Community Outreach to Benefit Both Patrons and Libraries (Academic, School & Public)

Table of Contents

Course Blurb

In this session we will examine different methods libraries have of connecting with the local community. We will address each of the different situations that public libraries, school libraries, and university libraries face. This session will focus on two different problems. First, how can librarians build support in the community for library services. Community support can be useful not only to convince top decision-makers in the library and on library boards of the importance of library services, but also to help convince elected or appointed officials and other members of the community when (for example) proposals for tax rate changes are being discussed. Second, how can librarians reach out to populations in the community who currently have little interaction with the library in order to both inform them about existing library services that they might find useful, and learn from them about what kinds of new services they would find useful that might motivate them to use their library more.

5 min - Introductions

This outline is meant to be both brief and approximate. I expect I may need to change plans on the fly and be flexible in how the class progresses

Brief Introductions:

  • Name
  • Library (name and kind of library)
  • 15-30 second description of the kind of community outreach you already do in your library (if any), and/or the kind of community you'd like to do/do more of in your library.
  • 15-30 second description of the major/most important challenge your library faces or a particular library program faces from any of the following (or other similar) sources. Think political problems here. A school library that does not have enough funding because a millage never passes in a middle class community composed of older adults faces a political problem, and is different from a public library that does not have enough funding because it is situated in a primarily low-income community, which is a resource problem.
    • Internal (within-library) budget allocation
    • External (from funding body: school, university, city government, millage expiration, etc.) budget allocation
    • Internal or External conflict regarding priorities
    • Top Library Administrators
    • Top Administrators in your K-12 School, College or University
    • Board of Regents/Board of Trustees/Board of _____________
    • Politicians (local, state, or federal)
    • Special Interest Groups

5 min - Overview of Community Outreach in Libraries

Why do community outreach?

  • For the community: To reach out to populations who do not make full use of the library's services:
    • To inform them of the existence of services.
    • To provide them with access to the services.
    • To learn from them about services that they need and create new services to better serve them.
    As librarians we tend to be very good at this. After all, most of us care deeply about our patrons. And for community outreach to truly work, this has to be your first motivation as a librarian.
  • For the library: To create strong and wide community support for the library:
    • To build an active community of supporters, sometimes in the form of a "Friends of the Library" group, who will turn out to advocate for the library when need be.
    • To build appreciation of the value of the library among populations who traditionally have little interaction with the library and its services.
    • To foster use of the library that will help keep important metrics (visitor numbers, collection use, etc.) high enough to justify funding, etc.
    This will be our emphasis today. Many of us intuitively understand the value of this. We all are faced with budget problems, and many of us have important programs at risk of being cut, or even face threats to our jobs or our libraries. As librarians we sometimes need to learn how to do this better, however, because by our nature we tend to be patron-focused, and we are not trained to do this kind of work strategically. But to be clear, library-oriented outreach often involves the same kind of activities that patron-oriented outreach does, it just means that when doing outreach we should keep both goals in mind.
  • But NOT for your own ego!:
    • You go out to the community to provide the library services they are already paying for (with taxes). But they are the experts in what their needs are, and what they want.
    • You're not there to help them unless they ask for help. You are there to find out what services they might find most useful.
    • Ask lots of questions, listen. Then, when you see opportunities to provide services that they might not be aware of, make suggestions. Don't assume you know their needs better than they do.

But wait, isn't this just relevant to public libraries? My school library/My university library only has students and teachers/professors as patrons.

No! While the connections are sometimes more indirect, strong community support always helps:

  • Strong community support for public schools helps keep them funded (resisting budget cuts, passing millages, etc.), helps keep teachers and students supported in learning, and thus also helps keep the school library in existence (since it is often the first target for cuts). Depending on school rules you can also do more or less outreach to the larger community, either by involving parents (perhaps in after school or evening activities), or in some cases by opening up the library to the larger community (when students are not around).
  • Public universities are heavily dependent on government for two things: getting funding, and avoiding heavy-handed legislative interference with core tasks of teaching and learning. In most cases, this happens at the state level, but it is important to remember, the legislators making these decisions are elected locally across the state, and it is only when local people see the benefits of public universities in their own communities that they pressure their elected officials to keep them funded and free to operate. In theory, most public universities are committed to three goals: teaching, research, and service, and when that service component fails to happen in a meaningful way, the consequences are felt in the legislature's decisions. This should provide extra motivation to keep the library, which is technically open to the public, truly accessible to all of the public.

Examples of Major Library Support campaigns:

Different Kinds of Friends of the Library. Note that these groups run the gamut, from groups primarily concerned purely with fundraising, to groups that (help) provide services, to groups that also act as advocacy groups. Thus, some are little more than fundraising arms of the library, whereas others are relatively independent organizations.

