The Cockroach Approach: Outreach

Part One of a four part series. Read the introduction here.

Children’s librarians have cornered the market on outreach. We go out to schools, preschools, daycares and present book talks, storytimes and other programs that promote our services, materials and meet a developmental need for our users. Some librarians go even further and perform at summer festivals, block parties, coffee shops and doctor’s waiting rooms. We also do some passive outreach– I know many libraries will partner with hospitals and send a bag home with new parents that contains information about, early literacy, the library, and what it offers to new parents. And it’s not just the places we go or what we do, it’s how often we go there and how awesome we are.

I think if you are truly a great outreach librarian, you’re going to be treated like a rock star. Kids will begin to anticipate your visits, and–and this is truly important–they will love and want to see you so much that they will follow you to the library. Having a rock star librarian elevates the entire experience, and will spur your entire staff to higher levels of performance in turn (and if they act resentful instead, well, that’s why we fire people. Or hope they weed themselves).

I believe that this is why my preschool programs are so successful at my current place of work–because my outreach counterpart goes above and beyond in her visits, entrancing children and getting them excited about literature and the library, and she makes sure that promotional materials for our in house programs get sent home with each and every kid. She’s genuinely enthusiastic about every single kid she meets, and that kind of interaction is enthralling to kids. With that kind of direct marketing and heartfelt, genuine connection, it’s no wonder our program statistics continue to climb.

I don’t see this happening in public library adult services departments. Some libraries are getting on it and offering programming outside of the library— Oak Park Public Library is on the forefront with its many-pronged Genre X programming, and Skokie has joined forces with Morton Grove to present Lit Lounge, a book club in a bar, and Forest Park Public Library offers pub trivia. I’ve seen other libraries staff tables at Farmer’s Markets. But I think there’s still room for more outreach, more often–and with a better attitude.

More and more libraries are offering a summer reading component for adults, but where is the promotion? When your youth and teen services librarians are promoting summer reading in the schools, why doesn’t adult services go to the same thing, promoting the adult summer reading program to teachers and staff? What better way to motivate kids to read over the summer than to show them their teachers and principal are doing it too?

And speaking of teachers, why not make sure they know that the library offers classes on facebook, youtube, linkedin, twitter, and other technology classes? Is your library set up to offer CPDUs and CEUs through the state board of education? It’s incredibly easy to do in Illinois, and with some slight tweaking to your classes, you can offer an incredible amount of value to these adults in your community. In fact, why not co-present with a member of your youth services team, so teachers and adults can learn how kids are using these same technologies, often in very different ways.

In addition to teachers, what about college professors and academic librarians?  I know most academic libraries purchase some leisure reading materials–why not have public reader’s advisory services librarian come booktalk hot new titles? I think that would be a much more entertaining way of developing that collection than reading a journal. And colleges have a wealth of talent that could come present workshops or classes at the public library, if only those connections were made. Outreach begets collaboration–what a benefit to both parties involved!

A few years back there was a lot of discussion about roving reference, and getting out from behind the desk. While admirable, that’s not enough. Librarians need to get out of the library and make sure people realize the value of what we have and what we can do. Even with virtual outreach–twitter and facebook, and to a lesser extent the library’s website–we are falling behind. I see so many libraries with a twitter feed full of other libraries, authors, and publishers. Sorry– you’re doing it wrong. Why aren’t you following people in your community? And if there aren’t any people in your community on twitter, why are you wasting time on twitter anyway? You need to find out where the people in your community are, and meet them there. 

In the vein of virtual outreach, I’d love to see more libraries post staff pages with pictures. Yes. Sort of scary. But really– people don’t connect with a huge building called LIBRARY. They connect with PEOPLE. To a lot of the kids I work with, I AM the library, or Miss Stephanie is the library. I know some people are squicky about having their pictures and information out on the internet but…well. That’s your problem. The more times people see your face, and learn things about you–the more of a real person you are–the more likely it is that a connection will be made, and real, good library work can be done. Will you occasionally get a crazy stalker? Sure. But is that very likely? No. So why would you avoid a huge, real benefit because you’re afraid of a highly unlikely negative scenario? Librarianship isn’t for wimps. Get over it.

