A World of Powerful Partnerships

Anna Shelton /

For libraries and communities, partnerships are like water, or oxygen, or carbon – the building blocks of life. A close look at successful library efforts almost always reveals a partnership of some kind, whether in Moldova, India, Ukraine, Vietnam, or the United States. This was illustrated vividly during a recent workshop attended by library staff from over 15 countries as part of the Next Library conference.

The workshop was facilitated by a cohort of international thought leaders – library training managers who are part of country-wide grants funded by the Global Libraries initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To start the conversation, facilitators shared brief written examples of outcomes in their countries that were enabled by powerful library partnerships:

  • Computer training and job development for youth who have dropped out of school (Indonesia)
  • Continual learning opportunities to reduce isolation of solo librarians (Vietnam)
  • Formal alignment of library/community development priorities (Romania)
  • New learning content for library staff through diverse partnerships (Latvia)
  • Creation of a library leadership development program (Ukraine)
  • Increased skills of library staff to meet community needs (Lithuania)
  • Expanded training offerings for community members (Colombia)
  • Community members connected with e-governance services (Moldova)
  • Social change through dialogue between global innovators and local implementers (Poland)

Image courtesy PerpuSeru, a national library development program in IndonesiaEnergized by these examples, workshop participants began to share and reflect on their own library partnership experiences. A cascade of examples and learning from around the world poured forth in small group discussions. Because of the opportunity to share experiences from so many different countries, the conversations were especially gratifying and rich. In many cases, attendees discovered commonalities across borders on everything from partnership motivations and approaches to frequent challenges and solutions. Some of the workshop findings noted by participants are summarized below.

Partnerships benefit communities and libraries

  • Partnerships accelerate learning.
  • Partnerships extend libraries' capacity. Especially when resources are limited, partnerships make it possible for libraries to accomplish more. Often, good partnerships lead to more partnerships.
  • Pursuing partnerships is a demonstration of leadership. Building successful partnerships enables libraries to be agents of change and innovation in their community

Developing strong partnerships takes action, experimentation, and willingness to learn

  • Use data, stories, and community needs assessment to help lay the groundwork for partnerships.
  • Be proactive; step outside your comfort zone.
  • Never stop looking for new partners.
  • Don't just seek out good partners for the library; also focus on connecting local community actors to each other.
  • As one participant noted, sometimes you have to "let the turkey die." If a partnership isn't working, end it.

Image courtesy Novateca, a program implemented by IREX in MoldovaShared elements of successful library partnerships around the globe

  • Each partner needs to have their interest addressed through the partnership.
  • Plan for adaptability and sustainability from the beginning.
  • Build in constant communication and evaluation along the way.
  • Whenever possible, create opportunities to build community ownership.

The mere presence or absence of partnerships, taken alone, isn't enough to judge the health of a given learning ecosystem. But from everything we heard at this workshop, the association between vibrant partnerships and vibrant libraries seems undeniably real. We left the workshop wondering if perhaps partnerships serve as an "indicator species" for libraries worldwide. Biologists sometimes consider the presence of a particular organism "as a proxy to diagnose the health of an ecosystem." If river otters can indicate a healthy river, perhaps partnerships can indicate a healthy library.