My Five Blocks of Library Outreach: conceptualizing the engagement impulse

January 10, 2011, 10:59 am

Outreach and engagement can be quite subjective. What one librarian calls outreach another might call instruction and still another public relations. I’m not going to try and establish a shared nomenclature right now—I’m just going to share my perspective in a graphical manner:


This image was a result from a planning session for the year ahead. I want our librarians and staff to think collectively about what we do and what we are striving to do. Obviously building and maintaining collections, offering assistance services, and providing space and tools for productivity and reflection is our core. But around that core is a vague layer of activities that are hard to describe.


What I’ve tried to do here is create target buckets of these activities with the objective of offering something related to each category once a quarter for each of our primary user groups: undergrads, grads, and faculty. Of course, we’re not limited in quantity—it’s possible to do two or three of these activities for the same group in one month, but it encourages us to aim for a balanced outreach strategy.


Let’s take a quick look:


Social. This could be the traditional game night, but it could also be librarians attending a cocktail hour welcoming new faculty. It could be a social event hosted in the library, like a gathering of students getting ready to go on study abroad, or it could be librarians attending some type of social oriented event on campus or in the community.


Cultural. I’ve had a lot of luck working with cultural groups on campus and by providing them with a space for events or exhibits, etc can be a regular way to meet your cultural quota. But even something as simple as putting out a handful of books based upon a particular theme can reach someone in an unexpected way. It is easy to get caught up in the assignment-driven role of the library, but cultural exposure is a good fit for libraries.


Creative. This is one that I’ve always excited about. How can we highlight the creative talents of the community and/or encourage patrons to dabble with their own creative interests. I often talk about the library being an open canvas– you just have to create opportunities that enable patrons to express themselves.


Scholarly. This can be very subjective. It could range from hosting an endnote workshop to featuring a faculty author talking about her latest book. There is a line between an academic element and an intellectual element. I favor this being something that is outside of the regular day-today classroom business, and instead, strives to nurture intellectual development or exposure.


Service. This is one that some people don’t feel fits in with the others, but I’m a big believer in it. I considering this along the lines of bringing in Peace Corps volunteers to talk about their experiences. But it could also be a chance to recruit and spotlight service opportunities in the community or beyond. For example, they through a wild Halloween party here and there is a group of eco-minded students who gather around 5am to clean up the streets. This is admirable, so I don’t mind helping them by letting them recruit a workforce but also giving them a platform to talk about that they did and the impact that huge parties have on the environment.



By having a common goal of one “thing” from each box each quarter (or year) provides a measurable and feasible goal for your library. Of course, not everything will fit into these categories—but it provides a common starting place for the conversation. For example, we always bring the Health Services team in to offer free flu shots—do we label that as a service? What about meditation sessions? Is that culture? It’s not a perfect system, but it is intended to be more like a framework to get ideas flowing.


Now perhaps someday we’ll be more ambitious and aim for more refined audiences, like alumni, community members, local teachers, incoming freshmen, student-athletes, etc. It depends on your strategic interests, staff time, and resources. But the concept here is very adaptable and easy to explain.


I like an approach that is flexible and allows of spontaneity, yet has some guiding structure. One of the nice things about the blocks is that at the end of the year you can tally your efforts and say something like… we hosted or were involved with over 30 outreach events last year… here are some that we did to promotional intellectual discourse, here are some that enriched campus culture, and so on.


This “boxed” approach enables your library to communicate your outreach endeavors in a systematic way. I’ve been dabbling with this pretty much all of 2010 and it’s starting to take off. I’ve been approached by numerous student groups and faculty expressing an interest in partnering with us along these lines. That’s when you know you are on to something—when it becomes less about the library pushing it’s own ideas, but instead, evolves into collaborating with that user community for the benefit of all.


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