Adventures In Outreach: Asking Questions

About four years ago, my little department (just one other Teen Services Librarian and me) decided to make a big change. We wanted to make outreach and community partnerships the central focus of our work. We weren’t sure exactly what that would entail, or how we should go about it. All we knew was that the Teen Center in our library wasn’t exactly packing in the teens.

empty TC

A relatively empty Teen Center, from the days before we began our focus on outreach.

Our neighborhood in downtown Seattle has great access to public transit, but not a lot of families living nearby. Teens cruised through to use the computers or browse the manga. They were often reluctant to engage with us, no matter how approachable and friendly we tried to be.

We felt sure we could do better. So we started by asking a lot of questions, brainstorming with our manager. And the first question was: Who wasn’t coming to the library?

To find an answer, we did a community analysis–although to be honest, we didn’t call it that at the time. We just thought of it as taking a look around. We looked at census and demographic data, as well as information from the public schools and Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. We were interested in the whole city, but focused on our neighborhood in particular. What were the major trends? Who were we not seeing in the library—or at least, not seeing enough of relative to the overall population? For us, the answers included immigrant and refugee communities (especially East African), youth experiencing homelessness, and youth living in poverty.

This led us to the really big question: If those teens weren’t in the library, where were they?

To find out, we did something really scientific: we sorta asked around. We sent out some email, made a few phone calls, and just showed up in places where we suspected those teens might be accessing services: youth shelters, internship programs, schools and student support organizations, and youth arts nonprofits. We introduced ourselves to the staff there. We made follow up appointments. Staff were always happy to talk to us about their work, and we did our best to listen.

But at first, listening was the hard part. We were so bursting with information about all the great stuff the library had to offer that sometimes we barely let the community leaders get a word in edgewise. Did they know about our homework help program? The free standardized tests available via our website? What about our job resources?

At those early meetings, we jumped in with ideas for potential collaborations without fully understanding the needs of the organizations we were talking to. We were excited, and we were proud of what we had to offer. We were also in a hurry to produce results to prove to ourselves that this whole zany outreach plan was going to work.

Those initial meetings did produce some good outcomes, but not the best outcomes. We would partner with an organization on a reasonably successful program, only to realize that they had more pressing needs that we could have addressed. Or we’d discover that the folks we’d been meeting with at the organization weren’t the ones who could make a final decision about working with the library. Or we’d realize that the way we had structured the partnership wasn’t really equal.

So we slowed down and started doing a lot more listening. We made a rule for ourselves that initial meetings with new organizations should be informational only—we would use them to learn as much as we possibly could. We asked question after question. What was their organization all about? Who did they serve? What were their mission and goals? What was working well for them? What were their difficulties?

Only after we really understood the answers to all of those questions did we ask the big one: How can we help?

I’m still learning, and I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts here in an ongoing series about outreach and community partnerships. I’d love to hear your ideas. When reaching out to a potential new community partner, what works for you? What doesn’t?

About Hayden Bass

Hayden Bass is a Teen Services Librarian in Seattle. She chairs YALSA's Programming Guidelines Taskforce and is a member of the 2015 Printz Committee.
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  1. Thank you so much for writing about outreach! I’m a youth outreach librarian in Boston so meetings like this and the partnerships they create are the bulk of my job. Outreach doesn’t get as much attention as it should so it’s great to see someone talking about it.

    Listening and asking questions are both wonderful advice, but I would just stress that this doesn’t mean you can go into a meeting with a potential partner without a plan, even if you think you are just there for info gathering. There is nothing more annoying for the organization or embarrassing for you than getting to a meeting and realizing that both of you are just there to listen to the other. It has to be a conversation with questions coming from both sides. I’ve found that having a couple of solid programs or services to offer and also listening to the org’s needs and wants is a very necessary balancing act. They want to hear about the library too and not everyone at these community organizations knows what the library has to offer. And sometimes the best ideas have come out of a combination of something I suggested and the organization asked that I tweak to meet their specific needs. Partnerships are a two-way street (well, the most successful ones are, anyway) and that should be the case from the very first meeting.

    • Hi Amanda! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more that setting clear expectations all around is important for any meeting, and never more so than in an initial meeting with a community organization. And I agree that we always want to be prepared to answer partners’ questions and offer ideas.

      When I talk to librarians who are hesitant about working with partners, one thing I often hear is that it’s inefficient. And that’s so true! There’s nothing more efficient than designing and hosting a program all by yourself. Relationship building takes so much time, and we’ve been trained to produce results as quickly as possible. My experience over the past few years has been that the really amazing partnerships take more than one meeting to build, although good stuff can be generated right away, of course.

      I have more thoughts on this, but I’ll save some of them for a future post. Thanks again for your comment! I’m looking forward to hearing from you as the series goes on.

  2. Excellent post, Hayden!
    It so resonates with the learning we did at WebJunction through the Spanish Language Outreach Project. I wanted to share this wonderful resource created by Yolanda Cuesta – the Community Leader Interview Guide, which also emphasizes the importance of listening!
    Thanks for all your great work at SPL and with YALSA!

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