Little Free Libraries and Collaborative Engagement

I was reminded this weekend that Little Free Libraries are still growing in popularity, when (not for the first time) someone suggested to me that I might build one at some point. They seem to be especially numerous here in the Twin Cities–not surprising, given that they’re based in the Upper Midwest. In just one example, last year, the Mall of America gave away 20 LFLs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. One of their recipients was a local charter high school, the Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC), where I’d done some work to promote public library services. But I wasn’t the person who secured and managed the LFLs for them–that person was their social worker.

Those of us who are interested in library outreach are becoming ever more aware of the network of social workers running through the special populations we want to engage. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a moment to consider that when we think of reaching out to and interacting with every potential patron, it’s likely that a social worker is already in place where we want to be. As I mentioned before, I partnered with a social worker to lead a YA book club at a Minneapolis community center last summer, but what I don’t think I mentioned about the community center is that it’s a hotbed of social work activity. While it may be relatively rare to meet a librarian in the building, they have at least one full time social worker on-site, and many local social work students do their supervised work there. Similarly, MNIC worked on a shoestring budget that will likely never accommodate hiring a librarian (I was there as a student), but they do have a full-time social worker.

One thing I grappled with while at MNIC was how to offer basic library services to some very at-risk students. (I have to acknowledge here that the teen librarians in our local public libraries are very good but were too pressed for time to provide regular, sustained, in-school contact–and whether they even should have the time to pick up the slack for schools without libraries is debatable.) I ended up testing out adding a module on public library services to the training that MNIC’s volunteer tutors received, in the hope that, during their repeated contact and relationship-building with students, they would be able to reinforce library use. It was a pilot that I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on, and I still hope I or someone else will pick it up and run with it–and I can see a connection to be made here. What if public librarians were to train the social workers who are already embedded in the systems we want to reach, so that they would know how to make appropriate information referrals? And what if they trained us, so that we would know how to and when to partner with them on the personal challenges our patrons face that are beyond the scope of what we can do as librarians?

MNIC’s social worker didn’t simply accept the MOA’s donation of Little Free Libraries and books to fill them; she actively engaged the school’s students in maintaining the libraries, both as physical structures and in selecting the books to fill them. LFLs may turn out to be just a trend (and I am aware there’s some debate about whether they reinforce the notion that library = books), but sometimes the excitement over a trend is a great tool to bring people together. In this case, a LFL takes minimal investment, and it gives the social worker a means of connecting with students. If a library, rather than a corporation, provided the LFL and weeded books to fill it, that would be one low-cost way to start to interact with the community and new colleagues around a shared love of books. The hard work of educating and sharing resources would still have to follow but could do so more easily after a fun project as the icebreaker.

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