4.1 Start the Conversation

When you first approach your partner, you can bring a partnership idea to the table, but be flexible — you may not know all their needs and capabilities at first. If possible, get a feel for how they work, what they’re doing, and what their needs are by attending community meetings or events they hold.1 Make sure you can speak to how the library’s vision is complementary to your potential partner’s mission.2

Don’t underestimate the value of starting small, with informal conversations, a small pilot program or a trial collaboration.3, 4 Starting off with a small or one-off collaboration can be a great way to test the waters of a partnership. Whereas a formal partnership with a larger organization may require paperwork and managerial support, smaller efforts are easier, less time-consuming, and can be evidence in support of a more extensive partnership if they go well.5 One way to start small is by finding community events that are already in the planning stages, and offering support or involvement from the library.1

Preparing your pitch

A community partnership should benefit all stakeholders — the library, the partner, and the community. When proposing a collaboration, it’s important to understand and articulate how the project will benefit each of these. Developing an “elevator speech” for your library or specifically for your youth services department will help you when you approach potential partners.6 Elevator speeches or pitches are “brief opportunities—maybe one minute or less—to interest anyone whose ear you’d like to bend about libraries.”7 The elevator speech should be specific to your library, and maybe even a single branch, and should highlight the unique contributions the library can bring to the partnership and the impact it can have on youth. Although you may need to tailor the pitch for each potential partner, crafting a flexible, reusable template will save time when you set up future partnerships.

Building a relationship

“It was just a get-to-know-you lunch. Yet, unbeknownst to us, as we sipped soup and ordered sandwiches, we were laying the groundwork for a long, fruitful partnership.”

— Kathleen Baxter and Susan M. Haggberg8

You can start building relationships with other organizations without a concrete or even a vague goal in mind. Networking with people who have a different perspective on the youth in your community is valuable in and of itself. It’s also a good idea to have an idea of what other organizations are doing for youth, so you don’t duplicate efforts. Informal relationships are often the catalyst for creative partnership ideas born out of simply chatting with each other about your work.

What if they say no?

“People are afraid of the ‘no,’ and that’s truly the worst that can happen. I have been shut down so many times I’m like, ‘Alright, well, there’s five more ice cream shops on this block, so I’ll find something.’”

— Focus Group Participant

No matter how persuasive and well-crafted your pitch is, you may be turned down. Don’t take it personally. Turn it into a learning experience by understanding why the potential partner wasn’t on board. Did you start the conversation with a fully formed concept, without letting them share their input and expertise? Accept critical feedback with grace and an open mind, then determine if it is worth adjusting your approach moving forward. Perhaps you can even re-approach the same partner in the future.


You should adapt this list for each partner, but here are some questions to start with to help you understand your partner’s needs and situations.

  • How many people do you work with in a typical day (or week, or month)? How many teens? 
  • What variation do you see in reading abilities and technical skills among the people and teens you work with?
  • Do you work with many people with learning disabilities?
  • What is your most pressing need in terms of materials, books, technology, or other resources?
  • What kind of budget do you have to work with? What kind of staffing? 
  • When does your work occur (or what hours are you open)?
  • Are there things you would like to do, but are unable to because of time, money, space, or other issues? 

(Adapted from Squires, T. (2009). Library partnerships: Making connections between school and public libraries. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., page 16).

Put it in writing

Depending on the size and formality of your project, a written agreement, contract, or memorandum of understanding may be useful or even required.2, 5 Contracts are legally binding and are particularly important in situations that involve money, intellectual property, or other resources of value; a memorandum of understanding is not legally binding, but is useful for clarifying and recording agreements.2


Each memorandum of understanding, or MOU, may be a little different, depending on the organizations involved and the nature of the project, but here are some questions that they should usually answer: 

  • Why is the MOU being created? 
  • What variation do you see in reading abilities and technical skills among the people and teens you work with?
  • What organizations are involved in the project? What are their roles? Be as specific as possible, and include administrative tasks like scheduling meetings and following-up with people about deadlines.
  • What activities are involved in the project? What is the timeline for these activities and the partnership as a whole? 
  • How will you communicate during the partnership? 
  • What is the project, and why are your organizations involved? 
  • Who will train staff, if needed? 
  • Who will be responsible for maintaining the project or program and any related materials?
  • If changes are needed mid-way through the collaboration, who will decide what changes to make, and when? 
  • How will you evaluate the program’s success? What will you measure, and who will collect that information? Who will receive a copy of the final evaluation report? 

Resources for Establishing a Partnership

  • Memorandum of Understanding Sample Template. NISE Network (2015).
  • "Good Teen Librarians Make Great Library Advocates" by Maureen L. Hartman. Tips to help teen services librarians form strategic partnerships. In Young Adult Library Services, 2012(Fall).

1: “Celebrating Women’s History Month at Your Library” by Kay Ann Cassell and Kathleen Weibel. In American Libraries, March 2010.

2: Museum & Community Partnerships: Collaboration Guide for Museums Working with Community Youth-Serving Organizations by Catherine McCarthy and Brad Herring. NISE Network, 2015. .

3: Best Practices in Collaboration. Coalition to Advance Learning in Archives, Libraries and Museums, 2016.

4: “Reaching beyond Library Walls: Strengthening Services and Opportunities through Partnerships and Collaborations” by Adrienne L. Strock. In Young Adult Library Services, 2014.

5: Partner with a Local Museum to Reach More Teens!, webinar by Korie Twiggs, Christina Freitag, and Michelle Nichols. Requires YALSA membership.:

6: “Building Strong Community Partnerships: Sno-Isle Libraries and the Teen Project” by Dawn Rutherford. Young Adult Library Services 2010(Fall), p. 23–25.

7: Elevator Speech. American Library Association.

8: “Ladies Who Lunch” by Kathleen Baxter and Susan M. Haggberg. School Library Journal 46(9).