The American Library Association (ALA) defines outreach as providing library services and programs outside the walls of the library to underserved and underrepresented populations; populations such as new and non-readers, LBGT teens, teens of color, poor and homeless teens, and teens who are incarcerated. As these populations are often marginalized and underserved, it is crucial for libraries to recognize these populations and provide services and programs to them where they are.
The YALSA Futures Report calls out the importance of outreach to underserved populations and ways in which library staff can think about ways to work with targeted communities of teens (e.g. those who are incarcerated, homeless, in foster care, or in classrooms and other inschool locations) and where they are, rather than waiting for teens to find a way to get to the physical library space.
This month I interviewed April Witteveen, Community and Teen Services Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library in Central Oregon.
- What kind of outreach services do you provide for teens?
My outreach is currently pretty simple and straightforward—but very, very consistent, which is so important. Most of these relationships have existed for longer than the 12 years I’ve been with my library system.
I currently visit our Juvenile Justice facility every other week. The building holds two populations in separate “pods”: teens that are serving short criminal sentences or are awaiting trial (the general “locked down” juvenile justice population,) as well as a program for court-involved teen males who enter a non-profit therapeutic program called J Bar J. The J Bar J teens in the secure facility are either working their way up, behaviorally, to get placed at a residential facility (J Bar J Boys Ranch) or have been removed from the Ranch due to behavior to spend time in the secure facility.
I do booktalks year-round to the juvenile justice students when they are in their classroom time, and I try to read the room while doing so to see if I think a discussion of what they’re reading right now could work—it doesn’t every time and I’ve had to cut and run. I also offer the summer reading program, in a modified format, to these teens. They have the opportunity to earn free books with reading time, and many of them are surprised these are books they get to keep and take home when they are released. I’ve seen some incredible generosity here too—“I’m picking something for my sister, it’s her birthday next week,” “can I donate this to the classroom for others to read when I’m done?” etc.
I also visit the Academy at Sisters every other week, a therapeutic boarding school for teen females, which operates under the same umbrella organization as J Bar J. this is a low-security residential facility outside city limits. The girls here can spend up to 18 months in the program, so it’s a great opportunity to build relationships, and serve as a positive adult in their lives. My outreach work here has led to working with the Academy’s teachers as well, though the staff tends to change frequently so it can be a bit of a challenge to maintain connection at this level.
We have a lot of other alternative and residential programs in my part of Oregon—we are in a high desert environment that on the whole is quite rural (read: nowhere to run, now way to really get anywhere.) I have a great relationship with a military-style boarding school run by the National Guard, including bringing ALA’s Great Stories Club to a group of cadets each term. I have had several on-again, off-again outreach experiences with other young adult treatment and residential facilities but it tends to depend on what staff makes the connection and how long they stay with the facility.
- Describe a day in the life of providing outreach.
We don’t do deposit collections at any of these facilities right now, so the materials I bring are handpicked by me before each visit. On an outreach day I will spend around an hour or so selecting that week’s materials, locating special requests, and doing all the materials processing needed to ensure everything is properly checked in and out. My trusty Toyota is the ‘bookmobile’, so I load it up and hit the road. I will have communicated in advance with teachers and staff about any particular needs for the day, because even though I give them a print schedule their lives are generally so hectic that consistent communication is key to not showing up when all the girls at the Academy are off-campus for a field trip, for example.
When I return to the library I check in and cart all the items I bring back; our materials room is generally quite overwhelmed with our regular intake, so this is something I do to lighten the load a bit and it’s much appreciated. I double check all the organizational accounts to make sure things are in order and ready to pick up again for my next scheduled visit.
- What resources would you recommend for someone new to outreach to look for ideas for inspiration as well as best practices?
I think YALSA resources are a gold mine—this blog series, for example, has had some really inspiring stories as well as coverage of the nuts-and-bolts of getting started and best practices for continued success. Outreach can be a tricky game- it requires patience, a super proactive and positive approach, curiosity, and willingness to cope with total failure and come back and try again. I try to attend as many outreach-based sessions as I can whenever I’m at a library conference. I also think it’s important to be aware of the teen-based social services, treatment centers, etc., offered in your area in order to identify possible new outreach locations. I’m looking forward to coming back from maternity leave and moving into a more program-based direction with the juvenile justice facility: maker programming, for example. Thanks to YALSA resources for that inspiration!
- What are some of your favorite things you have heard from teens while providing outreach services?
I’m expecting my first baby August 15th, so it’s been really touching to see my outreach teens as I’ve gone through this pregnancy. It’s always a good conversation starter and the teens’ interest and compassion shines through. While it’s bittersweet, I see a pretty solid rotation of some teens through the juvenile justice/J Bar J system, so there’s a lot of “oh, I remember you from last time I was in juvie, good to see you again…” or “I heard that you visited the Ranch, it’s cool that you come here [to Juvenile Justice] too.” When I enter the foyer of the Academy at Sisters I’m always greeted with excitement—“April’s here!” and that of course puts a big smile on my face. “I didn’t know librarians did this kind of stuff,” “we love that the library does this for us,” “I’m going to get a library card as soon as I’m out of here;” this is what outreach librarians live for!