Further, it’s not enough to just do these things–you need to be awesome. Amazing. Charismatic. Like a children’s librarian. We squeal at adorable babies, we clap when a kid shows us the books they’re checking out, we can’t wait to get the new Pete the Cat or Elephant in Piggy into a kid’s hands, we flail like Muppets–and that’s what you, adult services librarian, need to do, too. Authenticity matters is all realms of librarianship. When people can tell you care, can tell you’re excited, can tell that they matter to you, they are more likely to return to you and request your help–and then, in your time of need, they are more likely to be your advocate. Because unless people like you, and care about you, and think you matter–then no one is going to miss you when you’re gone. Which is why children’s librarians–the good ones–will survive. If Miss Stephanie disappeared from the library–if someone threatened her job–there would be an outcry. There would be protests. There would be hand-drawn signs and tears and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Would that happen for you, if you were threatened? Would any of your patrons notice or care if you were suddenly gone? If not, you need to start making some friends.

(Does every patron need a Muppet flail, however? No. This is why librarians who are skilled in reading people and tailoring their approach are so crucial. Some patrons need a different kind of enthusiasm, otherwise they will think you are crazy. Children’s librarians are–whether by instinct, design, or learned behavior–are skilled actors. Perhaps its all the dramatic reading we do, but we know how to use our bodies and our voices effectively to provoke a response. We can soothe or excite depending on what the situation requires, which, in the realm of public service, is crucial.)

I certainly must have a few adult services librarians who read this blog. So tell me–where are you going? What are you doing? And is it making a difference?

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8 thoughts on “The Cockroach Approach: Outreach

  1. The director (former Adult Librarian) and current adult librarian at my smallish, urban library (we have 8 staff) have talked about wanting to start a Senior Advisory Board to reach out to some of our “silver-haired” demographic (which we have the largest percentage of in the county), but two years later… nothing has happened. We have several adult living facilities in the city, but do we do any large print deposit collections or quarterly book talk visits, or even a book club at one… no. I try to encourage them and occasionally toss out an idea or two, but they just don’t get it. It frustrates me when they say “we need to get out in the community more and let people know what we have to offer and that we are welcoming” but then rely solely on youth, teen, and family oriented outreach (aka everything I do) to carry out that mission. I’m only one person, and I’m going to get burned out eventually– its inevitable!

  2. Those seniors are missing out! I’m sure they’d love to have an animated, lively staff member read aloud some short stories or chapters of a novel, or take a facebook class so they can see pictures of their grandkids. Or if they’re alone, I’m sure they’d love to read picture books with a visiting preschool class, which is something the library could facilitate. Can you make it a part of staff goals to perform outreach to these patrons? I also forgot to talk about Homebound Delivery, which is a great outreach service that I think many libraries try to provide.

    You are in the right, and I believe that you can make this happen. Is there anything we can do to help you, besides providing support here on the interwebs?

  3. I’m an academic librarian, and I’m constantly told that my enthusiasm for information and for the internet is contagious. I LOVE IT. SRSLY. I often lament that my teaching skills are not better, but I hope that my genuine love for what I do, and my genuine enthusiasm when I’m in front of a room full of students, or at a table at orientation, or even when meeting professors at happy hour, comes across and gets them a little excited too. Loving what you do is sometimes the best advocacy out there.

  4. The adult reference librarian at my library needs to be weeded out. I cannot wait until she retires next summer because I hope to do more collaboration between my adult & children’s department, particularly with technology. She is very, very old school and it frustrates me. I’ve joined a local early childhood education committee which has gotten me involved with the local YMCA, a health fair in town, all these opportunities for families and I know, even in my small town, that there are similar adult opportunities but to put it plainly, it just doesn’t seem like she wants to do it. So then I wonder why are you still here???

  5. I was amazed last year when my library closed for a month and we planned a five week outreach blitz. We used Panera for book discussion groups (a practice we’ve continued.) We visited the local farmers’ market four times (with a prize wheel, our favorite recipes and card applications.) We went to the local teen centers, added extra bookmobile stops at Jewel, and partnered with the Park District on many occasions. It was a huge success which we’ve expanded to offsite trivia nights and starting this summer a book club. The community response was overwhelming and extremely positive. The building may have been closed but the library was not. I think it also proved to many of our staff that were reluctant or concerned about doing so much stuff offsite (“don’t we want people to come HERE?”) just how powerful our presence in the community is and that we should grow these programs even more.

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