Some Examples of Community Outreach. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what you can do, however, and the examples I am presenting here are meant to show different approaches. I am not necessarily endorsing any particular program listed here.

But what can I do? Example: Broadening participation base

  • I know a librarian who worked at a mid-sized public library a few years ago. The library was constantly facing threats of budget cuts from a mayor and city council that were keenly interested in cutting programs to balance a budget, and who were not very open to tax increases. The reason the library was a target is because it was one of the biggest line-items on the budget.
  • The library was constantly in a scramble to keep use stats up to demonstrate the its value to the community to try to shield itself from such cuts.
  • This librarian realized that the library subscribed to several databases of car parts which most of the mechanics shops around town used as well. The way the library had set it up, library card holders could access this database by logging into the library's website. He also realized that most mechanics in town had no idea that this service existed, and they were paying a significant amount of money for their database subscriptions.
  • He was unable to get permission to talk to mechanics while he was on shift at the library, so he ended up taking an hour or two every day for a few weeks after work to go to different mechanics all around town and inform them of the access they were already paying for through their tax money.
  • This generated significant goodwill for the library from a number of people who were not big library users, and boosted both the number of library card holders and its usage statistics as well, especially for expensive, underutilized databases it subscribed to.

5 min - Interlude

Interlude from Community Outreach: Review of Conflict, Politics and Power. You probably know all about this but I want to make sure we're on the same page.

  • Many of the major problems libraries face are political problems. There's not always a clean dividing line between political problems and other kinds of problems, but even in situations with a lot of gray, political factors typically loom large.

    Fortunately, the source of political problems is also their solution: People!

  • Today we are not concerned with all types of political problems. If you google "cause of conflict in the workplace" (without the quotes), you will see a ton of websites, each with their own list of factors (there is significant overlap). While these websites can be useful (or misleading) guides to solving a number of problems, what we are concerned with today are the thorniest of the problems, those that cannot be solved through the use of 3rd party mediators, talking out differences, good-faith negotiations, clarification, better communication, etc.

    The thorniest problems often stem from one or more of the following circumstances:

    Power Disparity:
    One individual or group of people has more power than another. This factor is almost always present. It is important because when one individual or group has more power than another, they do not always feel compelled to factor in the other individual or group's perspective, values, or needs. Sometimes this is a blatant disregard for the other group. Often it is simply complete blindness, a total lack of understanding that the other group's concerns could possibly be different or important.
    Control Conflicts:
    Different individuals or groups have different ideas and both either desire control or feel their way is better. Another way of putting this is both sides involved are unwilling to make enough concessions to achieve compromise. This typically stems from one or more of the following factors: a person feeling disrespected; a person feeling their authority is challenged; a person feeling that important community or personal values are being transgressed; a person feeling concerned over their self-interest. Sometimes these issues can be mediated or negotiated. But not always.
    Clash of Values
    When two people or groups of people have fundamentally different values for evaluating the "proper" or "correct" action. This is a special case of Control Conflicts, but requires special consideration because these are some of the most challenging problems to solve.
  • The way to address political problems like this is to identify the decision-makers, identify their relationships, and then figure out leverage that you can use to influence how decisions are made.
  • How do we as non-administrators gain leverage? There are three common means of influence for non-administrators: proper channels, personal relationships, and mass mobilization.
    • Proper channels involves following organizational policy and adhering to the org chart. This includes presenting ideas to your boss, putting a note in a suggestions box, proposing an idea at a meeting, etc. In a healthy organization, administrators will care about the perspectives of their employees and their patrons, and solicit their input. Or decisions will be made as a community. In an unhealthy organization administrators will figure they can do whatever they want and get away with it. Most organizations are somewhere in between, e.g.: administrators are too overworked to pay much attention to their employees' suggestions. The advantage of this approach is that a receptive organization can move quickly on ideas to address problems. The disadvantage is that in most organizations, the reception of your idea is at the mercy of your boss's interest and attention.
    • Mass mobilization is when a group of people get together to encourage change. It works because a group of people are harder to ignore than an individual. It also works because individuals in charge are often theoretically accountable to groups of people (e.g., library administrators are there to serve patrons, city council are elected representatives of city residents, etc.). While the real-world truth of this theory may vary, it is often important to stakeholders with power to keep up appearances. Also, in some cases, groups of people do have real influence over stakeholders (e.g., registered voters). Preparing for mass mobilization is one very important outcome of community outreach, and because it does not happen by magic, it is worth examining in more depth.
    • It is somewhat misleading to have personal relationships as its own category, as in truth they are an integral part of both the above. If you get drinks after work with your colleagues, you will build positive relationships and foster communication so that you can brainstorm and advocate for ideas as a group. If you regularly have chats with your administrator about library services, they will come talk to you when they are thinking about changing things. If you get to know your patrons well and go out of your way to help them, they'll be happy to help you out if you ask them for a favor. Some people are natural politicians and can create relationships with anybody, but most of us don't have that ability. So play to your strengths: your natural charm, shared interests or experiences, natural curiosity, etc. Remember, building relationships is a skill that can be learned. The best way to get started is to make sure you ask questions and spend a majority of most conversations listening rather than talking.
  • Community outreach is one approach to establishing leverage through mass mobilization. We do this by creating relationships with existing communities and building new communities around the library who will advocate for us and support us to stakeholders who are accountable to or who depend on those groups of people.
  • Community outreach solutions need not involve direct, head-on conflict. Often solutions can be reached by making an end-run around the problem. After all, if a large or well organized group of patrons or taxpayers or voters are making the request, it is different from the same request coming from a librarian, even though it is often the librarian who works with patrons who is in the best position to understand what the library needs. And sometimes you can get community leaders (whether business leaders, church leaders, or activists) to advocate for the library.

