Each summer I’m faced with the same dilemma: a huge number of community events at which I could do outreach but only one of myself! The problem becomes compounded by the fact that I can’t be both in and out of the library building at the same time. When school is out for the summer, I want to be available to youth and families who come to my branch searching for me.
I’ve worked hard to build relationships with those youth, and I want them to feel personally welcomed as much as possible when they come to “their” library. However, as we know from YALSA’s Intended Impact Statement, it is critical that we “reach out to serve ALL teens in the community…whether or not they frequent the library space.”
It’s a micro version of what all libraries face: we recognize that we must provide excellent service and opportunities for learning both in and out of our buildings, but we often don’t have the number of staff needed to provide the same levels of service in and out of the buildings at the same time. The community branch youth services librarian can’t be simultaneously meeting with youth outside the building and working with youth at the branch. Our colleagues do a fantastic job of providing service to youth in our branches while we’re out in the community, but the very nature of working effectively with youth calls for consistency and trust. The YALSA vision calls for quality services like coaching and mentoring as well as tailoring to the community – wonderful and worthy goals that are difficult to achieve if individual youth services staff are in a staffing position where they can’t consistently work to build and maintain relationships with individual youth.
At the core of this dilemma is the bigger philosophical question: is the goal of outreach to get people to come to our library branches and use our services here, or is it to take library services out of the building into the community without the expectation that the patrons we’re reaching in that way will ever enter a library building? From a youth services perspective, if we attend community events to meet teens we’re not seeing at the branches with the end goal of attracting them to the branch, it makes sense that the person they see at the community event should, whenever possible, be the same person they see when they come to the branch.
It doesn’t work to say “come see me at the such and such branch” if you’re never actually there for the patrons to see. HOWEVER, if the end goal is to take services out into the community without the expectation that patrons served in this way will be coming to the library branch, this raises the question: does the person providing this service need to be the same person who works at the community branch?
This is not to say branch librarians shouldn’t be doing outreach. Staff who work in community branches strive to understand and address the needs of the people who live and work in the area around them; meaningful community interaction is necessary to achieve this understanding. In the larger Scheme Of Things, branch libraries might consider different ways of assigning staff so that consistent relationship building can occur both inside and outside of our buildings. But in the here and now, we branch youth services folk look for ways to balance Outreach with in-house service.
And so…back to the original dilemma of how to be intentional with which events I will attend this summer. To help me frame my decisions, I look back at the “Strategic Audiences” and “Outreach” sections of my Personal Service Priority Plan:
I’m hoping to particularly reach youth ages 8-13 as well as new immigrant families this year, so I will make it a priority to attend Somali cultural events – even if it means passing on other events I’ve traditionally attended.
If I’m going to be intentional with which events I attend this year, I certainly want some way of measuring what benefit there was (or wasn’t) to the outreach. At a specific cultural event I can try to gain insight into what needs that community has with some very brief well-worded survey questions. For example, if there is an opportunity for me to attend a Somali cultural event this summer, I can ask, “if you use the library a lot, what is the main thing you use it for?” Or, alternatively, “if you do not use the library, what is the main reason why not?” I can also have a conversation with Somali community members about what types of materials, programs or services they’d most like to see.
With this reasoning outlined along these local needs, I can more easily choose which of the many opportunities to pursue and have a ready explanation for patrons or colleagues who may wonder why I am not attending events I may have done in the past.