Community Engagement: Small Libraries Go Big

By Linn Haugestad Edvardsen

Your library is a critical asset to your community. For starters, it plays a role in improving local literacy; it provides vital access to Internet and technology training; and it helps the economy by offering resources and services for job seekers and small businesses, and access to educational resources. The message seems simple enough and most of you are passionate about it, but the question is, does your community know or really understand the value?

Independence Public Library parade

Independence Public Library Parade (KS)

Making assumptions about how people view your library can be a critical misstep in maintaining and growing local support. The solution? Take control of local perceptions by making community engagement an integral part of everyday activities. Getting out into the community and making connections shouldn’t be something you do occasionally—it should be something that drives you!

Don’t let it overwhelm you, let it inspire you

Community engagement may seem overwhelming and complex, but it’s really very simple. Essentially, it just means making efforts to put the library in front of diverse audiences to start conversations and activate people in some meaningful way. This dialogue provides many natural opportunities to discuss how your library positively impacts the community—and because the audience is engaged and interested, they are more likely to listen and continue the conversation with friends, family and business colleagues.

You can improve outcomes by thinking of your community engagement strategy not as singular events (e.g., taking part in a local parade), but as a fundamental component of your marketing approach and overall strategic plan. So, the first—and most important step—is to plan. Start with a broad view and refine to build out the details of an individual approach or activity. Don’t let lack of funds, staff and other resources stop the planning—decide what’s actually feasible once you have a good outlook of the complete landscape.

Creating effective community engagement

Over the past four years as part of the Geek the Library community awareness campaign team, I’ve learned a great deal about effective community engagement. Geek the Library has helped hundreds of libraries across the country start important local conversations. Based on the experience of participating libraries, I’ve put together some tips to get you started.

Renegades Geek Night

Mary Lou of Wallkill Public Library, 2012 Renegades Geek Night

Tips to get started:  

Hone your message and find transformational stories! Your library transforms lives. As you engage with your community, you want to make sure that your message is clear, so no opportunity is wasted. Think about how you can translate this transformational message to your community. Show the who, what, where, when and why. Statistics are helpful and can guide the bigger conversation, but in order for the message to resonate, localize it. In other words, put a face on it—a local face. Work with your staff and volunteers to uncover the stories that show the incredible impact your library has on individuals and the community.

What’s a transformational story? That’s up to you, but it needs to document how the library made a difference in someone’s life. It’s changing the conversation about the library from information and resources to the library as a transformational force in the community. When evaluating these stories, remember that what you think is commonplace or insignificant (e.g., someone getting hired after using job resources or a small business using library resources to start and grow a local business) might provide a memorable message with the right context. Once you’ve worked out the who and the what, document along with the when, where and why.

Inform and activate staff and internal stakeholders! This starts in the library by making sure all staff and other internal stakeholders (e.g., volunteers and your board) understand your key messages and are empowered (and have the right tools) to communicate them effectively. (Awaken their passion about the library—you want the message to have heart!) Be clear about your community engagement objectives and provide opportunities to give input. Share your plan (including the individual stories and the bigger value message) and how everyone needs to play a role.

Build from what you’re already doing! Look at where you already engage with the community and build on those activities—both in the library and out in the community. Gaining a complete view will provide some guidance for where you have holes (what audience are you missing?), where there’s too much attention and where simple changes can improve active engagement levels.

Take part in more events and make it an active experience! After you’ve completed your review of community events and researched additional opportunities, do it again. Make sure you aren’t just including the usual suspects—and ask your staff for their input. Once you establish a much longer list of possibilities, do a reality check. What can you actually accomplish with your current resources? Next, think about how to make each event an opportunity to start conversations. Having a presence somewhere isn’t enough. You want to get attention, and get people to make connections (or reconnect) with the library and start thinking about the library in terms of the transformational outcomes.

Jessamine County Public Library

Jessamine County Public Library (KY) Kick Off

Ramp up and expand local partnerships and collaborations! Making connections means taking inventory of how you work with organizations, businesses, schools and even the media. Where can the library provide value? Where can an individual or an organization provide value for the library, or where can something valuable be created with a partnership? Perhaps it’s teaming up with local schools to provide more robust homework help, or partnering with a local coffee shop owner to write an informative article and offering a class about the history of coffee and tips for home brewing. In any case, use every collaboration as an avenue to engage on many levels.

Mobilize community support! Think about key community leaders who might be able to help you as you get out in the community. These leaders are people who are outspoken, who often talk about local issues and already have a local following (e.g., a popular business owner or a well-known educator). You want to provide opportunities for them to hear your stories (perhaps an event?) and to ask their advice about new ways the library can collaborate in the community. These are the people you want leading conversations about the library, so make sure they are engaged and can confidently tell a robust story.

Capital Area District Library

Capital Area District Library Billboard (MI)

Make it happen

Any library can have an active and impactful community engagement plan—regardless of size and resources. It’s often more about a shift in thinking internally that leads to the small changes with what you’re already doing that make a difference. Also, developing expectations for staff and empowering them to proactively engage with the community regularly is key—they need to understand why it’s important and how it integrates with their job description.

Remember, community engagement doesn’t always provide instant results—it’s a process and something that’s ongoing. The engagement you strive for isn’t just what happens while at an event or directly after a presentation at a local organization, it’s what is put into motion later through conversations and actions.

Be consistent. Be passionate. Be patient. And always geek community engagement!

Author info: Linn Haugestad Edvardsen is program manager for the Geek the Library community awareness campaign. She can be reached at Geek the Library is free for U.S. public libraries. For more information, please visit

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