Holly Ritchie is the director of the new Manassas Park City Library.
It doesn’t seem to matter where we are or what we do for a living, most of us have our own set idea about what a library is. This can range from a quiet workplace to an avenue to learn new skills; from a building filled with never ending portals of new worlds to the place with glasses-wearing librarians who greet us with a smile (or a ‘shhh’). One thing that most everyone will agree on though, is that a library, especially a public library, is a guaranteed, established part of the community. That it is your library; and while it may have new staff, or a new logo, or a new building, it has been around for as long as your community can remember.
But what if it wasn’t? What if instead of something that is established, it is brand new? What if even some of the youngest among the community are still older than your library?
That is the case here in Manassas Park. Not even a year old, the library system is in its infancy. The Manassas Park City Library (MPCL) opened its doors to the public on 4 August 2020 in a temporary location while a permanent location is built. But what exactly goes into opening a library?
The furniture. To many, furniture may be an afterthought, but what is a library without shelving? Where do people sit? Work? Create memories? The furniture of a library is important, because it houses gateways into the unknown, gives a seat to a worker who needs an escape, invites a child to find a new best friend, or provides staff with a place to turn their ideas into reality.
The collection. The collection is probably the biggest part of libraries and we tend to take them for granted. It takes time for a library to establish their collection. More books are published in one month than most libraries can hope to purchase in one year. In order to create a collection that the community wants, libraries have to have insight into the materials that their community is interested in. A new library does not have those years of experience with their community and so the question has to be asked–where exactly do we begin?
The answer is to build a solid groundwork that has a little bit of everything without overlooking materials, old and new, that are popular. Children’s book series such as Harry Potter, Dogman, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Captain Underpants are bought in their entirety. Authors such as Neil Gaiman, Danielle Steel, and Stephen King make the list. Movies from Frozen and Spirited Away to Hidden Figures and The Wizard of Oz are added to the shelf.
And as time passes, the collection grows to be tailored more and more to what the community craves–and materials that have been out for years begin to populate the shelves as the community comes together and donates their old favorites so someone new can discover it.
The staff. The staff of a new library are your ambassadors as they are the ones directly interacting with each person who is walking into the library for the very first time. The atmosphere that the staff creates, both through their presence and through the displays and programs they create, can be the difference between someone deciding to return to the library in the future or not. A good staff, especially at the beginning, is crucial to the future success of the library. Libraries that are already established have policies, procedures, past programs, and traditions that help to shape their future. A new library has to create it all from scratch, making the staff that open the library the foundation for all that the library will offer in the future.
The community. The community is by far the most important part of opening a new library. Connecting to and supporting the community is a public library’s main goal and the community helps to drive the course of the library.
The focus of the collection, the types of displays, the programs that are created, all the decisions that staff make are centered around creating a place the community wants to come to be, a place the community feels meets their needs, and a place the community knows they can find something for them themselves whether it be a book to read or a program to attend. The community is the reason the library exists and therefore the community is the one thing that the library must always keep in mind.
Getting the word out. Connecting the new library with the community can be a challenge and that is where marketing comes into play. Libraries utilize social media, local online event calendars, newsletters, community partnerships, and help from various departments and organizations to spread the word. All of these things go into making sure that the community knows what we have to offer and allow us to begin to create lasting connections within the community. With a new library, this would typically begin in full force on opening day. However, what should have been a large occasion with a full day packed with events ended up being a quiet affair; the COVID-19 pandemic dictated an opening with very little fanfare.
When the pandemic started, libraries across the country began to adapt and brought their existing programs into the virtual realm before beginning the daunting task of creating new programs that were solely virtual.
We didn’t have that luxury.
As a library system that opened its doors while much of the rest of the world closed and locked theirs, we were starting completely from scratch. We had no existing program that already had steady attendance to turn virtual. We didn’t have regulars calling to pick up the books they placed on hold, or wondering what this would mean for us or them. So what to do? How could we get the word out when suddenly some of a library’s best tools for spreading the word of its programs were cut off? Outreach efforts and school visits? Not an option. Flyers and giveaways? Unwanted in our new world full of unknowns.
Libraries are, and always have been, adaptable and resilient. This is no less true for a library system just getting on its feet. In order to build our community, we focused on what we could do: get the word out in our immediate community–the area surrounding the library–with a focus on those who come to walk the trail that is situated in the park just behind the library.
We also focused on connecting with people through social media, utilizing connections in the community such as the local community center to help spread word about us and any programs (socially distant in person or virtual) we have. Once a solid base was developed, and with the pandemic (and being a new library) slowing our foot traffic, we have been able to focus on building up partnerships and connections with groups within the community that have allowed us to already bring popular or anticipated programs such as a Seed Exchange Box with online gardening workshops and a homeschooling information web-series.
The great thing about starting a new library is that despite the challenges, it presents endless possibilities. As the Library Director of this new library, I look forward to being a part of the journey and watching to see how the community shapes us and how we shape the community.
-Holly Ritchie, Director, Manassas Park City Library