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.
This month I spoke with Kristy Gale, Young Adult Services Librarian at the Seattle Public Library, University Branch.
What kind of outreach services do you provide for teens?
- I should first explain that while I am a teen services librarian, I focus a lot of my efforts on serving older young adults experiencing homelessness, as the U-District in Seattle (the neighborhood I work in) hosts a high number of these young adults. Some of them are teens, but the outreach and programming that I provide centers around young adults in their teens through age 26.
- I’ve applied for and have been awarded ALA’s Great Stories Book Club grant for the past two years (the application for the 2017 grant is now live!). It’s an amazing reading and discussion program that targets underserved teen populations by providing three sets of books, intensive training, and book discussion guides and support materials. I work with the local alternative high school, and we formed a book club. We have monthly discussions using books that are relevant and engaging, giving teens the opportunity to talk about issues that impact their lives. We also have a guest speaker either representing a local service agency or an expert in a career field join us for the discussion. Afterward, the guest presenter shares information on the services and resources they provide or information about their career. When we read the graphic novel March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, we had a local comic book artist join us. When we read Something Like Hope by Goodman, we had a case manager that works with at-risk YA as our guest. Here’s a blog I’ve been using to document our book club meetings. https://teenbookclubtpl.wordpress.com/
- I do street outreach with the organization Teen Feed 1 – 2 times a month. Teen Feed provides case management, healthcare coordination, street outreach, and nightly meals for young adults ages: 13 – 25. I join a small team of staff and peer outreach interns and we meet youth and young adults in the streets, parks, and alleys where they spend most of their time. We make positive contacts with them on the streets, and offer socks, hygiene items, food, referrals to resources, and a relationship with a caring adult. I usually bring paperback book giveaways and flyers promoting the weekly young adult drop-in that I host at the library.
I also do outreach at the nightly Teen Feed meals. This typically consists of me handing out flyers promoting our weekly YA drop-in, introducing myself to young adults to tell them about drop-in along with other library services, and checking in with YA that I already have an established rapport with.
- I attend an art drop-in at SAC (Sanctuary Art Center) once a month. SAC is a visual and performing arts center with a drop-in and art internships for teens and young adults experiencing homelessness. I sometimes bring a button maker or a duct tape kit and other times I simply make art with young adults using art supplies at the drop-in center. I donate magazine (they use for art projects), and I keep their mini library stocked with books (from library donations). I’ve also helped teach a stop-motion animation workshop at SAC.
- I’ve been working with the children and adult services librarians at my branch to set up and maintain a small offsite collection of books at the University District Food Bank that recently opened up next door to the library. We keep bookshelves stocked with books that food bank patrons can take as well as flyers and brochures promoting programs and services.
- I’ve helped put on events such as Queeraoke: A Karaoke and Open Mic Night that we held at New Horizons, a local young adult shelter’s drop-in space. So much fun!
- I table at various events that focus on serving LGBTQ young adults and those experiencing homelessness. The next event I’m tabling is Gender*Fierce: A queer and allied youth variety show.
Describe a day in the life of you providing outreach.
That’s tough to answer, as the outreach I do varies so much. However, the benefits reaped from each are quite similar. It’s all about forming positive connections. Young adults form a positive association with the library when they see library staff as caring and willing to meet them where they’re at – in the streets, at drop-in centers, etc. They’re more likely to respond positively when they realize that we have something to offer them whether it be food and hygiene products, referrals to other service providers, or promotion of library services and programs. Promotion for me includes letting them know about the benefits of possessing a library card; our job resources; the opportunity to have their fines waived through one-time hardship waivers; and talking about our weekly young adult drop-in where they can receive resume & cover letter help, enjoy snacks, relax and play board games with peers and staff, get referrals to other service providers (case managers, education support specialists, health clinics, etc.), and often meet with those service providers (as many of them use drop-in to do outreach with young adults). Outreach at art centered drop-ins and events offers a chance to really engage with young adults around their passions and get to know them as people, therefore establishing trust. Some of these YA have never had a positive adult role model, so this relationship building can be huge. It also enables me to make connections and strengthen my relationships with staff from other organizations.
