Becoming the next Best Small Library in America

Zola Maddison /

Every year, Library Journal selects a public library serving a population of 25,000 or less for the Best Small Library in America award. The award, cosponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, now provides $20,000 to the winning library and $10,000 to two finalists, as well as the opportunity to send two representatives to PLA and spotlights in Library Journal. So what can we learn from those who have won this award? And what does it take for a library to become a winner? In collaboration with the Association of Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) and Library Journal, WebJunction hosted the Best Small Library in America 2012 webinar to answer both those questions.

Independence Public Library in Kansas is this year’s winner, boasting innovative approaches to marketing, partnership and community engagement. But it may surprise you to learn that just three years ago, when Julie Hildebrand became IPL’s Director, the library did not have enough money to keep their doors open through the end of the year. In fact, Hildebrand needed to put a freeze on spending, issue staff cuts, and reduce the hours of the library. Operating a library with an almost non-existent budget during the economic recession meant seeing their lawn maintenance man cry when he learned the library could no longer afford to retain his services, and watching staff morale plummet as they were asked to take on tasks like mowing the lawn and cleaning toilets. Sound familiar? Webinar participants from across the country chimed in with their own “outside the box” roles within their libraries:

  • How many of you have ever had to climb on the roof to sweep off water?
  • Been there, done that!
  • I've actually cut down tree branches before.
  • That is one of the ways you know you work in a rural area - there is no such thing as "defined" responsibilities or duties!!  We do it ALL.
  • I had to spray the poison ivy in the herb garden just this morning :-)

So how did IPL go from obsolete to a standing ovation in the Kansas Senate? Hildebrand started with a new teamwork approach to everything they did. She let go of out-dated micromanagement approaches and adopted a “train and trust” motto for the library. Their small team met every morning to discuss their work and understand how each member could contribute to the success of each project. This dialogue led to innovative solutions that met the real needs of their communities, such as their “Meet Me In…” program that brings in local area volunteers to talk about their home country, share food, and promote cultural tolerance in Independence.

Next, Hildebrand encouraged her staff to fully integrate into the community by joining local civic groups. Simultaneously, they began to collect PCCs, or Positive Customer Comments, so they could use quotes from community members in annual reports and civic presentations. Hildebrand found that, “By developing partnerships with local businesses you not only help your local economy, you show that your library is an indispensible part of the local economy.”

Sustained cooperation with other libraries was another key factor in IPL’s success. They strengthened relationships with their state library, regional consortium, and local community college library. Lily Morgan, director of the Learning Resource Center at Independence Community College joined the webinar, encouraging participants to be brave and reach out for library partnerships that help you increase your marketing efforts, improve your understanding of your community, decrease your work load, and add to your professional skills. Webinar participants chimed in with their own partnership successes:

  • A local trust underwrites our tutoring program so that the library can provide free tutoring to local students.
  • A partnership that might look curious at first glance is funeral homes. They are very civic-minded and can be very important in helping if you encourage planned giving to your Friends group or library foundation.
  • We partnered with a local charity shop to create a 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten program.
  • Partnering with local hospitals to provide library information to new parents can also be valuable. Such as library card signup forms, brochures, info about your parenting resources, etc.
  • Partnerships can be any local business, doctors, and city officials like the fire department, your local chamber of commerce and local citizens.  They are usually very happy to help!  But you have to ask!

As the 2012 Best Small Library in America winner, Independence Public Library is now able to give staff raises, after three years without a cost of living increase. They’ve bought a new projector and are working on a long-term project to digitize microfilm and pull together oral histories. Meredith Schwartz, News Editor of Library Journal, reminded webinar participants that you don’t have to be doing huge-scale things to get this award. You just need to be doing innovative things that meet the needs of your community and maximize your available resources. And she reminded us that you don’t have to do this alone. Library Journal will help people develop their entries. You can send a rough draft and they’ll give you advice on making a stronger application.

So what are you waiting for? The next Best Small Library in America could be yours.

To learn more about the award, IPL, past award recipients and other resources for applying, visit the webinar archive page.