By Ness Clarke Shortley


In an ideal world, public youth services librarians would have all the resources they need to build stellar collections, create outstanding programming, and design highly accessible, fun, and functional spaces for teen patrons. But the realities of working in public libraries mean that collaboration is no longer a luxury or something to do if time allows; instead, it has become a necessity. Budget cuts, staffing reductions, and increasing workloads mean that it is impossible for any one youth services librarian to do everything that needs to get done.

Collaboration can help ensure youth services librarians are successfully serving their teen patrons—though there are certainly pitfalls and drawbacks to working with others that must be navigated for any partnership to work.

What is Collaboration?

Simply put, collaboration is working with another person or group of people toward some common goal. Collaboration can look different depending on the context and goals (Barfield, 2016). Regardless of the form it takes, collaboration involves deciding goals together with others, sharing responsibilities, and working together to achieve more than could be achieved by an individual on their own. Collaborative learning can be seen to occur through dialogue, social interaction, and joint decision-making with others, and these shared processes contribute greatly to individual and collective growth, as well as to co-constructed understanding and knowledge (p. 222).

True collaboration is a partnership where all parties understand and value the others’ contributions to the benefit of all. Indeed, collaboration allows those involved to create something that is more than the sum of the parts and more than any individual could have managed alone. Adrienne Strock (2014) noted that it also alleviates some of the burden caused by shrinking budgets and growing responsibilities, ensuring that no one person has to be an expert in everything.

Special education expert E. Ann Knackendoffel (2007) observed that for collaboration to work, there must be mutual respect, trust, and communication. She suggested that there are several factors that lead to strong collaborative relationships: that collaboration is voluntary (even if mandated by administrators, those within the group must decide whether the effort will be truly collaborative); all participants have equal status, and their contributions are valued equally; it is based on at least one mutual goal; it depends on shared decision-making for the division of labor; it requires sharing resources, including time and energy; and it requires shared accountability for the outcomes (p. 2). Though the context of her research is in special education, it applies more broadly to collaborative ventures across disciplines, including those in public libraries.

There are several models for school librarian and teacher collaboration according to librarian educator Jean Donham (2013), though few apply directly to public librarian collaboration with other librarians or community groups. However, the gist of those models is still relevant: Collaboration looks like a lot of different things, from informal conversations all the way up to planning large-scale events with multiple partners. Regardless of how involved the partnership is, working in teams can begin building relationships that will make the library a safer and more useful and enjoyable space for our child and teen patrons.

Why Collaborate?

So, why should we collaborate? Working with others is, of course, not without its drawbacks. Maureen Cole (2017) noted that the price of collaboration is “compromise, patience, and time” (p. 76). Jean Donham (2013) suggested that the benefits of working together must be made explicit—especially if the teamwork is being imposed on the group by an administrator, for example—in order for it to be successful: “Teamwork requires trust in one another’s contributions to the team’s work, a no-risk environment for openly sharing ideas, and a shared commitment to the group’s decisions” (p. 116). She stated that laying down some ground rules at the beginning of such a venture can help ensure that everything runs more smoothly. Some helpful strategies include ensuring all voices are heard, clarifying terms used so everyone is on the same page, and engaging in active listening.

There are several things to keep in mind when deciding whether and with whom to collaborate. Emotional intelligence matters; keep in mind your preferred style of learning—and that others may favor a different way. All involved should have the chance to offer their insight. Collaboration also requires an open mind, a willingness to adapt, and the ceding of at least some control, regardless of whether you have chosen your collaborators or someone else has. Compromise is the name of the game. By its very nature, working with others means no one person should have the authority to completely overrule the rest of the team; however, that does not mean that there should not be a group leader or moderator (Cole, 2017; Knackendoffel, 2007; Donham, 2013). Someone needs to keep track of all the moving parts and the deadlines and help ensure everything gets done. Sometimes that may be you, and sometimes that may be someone else. Even among the same group, such as a long-term committee or task force, collaborators’ roles can change with each project. Sometimes you will have a lot of knowledge and experience to bring to the table, and sometimes you may be a sounding board for someone else—or anything in between. All of these roles are necessary.

As a result, some knowledge of community or local politics can be incredibly helpful to the success of the project. Knowing the history of the group or even whether your partner wants to work on this project with you or is being forced to can go a long way to making the collaboration successful. That being said, Maureen Cole (2017) noted that some partnerships will be more successful than others, and some projects do not require collaboration at all:

Some ideas are worthy of collaboration and some aren’t. Sometimes it’s not only easier to do things on your own, but involving other people or groups is a waste of their time and yours. It’s important to do some preliminary thinking about this before assuming that partners will be the secret ingredient to a fabulous creation. Not only are some projects not worthy of collaboration, some partners are not up to the task either. Don’t just pile on partners so that you can claim a joint effort; make sure that those partners bring something to the table. It’s not always possible to know the full extent of their contribution ahead of time, but it’s worth thinking about. (p. 75)

Additionally, working collaboratively with others requires a great deal of effort. Nurturing the relationships, developing trust, creating a framework within which everyone works, even simply getting those you need on board takes persistence, patience, and resilience: “Partnerships must also be maintained, developed, and adjusted based on the dynamic nature of education and technology. All of this requires time, effort, and advocacy at all levels” (University of Wisconsin, 2014, para. 8).

All of this is to say that while collaboration does have its benefits, you should think carefully about what the goal of the project is and whether adding someone else to the mix will really be worthwhile. It often—but not always—is.

The Benefits of Collaboration

What, then, are the benefits of collaboration? Some of the benefits are obvious, such as saving money and sharing resources (Knipp, Walker, Durney, & Perez, 2015). Anneke Larrance (2002) suggested that there are less obvious advantages, such as the learning benefits for all involved, patrons and staff alike, and the synergy that happens when true collaboration and cooperation occur. Jean Donham (2013) proposed that there are three additional benefits to working with others that cannot occur if librarians continue to work alone: it can increase reflective thought and thinking about whether a program, book display, collection, or anything else has met the goals set in the planning stages; when working with others in the same building or library system, it can increase system-wide knowledge of what is going on at other departments or branches; and it can result in better teaching and learning for all involved.

Though there has not been as much research in the area of public librarians collaborating with others to benefit their child and young adult patrons, they can take a page from school librarianship—especially when it comes to how school librarians and other educators plan instruction. As discussed in Chapter 3, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) observed that beginning planning with the outcome in mind makes for more successful instruction. With backward design, educators decide on what they want students to learn before bringing in resources, such as textbooks, or activities. This approach applies to collaboration, as well: Team members should decide what the purpose of the joint venture is and what they want the end product—whatever that may be—to look like before planning the details. This may seem like common sense, but Wiggins and McTighe argued that it is not, with many educators continuing to use a particular text or activity because that is the way it has always been done:

Only by having specified the desired results can we focus on the content, methods, and activities most likely to achieve those results. But many teachers begin with and remain focused on textbooks, favored lessons, and time-honored activities—the inputs—rather than deriving those means from what is implied in the desired results—the output. To put it in an odd way, too many teachers focus on the teaching and not the learning. They spend most of their time thinking, first, about what they will do, what materials they will use, and what they will ask students to do rather than first considering what the learner will need in order to accomplish the learning goals. (p. 15)

By talking about the goals of the partnership and agreeing on what they are, we can help ensure that our collaboration bears fruit, instead of simply being another frustrating group work experience. Adrienne Strock (2014) listed five main benefits for public youth services librarians looking to work with others outside of their own building or branch: stretching budgets and sharing resources; expanding programming and other library offerings; strengthening relationships with other people and organizations in the community; learning new skills; and—perhaps the most important for youth services librarians—benefiting teens by giving them the chance to learn, share their passions, and gain positive adult relationships with those in the community.


Think about your own collaborative experiences. What were the benefits for you personally? For your partner(s)? For the individuals and groups you serve?

The Benefits of Collaboration Between Public and Academic Librarians

Public and academic libraries have, historically, not collaborated much. However, more and more they are finding ways to work together. The Palm Harbor Library and St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus library (see spotlight box, below) formed an informal partnership based on shared values that included education and community involvement (Knipp et al., 2015). At first, they sought to learn from each other’s service model and benefit from proximity; the two institutions are about four miles apart. They set up a half-day workshop with focus groups to concentrate on different areas, such as marketing, programming, and resources. They found common ground on three areas: planning a joint event, creating a shadowing program that would allow staff members from each library to engage one-on-one with a counterpart in the other library, and creating an ongoing social media or email collaboration channel.


Spotlight: Comics and Anime Convention at the Library

While academic and public libraries may seem to have differing missions, they can work together before to benefit students.  Palm Harbor Library (Palm Harbor, Florida) and St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus library (Tarpon Springs, Florida) had an informal working arrangement that culminated in a comics and anime convention called Anime and Comics Enthusiast Convention, or ACEcon.

Paula Knipp and colleagues (2015) noted that both libraries have community involvement and benefiting students as part of their mission, and given their geographic proximity, it made sense for them to work together. ACEcon was a two-day event meant to promote the two organizations to residents of the surrounding community while offering a fun activity. The libraries picked a comics and anime convention because of their popularity; both libraries also had relevant student organizations that showed interest in being a part of such an event. The libraries invited students and local enthusiasts, organizations, businesses, and media; this helped ensure a sense of shared ownership in ACEcon.

Both libraries deemed the venture a success on many different levels. It brought in people to both organizations who had not been there before. People wanted the event to continue and had ideas for the next year of ACEcon. It strengthened the bond between the two libraries, and both organizations want to expand their collaboration: “In the end, PHL and SPC’s Tarpon Springs Campus Library succeeded in enriching the lives of current and potential users with an educational and entertaining experience, while also developing a partnership and encouraging the staff’s personal growth and expression” (Knipp et al., 2015, p. 83).


Not all academic librarian and youth services public librarian partnerships have been as successful as the ACEcon example, showing the potential pitfalls of such a collaborative venture. George Aulisio and Sheli McHugh (2013), both academic librarians and researchers, sought to work with a public librarian to teach teens about sustainability and empower them to make changes in their schools, homes, and other places they hang out. However, the academic librarians found that the teens did not leave the multi-session program feeling as though they could make a difference—mostly because the researchers did not take advantage of the youth librarian’s expertise in creating programming for younger teens. Since they were familiar with information literacy instruction for college students, Aulisio and McHugh believed they were prepared to teach teenagers, but this turned out not to be the case. They concluded that “Spending additional time with the young adult librarian, discussing her pedagogy, and sharing more of the presentation with her would have made for a more enlightening session for the teens” (Aulisio & McHugh, p. 91).

Academic librarians and public librarians have complementary skill sets, and there is a tremendous benefit to both should they decide to work together; however, both must recognize the value of the other’s skill set and not overestimate the importance of their own—a key part of any successful collaboration.

The Benefits of Collaboration Between Public and School Librarians

Public and school libraries share tremendous overlap in their missions and service populations, and, as a result, they are natural collaborators. However, Don Latham, Heidi Julien, Melissa Gross, and Shelbie Witte (2016) found that, at least in STEM education, public and school librarians have not worked together as much as they could have, citing a lack of time and administrative support as the main reasons. Even so, they found that educators, school librarians, and public librarians all saw the value of collaboration—especially when it came to benefitting students and teaching 21st century skills, such as science, technology, engineering, and math. Ross Todd (2008) observed that true collaboration has a positive effect on developing students’ information literacy skills and increases the effectiveness of instruction.

