Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Partnerships and Collaborations for Senior Programs

By Fatima Perkins, Adult Services Manager for the Cuyahoga County Public Library System (CCPL)

Learning is no longer restricted to the familiar reading, writing and arithmetic. Libraries  have always been involved with educating the public. Over the years, we have seen libraries transform from educational points of interest to recreational and entertainment venues.  The ultimate hangout for moms and toddlers has also become the hot spot for teens and older adults. As our communities transform, libraries must too evolve and support today’s mantra of life-long learning.

Communities are prospecting for new partners in order to meet the needs of their residents. Libraries are positioned to be a community focal point that meets some of these needs. For years, the nation has seen a shift in its aging demographics. With our older adult population increasing the need for more services and programs is inevitable. Most communities have planning that focuses on keeping their seniors independent and living in the community. Understanding that programs for older adults are not a fad, libraries can be an active partner with these endeavors.

Building partnerships and collaborations have become critical for most community organizations as well as for libraries. Though traditional services such as reference, reader’s advisory and collection development have been the mainstay of libraries, communities are challenging libraries to do more. Now is time for libraries to take a more engaged approach and join the community by serving older adults through partnerships and collaborations. Partnerships and collaborations can be efficient and effective practices to serve the community. Libraries can be a primary partner with providing programs for older consumers. What strategies does a library use to become a partner and or collaborator to serve its senior population?

Before you start…Is your library ready?
Hopefully, your library has undergone some form of strategic planning and/or is a part of its community planning/assessment. If so, your library’s  governance may already recognize the importance of serving older consumers. If this preliminary step has not been completed, your library may want to modify its planning efforts to include older consumers.

Off and running…Do you know your community?
Wherever your library is located, it is important to understand your community profile and its needs. A readily available resource is the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau has valuable information about most of our nation’s communities. Take a close look at these reports. Does your community have a high concentration of older adults? If so, your library may be in the right place to move forward with creating and/or expanding programs for seniors. Another easy and informal method to use is observation. You can see for yourself, first hand, who is actually coming into the library. Do you have a substantial older population coming into the library? Is there a particular time that seniors frequent the library? Other resources like local universities, hospitals, and planning entities may have statistics for planning purposes.

Keep going…Who should the library involve?
Once you have determined that you have a population of older adults in the community, you can begin to develop your plan of action to serve them. It should be clear that planning needs to be approved by the Branch Manager and/or other library governing bodies.

If you are unfamiliar with program development, you may want to seek some assistance here. Assistance may come in the form of an advisory committee or taskforce. Members of the advisory committee or taskforce should consist of various stakeholders including library staff, community leadership, organizations and most importantly consumers.  Yes, it would be beneficial to have older adults serve on the committee. That may sound like a novel idea however, partakers of services have a tendency to know what they like and dislike. Recognize that older adults have valuable and long-established connections within their communities that can enhance the library's place in the community and its ability to offer additional services/programs.

As part of this process, you will be networking and building appropriate relationships that will ultimately garner you valuable community support as well as desired partnerships and collaborations. Of course it will take some time for the group to process. The usual forming, storming, norming and performing will take place.

Almost there…What type of programs should the library create?
While the group process is being activated there will be an opportunity to ask the general public what types of programs they would like. At this point, you have the community demographics which may be used as guidance for community needs; the advisory group is in place and can provide input from various perspectives; and now is the time to seek community input into what type of programs the community wants.

The consumers on the advisory group as well as other members will have plenty of suggestions however, you may want to affirm these suggestions by distributing a brief survey asking older library consumers what type of programs they would like to have. The library should also ask individuals who do not frequent the library to complete the survey.  Combining the demographic information, advisory suggestions and the consumer input should give the library adequate rationale for the types of programs the community desires and needs.

Just around the bend…Who would be partners/collaborators?
At this point, the library will need to determine if it can develop a specific program with just library resources or if it would be pertinent to seek a partnership or collaboration.  These terms are often interchanged both meaning to work cooperatively towards a common goal. Before you move on, the library will need to distinguish between a partnership and collaboration.  A partnership involves……whereas collaboration seeks. These two term are often seen as the same and used interchangeably

If the library determines that it would be better to partner or collaborate, keep in mind that library programs and services for older adults should not replicate those of other agencies, but can complement and support them.

In order to determine who can be approached for a partnership/collaboration, the library will need to know what resources exist in its community. Many communities have 211. This is a community wide social services data base. Other communities may have access to a resource guide listing various organizations and their service descriptions. Advisory members may also be valuable in determining available community resources.

Take another breath…Where do I get started?
Our nation has a history of serving its older population. There is actually an aging network that is available to provide guidance with program planning as well as other resources.

  • State Units on Aging
  • Area Agencies on Aging and National Family Caregiver programs
  • Senior Centers
  • Hospitals
  • Local school systems
  • Government organizations like Small Business Administration
  • IRS, Social Security, Census Bureau and Veterans Administration, United States Post Office.
  • County and Municipal Departments on Aging
  • Legal Aid Societies
  • Universities and Colleges
  • Local Business sector
  • Volunteer entities like RSVP, SCORE, Family Friends, Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent
  • Financial institutions
  • Consumer Credit Counseling
  • Cooperative Extensions

You can see the finish line…How does a library approach an organization?
Of course, the library can use many strategies to approach a potential partner/collaborator. These are effective practices:

  • Seek organizations that have a mission that complements the library’s mission and vision.
  • Find a partner that is able to provide a resource that the library is unable to provide.
  • Meet and greet face to face to determine whether it is a good fit for all parties involved.
  • Define what the purpose of the collaboration/partnership is, what will each organization gain as a result and how will the consumer benefit.
  • Determine if partnership/collaboration will be on-going or as needed.
  • Establish written roles and responsibilities.
  • Develop timelines/duration for program, initiative or service.
  • Evaluate the collaboration/partnership.

Libraries provide a great community setting for older adult programming. In partnership with other organizations, we can be a source of empowerment for  older adults helping them to develop new skills, learn new informational, recreational activities and partake of entertaining programs. In addition to being a one of the community’s greatest assets, libraries should partner to promote life long learning that embraces the diversity of our communities offering a comfortable and engaging environment for everyone.

--Fatima Perkins has worked with planning services for older adults for over twenty years. She is the Adult Services Manager for the Cuyahoga County Public Library System (CCPL). CCPL has twenty-eight branches that serve 47 communities. Ms Perkins has a Masters in Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and a Masters of Science in Library and Information Science from Syracuse University.  Ms. Perkins is also an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar.