When Dianne Connery first started as president of the operating board, the Pottsboro Area Library was a sparsely visited institution on the verge of closure. The post office-turned-library had a reputation of not being kid-friendly and full of books that nobody wanted to read. Connery rolled up her sleeves and got to work to keep the library open and make it a community destination.
We first heard about the Pottsboro Area Library by way of TechSoup's Digital Connector Story Challenge. The contest was open to both nonprofits and libraries who were doing great digital inclusion work. Now, we already know that public libraries do digital inclusion work every day, but the story of the Pottsboro Library really blew us away. We wanted to hear more about how this mostly volunteer-run library does so much – with so little.
A Place Worth Saving
The town of Pottsboro, Texas is located about 75 minutes north of Dallas on the Texas-Oklahoma border. With a population of 2,160, this small town has a sizeable retiree community as well as many families with school-aged children. The library was functioning on a shoestring budget of $4,000 a year. But when they hired a part-time staff person, they watched their bank account dwindle.
When Connery went to the city to ask for more money, they were met with a surprising response: The library had a reputation of not being kid-friendly. It just wasn't something the town government cared about saving.
"If we were going to close, we didn’t have anything to lose," Connery recalls. They decided to just start spending the money without worrying about the diminishing budget.
"What if we really offered something that the people in the town felt like was worth saving?"
Partnerships to the Rescue
It wasn't too surprising when Connery revealed that community partnerships was the secret to the success of the Pottsboro Library. At TechSoup for Libraries, we're all about partnerships: nonprofit partnerships, government partnerships, media partnerships, and so on. Building partnerships is also a cornerstone of the Edge Benchmarks (and specifically addressed in Benchmark 5: Building Strategic Partnerships).
Connery reached out to experts in the area to help teach classes, lead workshops, and more. One of the community experts was a professor at a nearby liberal arts college. She had heard about a class at the college that gave students real world experience by working with local nonprofits and public institutions on areas such as development, marketing, grant writing, and more. She reached out and asked the professor if he'd consider taking the Pottsboro Library on. Not only was he willing to work with the library, he also recommended alumni who might be interested in volunteering with the library.
He put the library in touch with a recent graduate who is a producer at a local TV station. She came on board to teach classes on technical skills, such as using Adobe Photoshop, but she has also been a valuable mentor to Pottsboro teens.
21st Century Skills for Teens
When asked what area of technology has the most potential for the Pottsboro Library, Connery has a clear vision: video. Through a Best Buy grant, the library was able to obtain three Go Pro cameras and two Nikon DSLRs. The library used the TechSoup donation program to get video and photo editing software.
Most recently, the library held a workshop with a local filmmaker. She taught the Pottsboro teens how to write scripts, create storyboards, and shoot video. The teens could create a video about the library or pick another subject.
"In a rural town, teens acquiring technology skills can change lives," said Connery.
Media, Marketing, and Getting People into the Library
"We thought that we people would just come flooding into the library," Connery remarked. In reality, it took some time to get people to pay attention to what's happening at the library. The relationship with the local news producer has certainly helped: the Pottsboro Library has been featured on some news segments.
They've also brought in the publisher of Pottsboro's weekly newspaper. He comes into the library to work with local teens on publishing their own newspaper using Adobe InDesign. The teens also produce a newsletter for the library as well as promotional materials for nonprofits in the area. Some of the teens have even written stories for the local paper. All of this has been fantastic promotion for the library's services and programming.
Hosting events has also proved to be successful for the library. One of the most successful events at the library is Appy Hour, a Sunday afternoon meet up. It's basically an informal group where people can get together and share apps. They brought in a volunteer who was an "iPad specialist" to facilitate the conversation.
A Volunteer-Run Library
What's it like to run a library made up of volunteers? "It's like conducting a symphony!" joked Connery.
Connery herself is a volunteer and she only works part-time. The library has one part-time person on staff, the librarian. There are eight regular desk volunteers who work Monday through Friday checking out books. On weekends, board members come in to work at the circulation desk. The volunteer list keeps growing, however, as the library builds up its programming.
She advises other small libraries struggling to develop programming to reach out to community experts. You'd be surprised how willing people are to volunteer. In the experience of the Pottsboro Library, people were excited to be a part of a project that had the potential to change the community.
"People are willing to share their skills with the library because it is such a well-respected institution," she said.
All of the great work the Pottsboro Library is doing has caught the attention of the city government. Their budget keeps increasing and the library has even connected with the Pottsboro schoolboard as well as local teachers.
"Even though there's not much money, they are seeing that we're worth saving."