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 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.

I spoke with Hayden Bass, Outreach Program Manager, for the Seattle Public Library about her work in outreach and priorities she focuses on.

What kind of outreach services do you provide for teens?

I was a Teen Services Librarian for about 10 years, and in that role I provided all kinds of outreach for teens. I visited youth shelters and drop-in centers, job training and readiness programs, youth arts and technology programs, schools and alternative schools, and lots more. The kinds of programs and services I provided depended on the needs and interest of each partner organization. I might lead resume or library resource classes, table at a job fair, provide onsite library card registration, or connect youth with books.

In my current role as Outreach Program Manager, I am a point person for outreach to patrons of all ages system-wide. My focus is on eliminating barriers for patrons who might otherwise not have access to library programs and services, especially those who are face barriers around income, housing status, language, etc. I still do direct outreach and create community partnerships, but a lot of my work involves providing support for the librarians who are doing this work all over the city.

Describe a day in the life of you providing outreach.

I think the most important thing to remember about outreach is that it’s a two-way street. If you’re just focused on marketing library services, and don’t take the time to understand the partner organization or the community they are working with, you’re missing a huge opportunity. All good outreach should start with listening.

When I’m getting to know a community contact or an organization, I try to start by having at least one or two meetings that are dedicated to getting to know each other. I want to have a holistic understanding of what their work is all about, the services they provide, what’s going well for them (and what isn’t), and the important issues they are hearing about from their community. And of course, I also make myself available to answer questions about the library. Often, our community partners have limited knowledge of the resources that the library can provide; those initial, open-ended conversations help partners understand that while we do have books, we can also offer a lot more.

What resources would you recommend for someone new to outreach to look for ideas for inspiration as well as best practices?

There are lots of great tools and resources out there; I’ll just mention a couple. I’m a fan of Vancouver Public Library’s Community-Led Libraries Toolkit. ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services has a whole slew of resources. And just to be a shameless self-promoter, I recently co-led a webinar on outreach and community engagement at WebJunction—there are lots of other great resources linked there, too.

Of course, it’s always important to start with data; if you don’t know who lives in your community, you can’t know who you’re not serving, and where you should be focusing your energy. Census data is available online, and of course many libraries have access to excellent databases that can help with synthesizing and visualizing data from the census and other sources (Demographics Now, Reference USA, etc.).

What are some of your favorite things you have heard from teens while providing outreach services?

One of the best things about getting outside of our buildings is the opportunity it provides to see our patrons on their own turf. Outside library walls, we’re not authority figures in the same way, which means that the conversations we have with folks, especially teens, are often much more frank.

I’ve had teens give me their honest opinions of library staff and the building environment in ways they probably wouldn’t inside our buildings. (Staff and buildings can be intimidating; library rules aren’t always clear.) I’ve learned much more about their lives, too. Not long ago I was eating breakfast with unhoused teens at a drop-in center and learned that everyone at the table had a job; they just weren’t making enough money to afford rent. Interacting with our patrons in different contexts, and developing a better understanding of what their lives are like when they’re not in the library, can only help us create better and more relevant programs and services.

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