After realizing there was a need for a drop-in at my library, I was able to reach out to staff at Teen Feed and Sanctuary Art Center after having done outreach with them for a number of months. Staff at both of these organizations helped walk me through the process of starting a drop-in at the library. They were instrumental in assisting me with developing goals and a mission statement, creating an intake form, choosing when the drop-in should be based on the gaps in the schedule of services aimed at YA experiencing homelessness, and making me ask the hard questions such as, “Will the library have a weapons’ check?” (We ultimately decided not to have a weapon’s check, as it didn’t align with the Seattle Public Library’s Rules of Conduct).
How the idea for drop-in came to be:
A lot of young adults experiencing homelessness were already coming to the library. However, they didn’t always feel welcome, as often the first interaction they had with library staff was negative. As part of our jobs, library staff have to enforce the Rules of Conduct, and all of us try to do so with empathy. But, the young adults that we work with are often struggling to survive each day, and dealing with adults in roles of authority telling them that they can’t eat in the library, that their possessions are blocking aisles, that their headphone volume is too loud, etc. can be overwhelming. Young adults use the library because they view it as a relatively safe space, it’s out of the elements, and they can make connections to the outside world and/or escape from outside world through internet access, books, and other media. They were already using the space and some of the services, but I felt like the library had an ideal opportunity to get creative to better accommodate the young adults that chose to be there by providing them with food, fun, and resources. Young adults also asked why the library didn’t have a drop-in. I talked with my manager, sought the advice of other service providers, wrote up a program proposal and budget, and drop-in was born.
Since July, 2014, we’ve been meeting every Wednesday in the library’s basement meeting room from 4 – 5:45pm. The drop-in is aimed at unstably housed teens and young adults through age 26. We provide bagels and other snacks; board games; a laptop and staff assistance for job searching, resume, and cover letter help; flyers and brochures promoting other services in the area, referrals to service providers; and actual service provider staff such as educational support specialists and case managers.
Many of the young adults that use the library now recognize library staff from helping out at drop-in, so they already have a friendly rapport. I encourage staff to immediately welcome young adults that they might not recognize to the library and invite them to drop-in (giving them a flyer when they do so). This means that their first interaction with staff is a welcoming introduction and invitation instead of an enforcement of our Rules of Conduct. The climate in the library has improved immensely. Our exclusion rate has dropped significantly, and I think a big part of that is due to staff and young adults embracing drop-in.
What resources would you recommend for someone new to outreach to look for ideas for inspiration as well as best practices?
- Talk to youth and young adults that may be experiencing homelessness that use your library. They will have valuable input!
- Check-in with library staff that are already doing this work. If you have community engagement and outreach service staff at your library, tap into them.
- Seek out service providers at local agencies that reach out to teens and young adults experiencing homelessness along with other populations in your community that have inequitable access to resources and opportunities.
- Connecting and volunteering with organizations that focus their work on helping young adults experiencing homelessness and LGBTQ YA has been a great way for me to learn more about the needs of the young adults I serve. Go on outreach with these organizations and learn as they model best practices!
- I had the pleasure of presenting at the LAMBDA Summit earlier this year, and discovered that Dr. Julie Winkelstein a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is a Postdoctoral Researcher and nationally known advocate for those experiencing homelessness, is a powerhouse of knowledge on the topic.
- I would also recommend extensive training – especially trauma-informed conflict de-escalation training.
Trainings that I took to prepare for my work:
- The Ropes: Understanding and Engaging Youth Homelessness
- This training focuses on learning about the causes and characteristics of youth homelessness, the nature of street life and culture, and tools for engaging these youth and young adults.
- Conflict De-escalation
This training focuses on recognizing the common physiological symptoms of conflict, the stages of crisis and how to be more comfortable navigating them, and concrete tools (what to say, where to stand, etc.) to resolve conflict safely. Includes role playing where participant get hands on time to de-escalate conflicts.
- Youth Mental Health Training – This training introduces participants to the unique risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in adolescents, builds understanding of the importance of early intervention, and most importantly – teaches individuals how to help a youth in crisis or experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge.
What are some of your favorite things you have heard from teens while providing outreach services?
“Wait, don’t I know you? Aren’t you that library person? What are you doing here?”
I love the look of surprise on their faces when they learn that the library actually has a drop-in.
Once I received a handmade wreath from a young adult that I met on street outreach with Teen Feed. He ended up coming to drop-in and I encouraged him to apply for an internship. We worked on it together and submitted his application. A few days later there was a wreath on my desk with the following not attached: “Thank you so much. I got an interview! I made this by hand. Merry Christmas. Sincerely, (name redacted).”