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Partnerships for Progress: How One Organization Seeks to Optimize Basic Needs Support through Public and Academic Library Collaboration

June 17, 2024

By Ireri Rivas Mier y Teran, Program Officer

Ithaka S+R is striving to improve support for students’ basic needs. Their central idea? Using library partnerships as an improved delivery model.

Libraries: Similar Populations, Disparate Support
Community libraries—both public and academic—serve similar populations yet provide very different resources to support their patrons’ basic needs, such as housing, food security, mental and physical health, access to technology and childcare. Given the differences and overlaps in populations served, both sectors could benefit from new strategies to reach more individuals from underserved backgrounds more effectively.

Ithaka S+R, the research and consulting arm of ITHAKA, is committed to supporting these programs and bringing awareness to these resources. Their “Maximizing Public-Academic Library Partnerships” project, funded by ECMC Foundation, seeks to better understand models of current partnerships between public and community college libraries on a national level, the challenges and opportunities for establishing and maintaining these partnerships, and where services and resources are being duplicated—all in the name of improving efficient access to basic needs support. The work will also share strategies to help cross-sector libraries strengthen current connections or establish new ones where needed.

“As an organization, our longstanding belief is that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue higher education degrees, regardless of their economic background or life circumstances,” said Mark McBride, Ithaka S+R’s Associate Director for Libraries, Scholarly Communications and Museums. “I am a community college graduate, as well as a former director of a community college library in the SUNY system, and I have seen and experienced the transformative power of an education. This project speaks to the core of who I am as an educator and takes on the difficult role of silo busting between library systems that have similar goals and objectives. This project has the potential to provide a blueprint for how public and community college libraries can work together, ultimately making an impact on helping students overcome barriers to success.”

How the Idea Began
The idea of cross-sector library partnerships was largely born from the pandemic. During 2020-2021, Ithaka S+R teams had many conversations with library leaders who shared that support for basic needs was prominent on their radar. Student surveys also revealed that librarians were trusted sources of support regarding basic needs resources.

“During the pandemic, there was a big shift within libraries to think more broadly about basic needs and how to expand library services and programming to support students more holistically; but while there was a rise in internal collaboration, there was still a lot of ambiguity about how libraries could collaborate externally to expand their services and programming,” said Melissa Blankstein, Researcher, Ithaka S+R. “With this project, we’re really interested to learn how these formal and informal relationships could be maximized, so libraries can optimize their capacity and resources to reach more students.”

With her own background in psychology, Blankstein has always been passionate about ensuring access to basic needs resources and support, especially when bureaucracy and stigma create barriers to that access.  

How Can Partnerships Help?
“Academic libraries are one of the quiet places students can go to get work done, take time between classes or bring questions—and librarians are typically on the forefront of those conversations and interactions,” said Blankstein. “Public libraries often have more information on federal, state or community-based programs than college libraries. Bridging this gap between libraries can build even more trust in libraries to provide basic needs information and better meet students’ evolving needs.”

Early Work and Learnings
Ithaka S+R’s project work, which began in 2023, will take place over three years, using a mixed methods approach.

The team’s most recent work involved conducting an inventory of library websites to shed light on how basic needs services and collaborations between public and academic libraries are represented and promoted—and what opportunities may exist.

“Overall, we saw that public libraries generally offer a more comprehensive suite of basic needs resources while community college libraries focus on supporting student learning and well-being,” said Sindy Lopez, Senior Analyst, Ithaka S+R, who is passionate about educational equity and is inspired by this project’s potential to enhance resource-sharing around basic needs. “We also uncovered that although formal collaborations between library sectors are limited, there are opportunities for resource and knowledge sharing between these different communities towards supporting and fulfilling student and community basic needs.”

Ithaka S+R released a report in July 2024 that details more of the team’s findings, including recommendations for how libraries can enhance information dissemination on their websites. To read the report, click here.

Delving Deeper: What’s Working and Why?
Going forward, Ithaka S+R’s early learnings will help identify current public-academic library partnerships that will form the basis of three case studies. These studies will highlight the successful partnership approaches and enable others to learn from these libraries’ opportunities and challenges, including how to develop and maintain partnerships, and how resources and information are currently being exchanged.

Meanwhile, the team will study underlying opportunities for success by examining state policies in states where they are conducting case studies. Their hope is to better understand how the structure of these policies facilitates or hinders libraries and academic institutions’ ability to connect postsecondary students to basic needs services.  

Actionable Results for Effective Change
After the research is concluded, Ithaka S+R hopes to quickly move into knowledge sharing.

By 2026, they will establish an in-person Library Partnership Development Institute. The Institute will bring together academic and public librarians, students and other stakeholders from the same geographic region, as well as the project advisory committee, basic needs funders and other experts in the field to inform on best practices and strategies to forge successful partnerships between sectors.

“At Ithaka S+R, we are all laser-focused on improving access to education,” said McBride. “I believe this project will make a real difference to remove gaps and encourage collaboration between two different organizations that are targeting the same population with the same solution—ultimately benefiting more students than either organization can reach alone.”

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