Availability vs. Accessibility by Allister Chang

By Allister Chang and Brian Wallace

In 2016, Libraries Without Borders established the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI) to expand the access and accessibility of information to families waiting for their clothes to wash and dry in laundromats. This article discusses the private-public partnerships between small, mom-and-pop laundromat businesses and library branches that have made this work possible.

Originally, the idea to build library programs inside laundromats came about when Libraries Without Borders experienced record engagement in our literacy and digital literacy programs on the day we set up one of our pop-up Ideas Box library programs near a laundromat.

We went inside the laundromat and asked if we could build out a more formal partnership with them to facilitate workshops inside the laundromat more regularly. The staff there told us that we ought to speak to the manager, and to come back on Saturday at 11AM. We came back at Saturday at 11AM – no manager. We waited at the store all day, and all day the following two Saturdays. Still no luck.

The timing just happened to align with the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in 2016. Libraries Without Borders Executive Director Allister Chang was sharing this story with Jane Park Woo, the Deputy Director of Too Small to Fail. I told her that I thought we had come across a great idea but would have a hard time executing this properly (let alone scale this program nationwide) without the buy-in and engagement of laundromat staff. Serendipitously, Brian Wallace, the CEO of the Coin Laundry Association was standing behind Jane at the time. Jane introduced me to Brian, and, with the Coin Laundry Association’s support, we have successfully built out WALI programs in 7 states.

Unlike many other countries, the US library system is not managed by a central, federal government agency. Like libraries, laundromats are also relatively de-centralized: there are no laundromat chains operating across the country.  While this presents the challenge of not being able to adopt a program on a large scale all at once, the opportunity is the ability to customize a program for local needs. Libraries Without Borders’ focus is building out the technological tools and creating best-practice guides to lower the risk and increase the capacity for our library partners. That way they can build out their own “hyper-local” partnerships with laundromat owners.

For our library partners, we have heard that laundromats provide them with a more cost-effective means to engage with new audiences. In Detroit, for example, Coinless Laundromat is only a couple blocks from the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library, but the vast majority of laundromat clients did not have a library card when we first launched WALI. By implementing programs during the laundromat’s busiest hours, some of our library partners have been able to consistently facilitate workshops for over 120 families in just four hours.

For our laundromat partners, we have heard that WALI libraries provide them with a direct means to give back to their communities. It also helps that librarians have been able to help laundromat staff keep the kids from running around and jumping into laundry carts! Some laundromat owners have also told us that WALI has increased the number of returning clients.

In 2006, the Coin Laundry Association created a 501c3 called the LaundryCares Foundation. At first, the LaundryCares Foundation focused on expanding access to high-quality laundry services to families in low-income communities and in post-disaster contexts. It is with Libraries Without Borders and Too Small to Fail that the Coin Laundry Association has come to understand the unique opportunity we have to also provide critical educational services inside laundromats.

Whereas many public-private partnerships (PPPs) happen at a relatively macro level (e.g. between federal agencies and multi-national companies), we believe there is great potential to better understand PPPs when they occur at the hyper-local level (e.g. between mom-and-pop shops and library branches). These hyper-local PPPs are more dynamic and build upon existing local-knowledge that is critical for the successful customization of any educational or professional development program.

Different laundromats, for example, are busy at different times of the week. One laundromat we’ve worked with has clients who are almost exclusively Spanish native-speakers in the mornings, and then almost exclusively Somali native-speakers in the evenings. A top-down program that curated content for this laundromat in just one language would be quite ineffective. Hyper-local PPPs allow for content, curriculum, scheduling, and every aspect of WALI to be customized and iterated weekly, if not daily or hourly.  

As heads of national organizations, we believe that it is critical to equip individual library branches and individual laundromat owners with the tools, case studies, template contracts, and general best-practices to build out their own hyper-local, public-private partnership. It is in this way that we believe WALI will scale to every laundromat in the country, offering every laundromat client with opportunities to learn new skills while they wait for their laundry to wash and dry.