are only as strong as our weakest links. In many cases, our weakest links are libraries adequate resources—often, but not always, in rural areas. A new model for enhancing library services in these more vulnerable areas is emerging in Kentucky, a state with libraries at both ends of the economic spectrum.

According to Margaret Mead, “Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship.” Traditionally, libraries have had a healthy appetite for friendly competition. We strive to be number one in the various library rankings, to be Library of the Year, high in the HAPLR ratings, or, at the bare minimum, to be better than the library in the next city or county. We aim for the highest circulation statistics or to have the most people walking through the door. This congenial competitiveness keeps us on our toes and helps us take pride in our work, and that is good for everyone.

For libraries to reach their fullest potential, however, the time has come to take a broader, more mature perspective and strengthen our ties with other libraries. Sister library partnerships are now taking hold and are in a position to become those strongest relationships as described by Mead.

Pairing up for strength

The Kentucky Sister Library Project (KSLP) is succeeding in fostering substantive, meaningful, and mutually beneficial relationships between in-state libraries. KSLP differs from traditional sister library relationships in two important ways. First, sister library relationships usually involve pairing up with a library outside the United States. In the KSLP model, libraries in-state partner with one another. The second key feature in the KSLP model is economic disparity; libraries with adequate finances are paired with libraries of limited assets.

The tag line for the project is “Libraries Helping Libraries.” In the current economic climate, with rampant budget cuts, this phrase carries urgency, and arguably, professional obligation. “Libraries are in danger of becoming irrelevant (at least from the public’s viewpoint) and it’s going to take a united effort to achieve relevance and efficiency going forward,” observes Chris Sinnett, former director of the Carter County Public Library (CCPL), which is headquartered in Olive Hill.

Sinnett speaks from experience, as his library, one of the last to be formed in the state, was one of the first to be involved in this project. With few staff members, a meager budget, and (according to data from the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives) a collections expenditure of 20 cents per capita, the library had nothing to lose by being part of the experimental endeavor. A year and a half later, CCPL and its sister library, the Kenton County Public Library, headquartered in Fort Mitchell, are still happily engaged in their pioneering partnership. Seeing this as a viable model, eight other Kentucky libraries are now participating in their own sister library partnerships, with additional libraries expressing interest.

After two libraries agree to enter a partnership, they need to receive their boards’ approval via the Sister Libraries Agreement form. The form is not a contract but simply solidifies the agreement in writing. It also outlines the terms and expectations of the agreement.

An initial get-to-know-one-another meeting between key participants should be arranged. Often, it is easier for the employees from the better-funded library to do the traveling, due to staffing constraints at many cash-strapped libraries. Additionally, sister libraries should probably not be located more than about two hours away from each other, although this is simply a guideline. Day trips become difficult for workers when the distance between libraries is too far, making activities such as staff exchanges a logistical problem.

This first meeting is a good time to come up with a list of needs that the underfunded library could use help with. For example, does it need website assistance or help with writing policies? The possibilities are endless. Once several projects have been decided on, the next step is to figure out a plan of attack. Who will work on the projects? What will the time frame be? What are the goals and objectives of each project? After the trial period is over, the libraries will need to assess the success of the work they’ve done together and decide whether or not to continue. If they decide to move forward, this is the time to come up with a new set of projects.

The process is fairly straightforward. However, from experience, I have learned that it is best to keep a flexible mindset because the best-laid plans (projects, goals, objectives) are often interrupted by unforeseen circumstances. Timelines get pushed back, meetings get delayed, and projects get put on the back burner. For example, during my library’s first partnership year, one of our sister library’s buildings was destroyed by a flash flood. The damage was devastating. We did not know if our partnership would survive. Fortunately, it did, and it is as strong as ever.

A two-way street

In the early stages of the relationship, Sinnett asked how Carter County’s sister library, the larger Kenton County Public Library, was going to benefit from the partnership. This seems to be a common question; it is easy to see the benefits for the library with fewer dollars, but the advantages for its sister library are not so apparent. Yet, in some ways, the better-funded library stands to gain a great deal, especially in terms of staff development.

“We have as much to learn from this partnership as we have to give,” asserts J. C. Morgan, director of the Campbell County Public Library in Cold Spring, one of the first libraries in Kentucky to join KSLP. Campbell County’s partner is the McLean County Public Library in Livermore, the most recent library to be formed in the state. For their first project, employees from Campbell County traveled to McLean County and worked there for a week cataloging books. Ultimately, its staff cataloged more than 1,600 books for McLean’s bookmobile.

Indeed, traveling to another area of the state and working in a different library is an eye-opening experience. Dave Schroeder, director of the Kenton County Public Library, states, “The project has been wonderful for our staff, especially those who were able to work for a day at the Carter County Library. Our staff members were able to experience the similarities and differences of working in a rural library.”

Gaining momentum

What started as an experiment involving two libraries has begun to come into its own as a recognized program statewide. Now that the Kentucky Sister Library Project includes multiple library systems, it has found a home under the umbrella of the Kentucky Public Library Association. Word of mouth has been key to the success of the project, with directors talking to one another at meetings, conferences, and other venues. The library regional consultants for the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives have been supportive, spreading the word to the libraries in their service regions. Over the last year, the project has also gained momentum through the encouragement and enthusiasm of numerous library lovers throughout Kentucky, from State Librarian Wayne Onkst to library directors, board members, Friends groups, and front-line staff. It truly has taken a village to bring the project this far.

And the future? “It would be nice to see a nationwide chain of libraries that actively share resources and information and work together in a dynamic manner,” says Sinnett. In fact the groundwork has been laid for such a concept to become a reality: It is already flourishing in Kentucky, with real-life models to learn from, which gives public libraries all across the country a template to use for creating their own sister library partnerships. Libraries with more resources now have the opportunity to assist those with fewer resources through this exciting new approach.

“The history of how public libraries have developed has always been fascinating to me,” Schroeder notes. “From Andrew Carnegie to Bill and Melinda Gates, public libraries have traditionally relied on benefactors to become firmly established. I saw this project as a way for us to provide a similar helping hand to Carter County.”

What if every library that could lend such a helping hand actually did? This could be the shot in the arm the public library world needs—not just to survive, but to thrive. Libraries themselves can be part of the solution by ushering in a new era of “strongest relationships,” a sisterhood of in-state alliances working together to carry on the library tradition.

For more information, visit kpla.org.

APRIL RITCHIE founded the Kentucky Sister Library Project and serves as the coordinator for the program. She is the adult services coordinator at the Erlanger branch of the Kenton County Public Library.


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