Ingram Blog

7 Years in – Nashville’s Limitless Library Project

In 2009, Nashville Public Library started the Limitless Library (LL), a partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools that provides students with books and digital items delivered directly to their schools. Since then, Limitless Library has provided a model for similar programs in libraries across the country.

Joyce Skokut, Ingram’s Director, Collection Development checked in with Tricia Bengel, Emerging Technologies Administrator, Nashville Public Library (NPL) and Stephanie Ham, Director of Library Services, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), to get their thoughts on the venture now that they’re well past the early stages.

Ingram: How long did you think about and plan for this project before it launched?

MNPS: The project started as the brain child of Mayor Dean, as he knew we had a world-class public library system and wanted to support the schools to build that quality in our school libraries. Tricia can provide a larger scope of the background – however, I was fortunate enough to experience LL from both sides, first as a school librarian at Whites Creek High School in 2009, and then as the Project Coordinator in 2011.

NPL: Mayor Dean gave broad latitude in how we should collaborate – he just wanted us to collaborate. Because of some skepticism on both sides, and the lack of a superintendent at MNPS, we spun our wheels for about 6 months. Finally, we decided to start with something small and measurable. We picked four high schools with great librarians and (with Ingram’s help) weeded their collections, freshened their collections, bought e-books, and signed up all of the kids for NPL library cards. In each case, circ(ulation) more than quadrupled and the librarians, teachers, and students started flooding the Mayor and new superintendent with letters and heartfelt thanks.

Ingram: As you measure the results, have there been any surprises?

MNPS: Oh my gosh – there are so many surprises:

  1. Middle School students really, really LOVE getting items delivered to them at school. We worked lots of extra hours, Saturdays, and hired more staff just trying to keep up. When LL expanded to middle school students, Limitless’ circulation sky rocketed. LL allowed students to get materials that they might not have access to at school or when there were limited copies. It is really amazing to hear stories about middle school students begging to go to their library to get their LL materials.
  2. It isn’t a major surprise, but I can’t tell you enough about the importance of school librarians in the success of the program. They truly are the heart and soul of this program. They ensure that students, teachers, and faculty have access to this program. They educate, market, deliver, and implement this program to its fullest. The program wouldn’t be as successful if it wasn’t for the commitment from MNPS to have a certified school librarian in every building to work with the school community and stakeholders.

NPL: I think the unintended consequences have been what warms my heart the most. We have new immigrant children teaching their families about libraries, big sisters taking home picture books for their young siblings, and collaborations between staff at MNPS and NPL that is unprecedented.

Ingram: Is there a particular success story you’d like to share?

MNPS: There have been so many, but I think overall it truly is threefold:

  1. Circulation has increased at both MNPS and LL. Students and teachers are getting their hands on more material, reading more, and utilizing a free resource they might not have used before. We are truly building lifelong library users.
  2. No matter what school a student attends, they have access to a high-quality school library collection. Together, we have created equitable collections for each MNPS student.
  3. The expansion of NPL programs into school libraries. From Bringing Books to Life, Teen Read Week, and School Library month, school libraries have taken advantage of these programs and fully implemented them in their schools. The programs have been a welcomed surprise that is enjoyed by all.

NPL: There are a couple of anecdotes that I love to share. We had a group of Burundi girls at Hillwood who came to the library every day to get movies. When the librarian asked how they were watching so many movies and keeping up with their school work, they replied, “Our family is learning English from the movies.” We had a little boy who was getting more books than he could carry home and many of them were clearly not of his interest level. He told his librarian that he had become the “librarian” of the family and was getting cookbooks, car repair manuals, and picture books for the rest of his family.

Ingram: What was the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in making this work?

MNPS: Realizing that although our goals are the same, the way we go about serving patrons/students is different. Trust and an understanding had to be built between the organizations – realizing we all wanted the same thing.

NPL: Like Stephanie said, we had to slowly convince our staff that the long-term outcomes of this program make the city stronger by making a city of life-long library users. For a couple of years, staff only saw how much extra work the program was creating for us and they didn’t see the returns. I realized I was spending a lot of time telling the story outside of the library, but that I needed to tell it to our own staff and show them the results.

Ingram: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to others who might be considering a similar project?

MNPS: Bring players from both sides of the tables to the beginning discussions and keep lines of communication open. LL is successful because members from both sides were in discussions and NPL listened to school librarians to learn what they needed, and then worked toward how NPL could help meet those goals and support the instruction of students and the mission of the school libraries.

NPL: Even if you don’t have a budget and can’t do everything we can do, start small with no cost collaborations and share every success with the administration. Our school librarians flooded their council people, school administration, and Mayor’s office with positive feedback, making it almost impossible to stop funding the program. Also, try to find a corporate champion. In Nashville, we are lucky to have John Ingram and Dollar General – both have been major contributors to the success of Limitless Libraries.

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