Librarianship outside the library

Outreach can take many forms, but the traditional bookmobile - like this one serving patrons near Beguildy - has largely fallen out of favor for more creative solutions. (Image courtesy of National Library of Wales via Wikimedia)

Outreach can take many forms, but the traditional bookmobile – like this one serving patrons near Beguildy in Wales – has largely fallen out of favor for more creative solutions. (Image courtesy of National Library of Wales via Wikimedia)

I wouldn’t be a librarian if I didn’t love being in a library all the time, but what I enjoy most is sharing my love of libraries with others, especially those who are skeptical about their value or just don’t know what we provide. That’s where outreach comes in to the picture. Outreach can take many forms, but at its core it is about sharing the value of libraries – and even providing some library services – outside the library’s walls. More and more, outreach is becoming a vital aspect of librarianship, for many reasons:

  • Serving all of our patrons: Not everyone can make it to the library. Whether it is a matter of distance (no car to reach us) or time (working or caring for children/elderly family during normal business hours) or personal (health problems), only offering our services inside the library leaves out a huge group. Outreach allows us to take services to these individuals who otherwise can’t take advantage of the library.
  • Dispelling myths: Many of our potential patrons have an outdated view of the library. They envision – thanks to childhood memories usually – dark hovels with bookshelves crammed with dusty old books, uptight librarians shushing anything louder than a whisper and general technophobia. Outreach gives us the opportunity to interact with these people and share the many ways libraries are evolving to meet patron needs in the digital age.
  • Selling the library: There are plenty of people who believe libraries should be around for public use but don’t actively use them. Outreach provides the unique opportunity to interact with these people and help prove to them why we deserve their support. Seeing the library outside the library increases visibility, reminding people that we are still around and still helping people. A subset of these people might even become advocates for us, encouraging friends to use their library or writing letters of support to political representatives. And if it makes an active user out of a passive supporter, all the better!

We’ve been expanding our outreach services lately, although we’ve mostly stuck to tried and true facets of outreach: Senior communities and schools. I don’t go to the senior homes, but I have gone to a few back-to-school events. They’ve been a lot of fun – especially my punny use of Smarties candy to remind kids that going to the library helps you become smart! But we could do so much more!

The beauty of outreach is that we are no longer confined by the library’s walls, or even by the confines of our web presence. We can bring the library anywhere: To local Farmer’s Markets, the bus station, unused storefronts, pubs, comic book stores, movie theaters… The list goes on and on!

I think only those libraries with strong outreach programs will be able to survive in the future. The key to successful outreach is twofold. First you need to have passionate people willing to step outside the library and share its value with others. That can actually be hard to come by, since many people who work in libraries do so because they, well, like to be in libraries. The other piece of advice on this is that managers shouldn’t sell introverts short (nor should introverts themselves!)! I love interacting with people, but I am an introvert. I can be passionate and outwardly share that passion, but only for a limited time (my maximum is generally about 4 hours before I need to shut down and recharge). And as an introvert, I need to recharge alone. Introverts can be excellent outreach people, as long as they are able to recharge after events.

Second, you need an outreach kit. This is a bag or tub of information, flyers, signs, bookmarks, library card applications and even candy that you can hand out to those that stop to talk with you. You will also need supplies for yourself, including a cell phone, phone numbers in case there is a problem, and scissors/tape. I often bring an extra sweater if I a will be in air conditioning (I get cold easily), as well a snacks and water. In some instances, your outreach program can involve bringing books to other locations, but that is definitely more complicated and something that would require discussion. We do bring library books to senior homes and we have a pretty complicated method of checking them out to individuals there. We also have a collection of “honor” books that we bring to other events where we have less control over who shows up and whether they have a card. These are generally paperback donations, so we don’t mind as much if we never get them back because we never paid for them. If you’re looking to put together your outreach kit, I highly recommend this post on the Association of Library Service to Children blog (it’s not just for those planning to serve children).

How does your library handle outreach? Do you have any awesome tips for me? Let me know in the comments below!

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