Public and school librarians serve many of the same patrons and have similar missions, making them natural partners in many ways (Potter & Johnson, 2017). For example, traditional calendar school libraries may not be open to students over the summer, making the value of the public library clear in filling that gap. Given the budget constraints that both school and public libraries face, it is surprising that more youth service librarians and school media center coordinators are not turning to each other for collaboration; “in an effort to meet the needs of shared student patrons, school and public libraries look to collaborative ventures, sharing not only resources but also curriculum and programming objectives” (Potter & Johnson, p. 24).

Tonya Potter and Kara Johnson (2017) also suggested that school library and public library collaboration can be especially effective with three types of patrons: struggling readers, prolific readers, and preschool-age children. Though there are many studies documenting that the best remedy for struggling readers is for them to read books, that same research shows that many of these readers do not take advantage of summer reading programs held at public libraries. But some libraries are addressing this through collaboration. For example, in Denton, Texas, a partnership between four elementary schools, a university, and a public library system have turned the “summer slide” around, engaging struggling readers in a coordinated program that includes school librarians participating in public library storytimes, public librarians making school visits, and publishing participants’ names in the local newspaper; they found that “coordinated summer reading programs not only increased student participation, but also promoted the roles of the school library and public library in the community” (Potter & Johnson, 2017, p. 25).

Finally, getting young children reading and ready to attend school is critical—and an equity issue. Anne Fernald, Virginia Marchman, and Adriana Weisleder (2013) found that there are noticeable differences in the vocabulary and language processing skills in children from lower socioeconomic status families that are detectable when the child is as young as 18 months old. Public libraries can help close the word gap by increasing programming for preschool-aged children, and school libraries can help those efforts by encouraging parents with both school-age and preschool-age children to attend those programs. School librarians can also collect books aimed at younger children that older siblings can check out for them.

In addition to helping struggling and at-risk readers, collaboration between school and public libraries can also benefit prolific readers. Creating a reciprocal lending agreement between a school and public library can benefit youth who read a lot by granting them access to more books and lessening the risk that the book they want to read has already been checked out by another student (see the spotlight box, next page, for one example of such a collaboration).


Spotlight: Limitless Libraries

During the 2011-2012 academic year, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools faced a tremendous budget shortfall, which left the schools hurting for resources (Murvosh, 2013). Nashville (Tennessee) Public Library stepped in, loaning some 97,000 resources to the district’s middle and high schools—everything from DVDs to books to CDs. The Limitless Libraries program, which started out as a way for a city struggling under the budget constraints of the 2008 recession to stretch its dollars, has led to more collaboration between the school system and the public library. The collaboration has allowed the school libraries to weed their collections of outdated materials while expanding the resources available to students and teachers, and the public libraries have gained new patrons who had not previously used the facilities or the collection (Bengel, 2013).

In addition to engaging English language learners and struggling readers, who find the public library’s collection of audiobooks and ebooks especially engaging, Limitless Libraries has increased circulation at school libraries and public library branches in Nashville. Because student identification cards function as public library cards, it is easy for students to borrow resources from the library; additionally, students can place a hold on a resource in the public library and have it delivered to their school, making it possible for students who cannot go to the public library to access those resources (Bengel, 2013).

The collaboration between Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Nashville Public Library has resulted in more school librarians participating in public library programs, and public and school librarians in Nashville have begun working more closely together on individual projects: “In short, everyone has started to communicate more about how best to serve students” (Bengel, 2013, n.p.).


The Benefits of Collaboration Between Public Librarians and Community Organizations

There are so many opportunities for youth librarians to work with community groups. The first step, of course, is knowing your community and knowing what is out there. What do your teens need? What obstacles do they face for getting those needs met? What groups in the community are already working to meet those needs? Answering these and similar questions will help youth librarians not only to not duplicate work that is already being done by others in the community but also find potential collaborators and needs that are not being met elsewhere.

