Community Catalyst

Editor’s Note: This past fall, IMLS launched Community Catalyst, a new initiative aimed at sparking a conversation around ways to help libraries and museums develop a deeper understanding of the best ways to work with communities to bring about positive change. Through a cooperative agreement with Reinvestment Fund, the agency scanned the literature and gathered input from the library, museum, and community revitalization fields. The results of that scan are part of a newly released report (PDF, 28MB). This is the second in a series of blogs this month highlighting the initiative.

By Annette Mattei
Free Library of Philadelphia

If a catalyst causes or accelerates a reaction without itself being affected, then I would agree that libraries are in the perfect position to act as community catalysts. This has certainly been my observation, serving as project coordinator for a library-led initiative working to transform services for job seekers in the neighborhood served by Paschalville Library, a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Three years ago, the Free Library convened a group of community organizations and City agencies to take a close look at the Southwest Philadelphia area. It is one plagued by chronic high unemployment and deemed a “service desert,” where the needs of residents far outstripped the availability of services. This fact was felt everyday by Paschalville Library staff, who were encountering residents with barriers to employment well beyond the typical job seeker: low educational attainment, underdeveloped job skills, interrupted work histories, or a lack of English language proficiency. After a year of brainstorming and planning, our group emerged with a common agenda developed according to the principles of collective impact that was affirmed by ten organizations.

Niema Nelson, Digital Resource Specialist standing near tie rack
Niema Nelson, Digital Resource Specialist who staffs the Job Readiness Lab at Paschalville Library, which includes a “tiebrary” – job seekers can literally check out a tie using their library cards. (Photo Credit: Dan Papa, Every ZIP Philadelphia).

The Partnership’s common agenda goes into great detail on what we are doing together, but the heart of our collaboration is boosting capacity to serve job seekers, including access to “deeper” services. An average of 150 visits are made to our Job Readiness Lab (JRL) at Paschalville Library each month and for many of these patrons the library is the starting place (if not the only place) they will have visited for assistance. With support from IMLS, we now have a second JRL run by one of our community partners, the Southwest Community Development Corporation, co-branded in an explicit attempt to harness the good will felt toward the Free Library. Staff at both JRLs work closely together to plan services and programming, and residents are starting to understand that the same services they have come to expect at Paschalville Library can be found at our second location.

The Job Readiness Center in Paschalville library.
The Job Readiness Center in Paschalville library, also a historic building, completed in 1915 (Dan Papa/Every ZIP Philadelphia).

Our JRLs serve any job seeker who seeks assistance, but our common agenda recognizes two sub-groups: the reentry population, which encompasses individuals formerly incarcerated or in some way touched by the criminal justice system, and the immigrant and refugee population, who we recognize as “new Americans.” The Partnership is adopting best practices for working with these populations and traveling out of the library to reach them directly, such as a regular career workshop conducted by JRL staff at a men’s shelter located directly across the street from Paschalville Library. We are also piloting innovative concepts. For example, “lending circles,” a common form of asset-building in the developing world and currently being tested in our area for small business owners, are something we believe hold great promise in working with new Americans.

Our view is that the library-led collaboration is operating at the right scale to affect positive change – that is, at the community level. We believe our activities will generate outputs that move the needle on longer-term outcomes – namely, boosting labor force participation and the employment rate. Thanks to our IMLS grant, we have three years to give it our all.

About the Author
Annette B. Mattei is a research consultant with more than 20 years of experience supporting non-profit organizations and government programs in developing and executing research projects and other mission-related activities. Currently, she serves as Project Coordinator for The Paschalville Partnership. Find the Free Library of Philadelphia online at or on Facebook at


National Leadership Grants for Libraries
Community Catalyst