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 spoke with Laura Mielenhausen, Youth Services Librarian Hennepin County Library Teen Central, Minneapolis Central Library.

What kind of outreach services do you provide for teens?

I provide weekly library service to the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC). This includes maintaining the JDC library collection; bringing new materials (both withdrawn items from Hennepin County Library and items purchased specifically for JDC); shelving the returned materials; and visiting the residents to suggest books and take book requests. When I visit the residents I let them know about the services our public library provides, including Homework Help programs, Teen Anime Club, and the Best Buy Teen Tech Center in downtown Minneapolis, where teens can do creative projects like record their own music. I also let them know how they can get a new library card and get any old library card fines reviewed, so they can get a fresh start as a library patron.

Describe a day in the life of providing outreach.

For my JDC outreach, I track the number of requests I get at each visit. I fill those requests with JDC library materials first, but in the case the teen wants a book we don’t have at JDC I bring it from the public library system. I keep a spreadsheet of who has what and everything is checked out to one library card account that I maintain. On the day of the visit, I pack my hand cart with any requested materials, new magazines, and new books for the collection and hop on the light rail to arrive at JDC. I check in with staff, sign in, and receive my building keys that I’ll use to move around the building. I have a book truck that I fill with new, popular, and interesting items, which I take up to each “mod” of residents. In each mod, I meet with residents, talk to them about the books they like and what they’ve been reading at JDC. These teens have a lot of time to fill and many read a book a day. They love to tell me about books they liked or did not like, and it gives me a good opportunity to do a little reader’s advisory on the fly by suggesting other books on the cart, and to encourage them to visit the public library after their release. After my visits I head back down to the library to put away returned materials and weed any damaged items. I spend about four hours at the JDC every Tuesday morning, with a few additional hours at my desk every week making requests, updating my spreadsheet, and getting the materials ready to bring in. Twice a year I put together an order for new books for JDC, with support from Hennepin County Library’s Outreach department. We sometimes get grant funding to bring in authors to visit the residents in JDC and other correctional facilities served by Hennepin County Library. When that happens, I work with my colleagues to plan the visit, bring copies of the author’s book for the residents to keep, and communicate with JDC staff and teachers to support attendance at the visit. Last year we were delighted to invite Kekla Magoon to come in and speak about her book How it Went Down. Residents had an opportunity to read the book before her visit and then were able to ask her questions about the book and her life as a writer. Everyone got to keep a signed copy of the book.

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

Remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Reach out to other librarians in your system and those doing similar work in other library systems. Ask lots of questions – find out about existing outreach programs and what makes them succeed. If you have an idea for outreach you’d like to do, don’t be deterred by the inevitable, “Oh we tried that in 2010 and it didn’t work” response. If it’s a valuable library service that supports the mission of your library and addresses a community need, you can find a way to make it work. Meet with teachers, program coordinators, shelter directors, and other youth workers in your community and explore how you can bring library services to their youth programs or collaborate on youth programming together.

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

I love hearing about what the teens are reading and seeing their enthusiasm about books. I’ve learned to never make assumptions about what incarcerated teens might be interested in reading – I get requests from R.L. Stine to Dostoyevsky, from Stephenie Meyer to Sister Souljah – and the joy I see when I bring a requested item never gets old. My favorite experience is when a formally incarcerated teen comes to see me at the library – we talk, get their library card account up-to-date, and look for books that might interest them. Coming from a situation where some books are restricted, a formerly incarcerated teen once said to me, “Wait, I can read whatever I want?” “Yes,” I said, “this is your public library. You can check out any book you see in here.”

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