Paula Knipp and colleagues (2015) also highlighted the value of using the libraries’ physical space even as more and more of people’s lives go online; many communities no longer have a common gathering space, and libraries can fill that function: “Even as the world becomes increasingly digitized, there is still a strong need to have a physical space in which to engage the community with program offerings for varied interest groups” (p. 75). Instead of simply being a warehouse for materials, libraries can host events that bring community members together, such as clubs, movie showings, and even more ambitious events such as festivals and conventions (Exner, 2012; Robertson, 2005).

Simply opening your space up for community groups may not seem like collaboration, but it is, in fact, an easy way to foster better relationships and get more teens in the door. It can lead to more in-depth partnerships as trust builds between the library, the community group, and its members. For example, members of the Public Library Association have created partnerships with garden clubs, recreation departments, and veterans groups (Struzziero, 2017).

Another interesting partnership is that between a public library and a film festival. The Louisville (Kentucky) Free Public Library teamed up with the Louisville International Festival of Films to create the Kentucky Youth Film Festival, which was meant to give teens of different means and abilities an outlet for creative expression (Thomas, 2017). Ninth- through twelfth-graders across Kentucky can enter the competition in three different categories; selected films are awarded prizes. The two organizations also held a weeklong filmmaking workshop at the library to help promote the festival and get more teens involved. The collaboration helped the library connect to the teens’ interests and give them an outlet in a supportive environment, promoted both organizations to potential patrons across the region (and the state), and benefited not only the organizations involved but also the city of Louisville.

But libraries can do more to benefit youth in our communities, especially in communities that have felt ignored or forgotten—or worse—by local governments or other organizations. “Because public libraries are typically well-respected and trusted fixtures in most communities, they are an excellent arena to help bridge the gaps between different demographics and community organizations” (Kaser, 2015, para. 3). The American Library Association and National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation’s Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change program also shows the value of library-community group collaboration: “It seeks to introduce libraries to various dialogue and deliberation approaches, enabling libraries to foster conversation and lead change in their communities” (American Library Association, n.d.). Using this model, the Hartford (Connecticut) Public Library has begun working with the community to strengthen its relationship with the police force (Kaser, 2015). The library hosted community discussions where residents could air their concerns; because of those discussions, Hartford Public Library then held three listening sessions between Hartford residents and the police. From those sessions came the idea to hold a less formal event, such as a block party, to allow community members and police officers to see each other in a different light, which has resulted in better understanding between the police and the community.

For another example of a public library that is using community partnerships to reach traditionally underserved communities, see the spotlight box below.


Spotlight: Bringing the Library Home in Chicago

The Chicago Public Library and Chicago Housing Authority have teamed up to offer programming and resources aimed at people of all ages who live in city housing developments; some mixed-income housing developments will also become home to their own small library branches, in essence bringing the library to them.

Library space will be available for social workers to give workshops and lead parent training sessions, and there will be programming aimed at children, teens, and adults; additional collaboration comes in the form of undergraduate education students at a local university providing preschool programming (Lambert, 2016). The collaboration allows the library to reach a potentially vulnerable population of people who were not using the library; it provides “a tangible positive to [the] community” (Kaser, 2015, para. 5).



At its best, collaboration brings out the finest work from all involved. Youth librarians in a public library setting have the opportunity to work with others inside and outside their building in order to benefit their youth patrons. Working in isolation—especially given shrinking budgets and increasing workloads—is no longer a viable option. To give teen patrons the best, teen librarians must work with others in a variety of ways, big and small.


Next Page


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Barfield, A. (2016). Collaboration. ELT Journal, 70 (2), 222–224.

Bengel, T. R. (2013). Libraries with no bounds: How Limitless Libraries transformed Nashville Public Schools’ libraries. School Library Journal. Retrieved from formed-nashville-public-schools-libraries/

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