20 min - Community Outreach Exercise Part I

  1. Break up into groups. You don't have to be matched with people from your library. You can keep the same group you just had or create new groups. Introduce yourselves and do a quick recap of the major issue you face. If you want to change your major issue from what you said at the beginning of the workshop, that's fine.
  2. Now select one library and one issue for your group to focus on (for now). Pick the most interesting one. Write it down (either on paper or on a computer).
  3. Write down all the major stake-holders, put down one per index card or post-it note. Stake-holders are anybody who is affected, directly or indirectly, by the issue the library is facing. Be sure to write a quick description of what stake the stakeholders have regarding the issue if it is not obvious. Possible stakeholders include:
    • Different groups of library patrons
    • Librarians (you and your colleagues)
    • Library Administrators
    • Non-Library Administrators (School Administrators, University Administrators, etc.)
    • Board of Regents (for the library, for the university, etc.)
    • Government Entities (city council, mayor, county government, state legislature, etc.)
    • Other?
  4. Discuss the power dynamics. Who are the direct decision-makers? Who are indirect decision-makers? Who are they accountable to and how are they accountable to them? Who has (major) influence over them? What form does that influence take? Who determines their pay? Their promotions? What do they need to do/demonstrate in order to get their next job or keep their current job? What pressures do they face? Who can they get away with ignoring/overlooking? Etc. Create a map of all the different stakeholders and clearly establish their relationships.
    • Sometimes you may not know what motivates a particular stakeholder, or how certain stakeholders are connected. That's fine. But make a big blank so you know that this is research that needs to be done.
  5. How can you as a librarian affect this map? Who do you have influence with? For example, you likely have considerable influence with your patrons. Where might you be able to affect the current power dynamics, and change how the chains of influence work?

20 min - Community Outreach Exercise Part II

  1. Break up into groups. You don't have to be matched with people from your library. Introduce yourselves and do a quick recap of your library and the community outreach that happens there, if any, and the community outreach you'd like to see your library do, if any.
  2. Now select one library and either its current outreach program or an idea for a future outreach program which your group finds interesting or promising.
  3. What are target populations (e.g., mechanics, teachers, XYZ neighborhood residents, assisted-living center residents, etc.) in your service area who currently have little interaction with the library, or who do not take full advantage of the services the library offers? Make a list, with clarifying descriptions if necessary. College and University libraries might find this more difficult, but remember that state-owned institutions typically serve the entire population of the state legally, if not very much in practice.
  4. Pick one or two target populations who you think are particularly interesting or promising. What are their needs that you know of? What services do they take already take advantage of, if any? How can you find out what their needs are? Make a plan for how you would find out, and write all of this down. Outline form/bullet points is fine.
    • In your plan include a way of having face-to-face conversations with them either by visiting them at home, at work (if appropriate), or when they are out relaxing.
    • As part of this, make a list of services you currently offer or could easily offer that you believe the particular group of people might find useful. Be prepared to be wrong. And be very careful not to be patronizing.
  5. Write up a script to use as a talking aid for either face-to-face or phone conversations. Make it conversational in nature. Be sure to include important talking points, if any. Try to follow the 80%-20% rule: ask a lot of questions so the person you are talking to spends at least 80% of the time talking, and you spend at most 20% of the time talking.
  6. Roleplay your script with two members of your group, one playing the librarian, the other the person the librarian is talking to. Find out the problems with your script. It often makes sense to go out in pairs, so feel free to roleplay that.
  7. Rewrite the script, test again, ideally with different people, this time recruit someone from outside your group.
  8. If you have time left, try another target population.