Dennis, Melissa, "Outreach Initiatives in Academic Libraries, 2009-2011." Reference Services Review 40.3 (2012): 368-383.
Read via Interlibrary Loan.
The article discusses the results of a very small survey sample of 21 librarians who managed to correctly complete the survey on the topic of outreach duties. I have to wonder about my professional brethren's ability to read directions given that the author mentions that some non-academic librarians tried to complete the survey in spite of her directions specifying it was geared to academic librarians. And then, out of a total of 37 responses, only 21 managed to correctly complete it (373). I thought literacy was a requirement to be a librarian. The small sample size is certainly an issue, but this then just leaves room for further research as the author suggests at the end of the article.
I was interested in this article because I was an Outreach Librarian at my previous place of work (PPOW). That was my title, and my duties included coordinating, creating, and implementing programs for the library for the academic campus and the community at large. I also served as the library's social media specialist. In addition, I was also a subject liaison, and I worked as a reference librarian with rotations at the reference desk. So, the kind of work Dennis is discussing is the kind of work I used to do. I will note that my position was designed to have that title and set of responsibilities. In other words, unlike the librarians sampled, it was not just some secondary thing for me to do; it was my main thing to do. That support for it at various levels varied from inconsistent to non-existent is a separate issue (one I may discuss later).
Dennis notes that the ACRL Standards include expectations for the library to contribute to institutional effectiveness, which gives a rationale for outreach activities (qtd. in 368). For me, much of outreach is a contribution to institutional effectiveness. Specifically, it is important to campus commitments of creating lifelong learners. Dennis goes on to add that "implementing successful outreach initiatives may offer more ways for individual libraries to measure their value to the institution" (369). I would argue that a good outreach program can add value to the library and campus; it also can build a lot of good will.
Some additional notes from the article:
- An initial definition of outreach: "The term 'outreach' typically implies reaching out to non-traditional library users, extending 'beyond borders' of a physical library and promoting underutilized or new library resources. Today's outreach librarians may use the term more broadly to include any initiative that reaches an audience that otherwise may have not been exposed to library resources or services" (369). I partially agree with the latter part of that statement, and I will discuss it a bit more below.
- The duties of the outreach librarian will overlap with other departments and units. I know mine did. I worked very closely with our instruction librarian back in the day, plus I did reference work. In fact, reference for me was another way to reach students and whoever else came into the library. It is a given, I would say, that you will do other things, and your duties will overlap. The exception may be on a very large campus where librarians are very specialized, something the author notes. But if you work in a mid-sized place and smaller, outreach may well be one of the many hats you wear whether you have the title or not. Here I am slowly discovering that much of the outreach efforts will overlap with my instruction and information literacy duties; however, I do have a team I can count on for help. We have a lot of room for growth here.
- Funding can be a challenge. Support I would say is a big challenge as well. Outreach can sound like a glamorous job, especially if you think all it is is doing social media (also known as "sitting on your computer doing Facebook, online chat, etc. all day" as I have known some people who aspired to just that), which may be a part of outreach, but it is not all of outreach. It can be challenging. It takes work, and it takes an ability to get along with people since a lot of the work is collaborative in nature. An ambivalent administration and/or resistant librarians can also be a significant challenge.
- There is a suggestion that academic librarians should "look to non-academic librarians as their own job duties expand and include outreach" (Cmor, qtd. in 370). Because there is no possible way we can learn anything from public librarians. Pardon the snark, but something that does irritate me is the snobbery a lot of librarians exhibit when it comes to public librarians; like somehow they are beneath us. Personally, I have found that I learn a lot from public librarians. I can only hope that what I share, some of them may find useful as well. I think in many cases there are opportunities for collaboration that are missed, often due to that snobbish attitude.
- Dennis mentions that academic liaison librarians are starting to include outreach in their duties (371). This also expands the definition of outreach. Recently, on some online forum I prefer to not mention, there was the question of what is defined as outreach. The apparent consensus was that it is just reaching outside the library to the community at large. Yes, that is part of it, but it is not all of it. When I go work in a student dorm on campus, that is outreach (even though the students are my main constituency/stakeholder). When I reach out to faculty members, whether in person or online, to make them aware and engage them in our various services, that is outreach as well. When I bring them into the library for a program, that is outreach as well. So, if I am hiring for an outreach position, those would also be things I would look for. An outreach librarian works in and out of the library. You really cannot have one without the other, and it is not just for the "non-traditionals" or "not the usual" folks. Sometimes you do have to reach out to "the usual folks" as well. Plus, often those "usual folks" may be your ambassadors of word of mouth to bring other people to the library.
- Other ideas for outreach, which are mentioned, and that I am thinking abut for my campus:
- residence halls
- international students
- some academic departments (a librarian outpost)
- student affairs
- campus orientation (I am actually starting to work on this with some help from others on campus).
- The eternal challenge, and this can vary in severity from place to place: "To increase participation, future events would need to be better scheduled, advertised, and more widely marketed" (372). This also includes knowing small local details, things like, if you live in a pretty conservative religious town (as I used to do), you don't schedule events on a Wednesday night (it's church night).
- The article provides a small, nice list of some outreach initiatives other librarians have done. I will admit I am always amused by the bathroom stall newsletter idea.
- As I mentioned, I had the title of outreach librarian. However, this may have been an exception rather than a rule if we go by the article. Dennis writes that "the fact that none f the titles of these participants includes the words 'outreach,' 'marketing,' or 'promotion' indicates that outreach is probably not a primary function of the participant's job, but rather a smaller portion of the job" (375). Dennis notes further than her survey did not ask how much time the participants devoted to outreach, something that I would have found of interest. Dennis concludes that outreach has become ingrained "in a wide variety of public service positions. . ." (375).
- We do need to note "it seems that the position of 'outreach librarian' is still inconsistent in many academic libraries, and thus the initiatives considered successful outreach projects come in different packages" (377). From my experience, I can attest to this.
- "The survey indicates that academic librarians with little investment in outreach initiatives still feel a need to perform outreach, as new technologies require such projects to fall into their line of duties" (378). And there is more that could be said on uses of technology and social media for outreach, but that is another topic for another time.