Guest Blog: 5 Reasons Why Your Public Librarian Is the Key to Your Next Safe Routes to School Partnership

This guest blog post is written by Noah Lenstra, Associate Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (

For the past seven years, I’ve studied how public libraries support community health, and what I’ve found boils down to one word: PARTNERSHIPS.

A public library typically will not organize a walking audit, a bike check-out program, or a placemaking initiative by itself, but public librarians can and do support all these things in communities across America.

This blog post features five benefits public libraries and librarians can bring to Safe Route to School partnerships.

1) Public libraries are a safe, trusted space for all

One of the defining features of the public library is that it’s for EVERYONE! No one is turned away, and all are welcome. Safe Routes to School partnerships often utilize this fact by working with librarians to organize:

  • Community conversations on active transportation and complete streets
  • The installation of bike fix-it stations and up-to-date bike racks at libraries
  • Walk and bike audits around the library to ensure that all can walk and roll to and from the library

As Debbie Kingsland from the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s Office of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs said about a Complete Street Awareness Event organized in collaboration with the Hoboken Public Library, “I think holding an awareness event like this at a public library is a great way to reach the people most affected by new transportation policies.”

2) Public libraries are increasingly full of safe routes champions

Public libraries are only as effective as the people who run them. Increasingly, public library workers see biking and walking as critical parts of their lives and their communities.

Nancy Pearl is America’s most iconic public librarian. Search online for “public library action figure” and she is who you will find! What is important for our purposes is the fact that Pearl is vocal about the critical importance of walkability. As an avid walker, Pearl said that one of the attributes she most appreciates about her home in Seattle, Washington, is the ability to walk most places. In fact, she does most of her reading while walking, in the form of listening to audiobooks.

In addition to being advocates for walkable communities, public librarians are increasingly bike advocates too. One of the hottest trends in public librarianship today is the Book Bike, sometimes called the Library Bike, a tricycle that public librarians and library volunteers ride around to perform outreach at schools, farmers’ markets, and so many other locations around towns and cities across America.

The head of a Main Street organization I interviewed told me that “[When] the book bike comes, people are reminded that we have a bike trail system that allows the library to come to us using their bike. Having a librarian ride their book bikes: They're wearing their bicycling gear - really helps remind the public that everybody can be healthy.”

3) Public libraries are committed to outreach

When most people think of public libraries, they think of the physical space of the library. What is often overlooked, though, is the fact that public libraries are committed to outreach. This is not a new phenomenon: think of the iconic midcentury bookmobile bridging geographic divides to bring library services to communities where they are.

Today library outreach takes myriad forms. In addition to bookmobiles, libraries run everything from book bike programs to mobile kitchen initiatives.

One of the most common forms of library outreach today is the StoryWalk, which sometimes goes by other names including Book Walk, Story Trail, and others. In essence, though, this is library outreach. Librarians take apart books, post them on walking trails, and encourage communities to get out walking. By my count, over 1,000 public libraries across America have offered this program, and that number is surely an under-count. 

You can tap into your public library’s commitment to outreach to support Safe Routes to School programs by including them in your placemaking projects: Open Streets, Play Streets, or any pop-up events demonstrated to show how the community could look if it were designed differently. Invite librarians to these events, and let them participate as part of their commitment to outreach.

4) Public librarians are nimble and able to move quickly

As government employees, public librarians are by no means free from bureaucratic constraints. Nonetheless, they do often have flexibility and nimbleness rarely seen in schools or departments of transportation. In an amazing book called Palaces for the People, New York sociologist notes that “The library staff has more autonomy to develop new programming than I’d expected from an established public institution. Managers, it seems, assume the best of their librarians.”

Why is this fact important to note? Public librarians can often have the nimbleness to try new things. Have you been trying to get something off the ground and hitting nothing but dead ends? Maybe your local librarian is the ace in the hole you need to start making progress.

5) Public librarians have unique and valuable skillsets

Finally, public libraries often employ individuals with robust administrative and technical acumen, which could help your Safe Routes to School programs in numerous ways, including:

  • Helping with visualization of biking/walking routes
  • Creating digital flyers and sharing them online
  • Collaborating on grant applications

Indeed, one of the projects I’ve been working on is tracking public library participation in the AARP Livable Communities initiative. I’ve found that over the years, 31 public libraries across America have (so far) received their Community Challenge grant, and numerous others have participated as partners on successful grants focused on helping communities become more livable for people of all ages. Libraries have also won America Walks Community Change grants.

In addition to helping get grants, public librarians can use their business and technical acumen to help their community develop bike or walk plans.

You don’t know how librarians will be able to help in your Safe Routes to School programs until you’ve built up a relationship with them, as has happened in Oakland, California. An annual report from the library states “the Oakland Public Library will play a key role in moving forward the Oakland Department of Transportation’s (OakDOT) Let’s Bike Oakland plan.”

How can you use this information to get started?

Begin by learning about public librarians in your area. Have they done any of the things I’ve described here? Are they interested in getting involved? You can only answer these questions by reaching out to librarians in your region. Begin to find your safe routes champions by identifying public libraries near you using the U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) Library Search & Compare interface. According to the IMLS, across America, there are 17,509 public library branches and bookmobiles that collectively employ 140,600 individuals. Every single one of those individuals is a potential Safe Routes to School partner!

Get started building the relationship using my “Rules of the road: Partnering with public libraries for collective impact” blog post published on Shareable.

Finally, share back what you end up doing with your public library partners! To build the movement to bring public libraries into the safe routes partnership we need to share our stories. I’d love to feature your story in a future Let’s Move in Libraries monthly newsletter, and I’m sure the Safe Routes Partnership would love to hear from you as well.