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CHAPTER 4 - Six Recommendations for Building Library-Community Partnerships

Dialogue participants strongly agreed that public libraries in Houston and the surrounding counties are a critical part of the community’s infrastructure. Houston’s public libraries give concrete meaning to the principles of equity, opportunity, access, and engagement. Participants explored what these principles look like in the context of the library discussion and the critical issues identified above and offered the following recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Leverage the Houston Public Library as a trusted source of information

Libraries can create information, referral services, and an information bank that rely on the development of relationships and the flow of information and participation of many organizations working with the library. They can identify and build new channels for information.

One suggestion was a partnership between libraries and 211 call centers, an idea that the Houston Public Library has already begun to explore. “The 211 proposal is the modern version of the library’s traditional role in providing information and referral services,” noted HPL Director Rhea Brown Lawson. This proposal does not require the creation of a whole new infrastructure; it is a matter of building on the infrastructure that is already in place. The library can provide integrated services at city touchpoints with consumers and constituents. The library can be an important partner in the city’s strategy to bridge gaps and overcome barriers, including gaps in access to authoritative information, gaps between immigrant communities, and gaps across language barriers, physical barriers, and transportation barriers.

Recommendation 2: Use library infrastructure to provide important touchpoints for access and engagement to develop financial literacies and empowerment

Bloomberg Philanthropies has spent time thinking about financial empowerment centers and working with the city of Houston to use the city’s points of contact with consumers to help do financial empowerment. City leaders are exploring how to use city personnel who touch the citizen-consumer to provide an integrated set of services, so that if a resident is in one place, he or she understands how to “connect the dots.” Patrick Walsh noted that this work with Bloomberg Philanthropies is “a hugely important piece of how to create equity and raise all boats. To the degree that libraries could be a resource center for financial empowerment and a place where people can meet, I think that would be great.”

Capital One Bank has partnered with HPL to teach courses to small business owners at Houston library branches. Getting Down to Business facilitates opportunities for budding entrepreneurs to make presentations and pitches for business ideas and win matching funds to get their ideas off the ground. Straight Talk workshops at the library help small business owners with knowledge development and skill-building. Bankers volunteer their time and use the library’s facilities. Houston Public Library has also launched a new initiative called Ready, Set, Bank to teach senior citizens how to navigate technology in 21st century banking services. HPL has been invited to serve as a case study model as the first library to implement this program. Results will be published in spring 2019.

Recommendation 3: Use the Complete Communities Neighborhood Advisory groups as a model and partner for information, communication, and engagement

Mayor Sylvester Turner has placed a high priority on equity across the city, advocating that the city must do a better job of closing the gaps between its under-resourced communities and other communities that are better connected and better resourced. Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative is focusing on five under-served, under-resourced areas in Houston—Acres Homes, Second Ward, Third Ward, Near Northside, and Gulfton. At many of the kick-off events of the Initiative, speakers and residents highlighted education as a priority goal and need, as well as affordable housing and continued economic development. In education, challenges in the areas of youth services, continuing education, and job placement illuminated the scope of education services as a priority for all ages, from toddlers through adults.

To leverage community resources for community capacity, participants noted that there are public libraries in all five of the pilot communities. Having multiple community-serving institutions collocated helps. The McGovern-Stella Link Neighborhood Library is so successful, according to participants, because it is flanked by two schools and a YMCA.

Each Complete Communities pilot community includes a neighborhood support team as well as Advisory Committee members. Participants suggested that the neighborhood support teams could be a model and a resource for connecting communities and disseminating information in partnership with libraries. Lynn Henson, the city’s project manager for the Complete Communities Initiative, said: “The neighborhood support teams have given us guidance and advice on how we connect to the community and how we structure public engagement. They are key to the process. They live and work in the community and are a great asset for communication in the community.”

The neighborhood support teams include many recognized leaders in the community and they are reaching out to business leaders and nonprofits. There may be an opportunity to use those neighborhood support groups in innovative ways to connect communities and disseminate information in partnership with libraries.

Recommendation 4: Utilize smart collaborations in a portfolio approach

An infusion of resources has gone to many organizations involved in the recovery and rebuilding process. Furthermore, Hurricane Harvey displaced library operations in seven communities which has led to the collocation of library services with other community services and the formation of new partnerships. The library does not have the monies to sustain services in these new locations and rebuild, but it is creating deeper partnerships that it hopes to sustain going forward. Both of these situations provide an opportunity for Dialogue participants and other leaders in the city to explore what a portfolio of place and services could look like and how it can be delivered. There is an opportunity to test the viability of the infrastructure, for community-based organizations and city agencies to use libraries and TECHLink locations, for example, to help people structure the right inquiries and searches and direct them to trusted information and resources. Further ideas for developing portfolio approaches to supporting Houston families appears in the next section of this report, A Path Forward.

Recommendation 5: Connect libraries to schools of social work

Libraries should connect with schools of social work and other helping professions to build connections, and vice versa. Developing library partnerships with schools of social work would address, in an innovative way, two needs identified during the conference: greater access to case managers and other trained service providers in the community and portfolio approaches to providing services that involve public libraries as collaborators. Baylor University, Texas Southern University, the University of Houston, and University of Texas Health Science Center all provide accredited degree programs in social work yet, as one participant commented, “I guarantee you they think about the libraries not as a social community building resource but as a place of books.” The library should be intentional in reaching out to teach the faculty and staff in these programs what the public library does now; that this is not your grandmother’s library, but a place to send their clients and other people they are helping. Participants noted that the UH School of Social Work and the Honors College would be good candidates for the library to initiate outreach.

Recommendation 6: Leverage the library as social infrastructure to foster greater civic engagement and connection among city residents and student populations

The public library builds individual and community resilience. As a third place alongside home and work, libraries provide human connection and face-to-face interaction on a daily basis. Public libraries constitute an important piece of the city’s social infrastructure. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg of New York University defines social infrastructure as “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.”1 Community resiliency begins with these connections. “We have many parts of Houston that are a bit isolated. People just don’t know each other, they don’t have opportunities to meet each other, and they’re not connected,” said Mary Lawler Executive Director, Avenue CDC. Civic engagement is built upon these connections.

Participants identified an opportunity to use underutilized public buildings for library programs and services to address geographic areas where there are deserts of community gathering places. The Houston Public Library has built considerable experience taking its people and resources out into the community, in traditional and nontraditional locations such as HPL’s Groomed for Literacy program that places quality children’s books in barber shops.

Building on this concept, participants suggested that the library has physical spaces that could benefit university communities in Houston and university communities can help the library. The recommendation was to connect and activate—connecting libraries with universities and community colleges as a strategic element to add value and build infrastructure in Houston. HPL and university communities can open conversations to explore the many ways to connect and activate.

1 Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, Crown Publishing Group, 2018.
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