Community Partnership and Academic Libraries

With many universities and communities feeling the sting of shrinking budgets, academic libraries have become an important source of community and university growth and advancement. This is not a new arrangement as more than 90% of academic libraries have provided access to library facilities and resources to community members since the 1960s (Leong, 2013, p. 223). Communities provide a source material for scholarly work. Mutual respect for what each group brings to the table is vital for successful partnerships. Leong breaks down the benefits of academic library support for both the library and the community:

1) Community access- Libraries can offer their resources to the community.

2) Information literacy- Community members use library resources to evaluate, assimilate, and create scholarly work.

3) Cooperation, exchange and partnership- Non-academic and academic librarians can share experiences, skills, and resources.

4) Exhibitions and scholarly events- The university is provided a way to advertise scholarly work through publicized projects.

(Leong, 2013, p. 220)

The following three academic libraries express these four principles through their engagement with the community.

University of Toronto Library

Community partnerships can become integral to both groups and provide long-term benefits. Community access has long been a value of University of Toronto Libraries. The library has served the community in one form or another since its founding through focusing on information literacy. The first major library built in 1859 held a public reading room and now most of the 44 Toronto University libraries are accessible by the public. Community borrowers can even access research libraries if special dues are paid (Leong, 2013, 224). While some might fear this hinders the service provided to primary patrons (students and faculty), it is outweighed by the numerous benefits. Access builds support in the community, provides a foundation for working with community groups, and acknowledges community funding (Leong, 2013, p. 223). The success of the community feeds into the success of the library (Leong, 2013).

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Digital repositories can be a welcomed boom for community partnership initiatives. For larger institutions there can be many partnerships going on at once, making it important to track and coordinate university efforts. During the course of UMA’s proposal to gain Carnegie community engagement classification, which requires a way for an institution to track its community partnership data, the digital repository project was devised. UMA library’s efforts to “improve institutional mechanisms for tracking and reporting activities and impacts” would allow a more holistic means of tracking data (Miller, 2012, p. 115). The key to successful partnerships lies in funding and sustainability. Digital records allowed college officials and the community to see the fruits of the program and plan accordingly. The dissemination of the results through an open access repository provides an alternate distribution method to costly academic journals, which weigh heavily on the budgets of many universities to host (Miller, 2012, p. 113).  However, staffing for the community partnerships section was redirected in 2010, leaving its fate uncertain (Miller, 2012). This could have been the result of one problem pointed out by Miller: the inability to capture faculty motivation due to academic assessment systems poorly tracking individual contribution (Miller, 2012, p. 111).

University of British Columbia

Public libraries often have a section dedicated to local history, but it would be a tall order to document the history of an entire immigrant group. Academic libraries like no other institution can “serve faculty and the public as an institutional memory for the community” (Cho, 2011, p. 18). These institutions have the tools and expertise to implement costly and long-term projects that reach beyond the community. The stories and impact of Chinese-Canadians have not been well documented. To correct this historical blind spot, the libraries of University of British Columbia created an online database of community history that included oral histories, documents, and artifacts that would be easily accessible to the public. The library not only provided a meeting place for community members to tell their stories and digitization workshops to preserve them, but also devised a new classification system that took into account the intricacies of Chinese-Canadian scholarship. Not only does it serve the university with the creation of new scholarly opportunities and material, it creates tools for other libraries, schools, and institutions to spread and build off their work (Cho, 2011).


Do you think it is the duty of academic institutions to provide access to community members? Why or why not?


Hang Tat Leong, J. (2013). Community Engagement – Building Bridges between University and Community by Academic Libraries in the 21st Century. Libri: International Journal Of Libraries And Information Services, (3), 220.

Miller, W. A., & Billings, M. (2012). A University Library Creates a Digital Repository for Documenting and Disseminating Community Engagement. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(2), 109-121. Retrieved November 4, 2013, from

Cho, A. (2011). Bringing History to the Library: University-Community Engagement in the Academic Library. Computers In Libraries, 31(4), 15-18.


5 responses to “Community Partnership and Academic Libraries

  1. I wouldn’t call it a duty for academic libraries to be involved in the community, since students and faculty are clearly the primary patrons and the basic reason for the academic library’s existence.
    However, I think academic libraries have a lot to offer the community. I love the idea of putting together a special collection on the Chinese-Canadians beyond the scope of a public library and opening it to the public. People don’t even have to make the trip to the library to experience the collection; the library has a very nice website featuring many of the images and documents, along with explanatory prose ( In a sense, this community partnership extends the community out to the entire world.
    While I don’t think community involvement is a duty, I do think it’s smart and a chance to be a “good citizen.” By giving something of real value to those beyond the confines of the university, the academic library opens itself to increased support and potentially more money.

  2. In questioning whether academic libraries have a duty to provide access to community members, I look to an article titled, “A Different Question of Open Access: Is There A Public Access Right to Academic Libraries in the United States and Canada” by Amy Kaufman. She cites Werner Cohn’s argument that universities such as Columbia, NYU, Fordham, and other private institutions could not exclude the public given that “the public funded these private universities: the universities’ exemptions from various taxes, the fact that donations to the universities were tax-deductible, government grants to the universities, and grants to the university libraries themselves”.
    I agree with this argument because as stated there are many monetary ways that the public provides for the academic institutions. Even though these institutions are private, they exist somewhere between the public and private sector in terms of their accessibility and while not every building on campus should be free and open to everyone, I think that in vein with the larger goals and ideals of what it means to be a library in general (, these institutions stand to lose very little if their doors are open to student and non-student patrons.
    While allowing the public may bring in a number of patrons that are a less controlled population I do not feel as though academic libraries will be the public’s first choice of sources of information. I think that the materials and scholarly writings that an academic library presumably has more of than say a public library can only be enhanced by increased usage and viewership.

  3. Academic libraries shouldn’t make it a “duty” to provide access to community members, but I do think they should still allow it. I’ve mentioned it before that I work at a public library that provides reciprocal agreements with the two private universities in town. Basically, if you have a public library card, you can check out books from the universities. I know our customers really like this agreement as they have access to journals and academic text not otherwise available through our public library. From an employee point of view, I think it is great to have the agreement. We don’t have the pressure to buy some of the more expensive academic books if the university has it. Plus it frees up a little of the Interlibrary Loan budget. While customers can still request these books via Interlibrary Loan, they can also save time and money and drive a few minutes down the street and check the book out themselves.

  4. I do think academic libraries in their nature provide most service to students. That being said i also believe they all to some extent reach out to their respective communities one way or another. This is a necessity it is part of an image and PR but it’s also a necessity to receive public support and backing through private donations and so on. I don’t think any academic library could be as effective without community support.

  5. I realize the primary function of an academic library is to serve students and academics, but oftentimes, a university is the heartbeat of the community in which it resides, so offering content and materials to non-affiliated members of the community is logical. I know in Ann Arbor, where I’m currently living, the libraries have a lot of programs and exhibits open to the public, and non-students are free to use the study spaces as well. The grad library also partnered with Google Books to make more of their materials available online to everybody, anywhere.

    So I think Rebecca’s comment is spot on: It’s not mandating for an academic library to reach out the community, but doing so is being a “good citizen.”

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