British Columbia Library Association

What do we mean by Outreach?

By Stephanie Kripps, Chris Middlemass

The BCLA Perspectives editorial board had already approved the theme and sent out a call for submissions before someone thought to ask: “But what is outreach?” In that conversation we realized a concrete definition and boundaries eluded us–but the meaning and sentiment felt embodied in a variety of library work. But how do library workers interpret outreach? What does the profession say? We wondered if everyone had the same (mis?)understanding.  

So, like good information professionals, we turned to our resources. After collecting some official definitions, and casually gathering thoughts from colleagues and library workers, we learned — to nobody’s surprise — that different organizations and individuals have a range of ideas and approaches related to outreach, from library extension and marketing to community-led services. The underlying theme in all of it is a passion to engage with users and to improve services.

Formal definitions of outreach

“Library programs and services designed to meet the information needs of users who are unserved or underserved….”  – ODLIS: Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science

“Identifying and promoting library services that support equitable access to the knowledge and information stored in our libraries. ODLOS provides resources to library and information workers who serve traditionally underrepresented groups. Our outreach areas include: adult new and non-readers, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, people, incarcerated people and ex-offenders, older adults, people of color, people with disabilities, people experiencing poverty and homelessness, rural, native, and tribal libraries of all kinds, and bookmobile communities.”  – The American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services (ODLOS)

“Outreach meets community needs with both traditional and new services, in dynamic and changing environments. Whether providing services to those who can’t come to the library, or reaching out to those who are underserved, library outreach and community engagement ensures equitable delivery of library services to all people.” – OCLC’s Webjunction

“Library outreach can be tough: There’s no standard definition of outreach among libraries, and what it consists of differs from institution to institution. Some libraries focus on marketing and advertising services, while others concentrate on relationship building with their constituents. Some focus on fun events to coax people into their facility.”- The Library Outreach Casebook, ACRL 2018

In the professional literature and organizational documentation, outreach is both foundational and sundry. At one end, libraries are identifying potential new users or promoting the library outside its building, and at the other end, community-led approaches build library services and policies on long-term goals of meeting community needs, a ceaseless engagement in outreach.

BCLA’s value of Access and Inclusion holds that “…people, communities, and organizations need universal and equitable access to information, ideas, and works of imagination for their social, cultural, educational, democratic, and economic well-being,” reminding us that libraries serve many populations and fulfill many needs through outreach, from communal to corporate, personal to professional.

Recent examples of outreach

Gail Borden Public Library (Ill.) and the St. Charles Public Library (Ill.) partners libraries with local groups to provide fidget quilts for patrons with memory loss:

“The key thing is that we saw the need to meet our patrons where they are. We need to pop up in the community and be the library there.”  

This kind of community engagement streams in multiple directions, explains Finerty of the Alzheimer’s Association. She says that connecting with library leaders has boosted and deepened her organization’s memory health education efforts.

Reader’s advisory programs for patrons based on their tattoos (Multnomah County Library, Denver Public Library, Durango Public Library)

“Sometimes people with tattoos can feel excluded or maybe feel like they aren’t welcome…It was a nice way to reach other populations and let them know the library is cool.”

In Ontario, 60 library systems are participating in the “Open Media Desk (OMD).”  This project analyzes social media stories to identify patterns of community behaviour.  One of their findings: “that elusive audiences—audiences we didn’t know we had—reveal themselves when we understand the cultural triggers that engage their appetite for shared stories. “

“The equation looks like this: If you want your library to become a community hub, focus on library programming and outreach that maximize your community’s perception that libraries have changed their mode of contributing to community value co-creation. Libraries are not only a vital barometer of community prosperity, but the conversations they can spark through programming and social media will redefine participatory culture.”

Rutgers University Libraries describes their use of a button maker:

“At RUL, our button maker has become a tool for engagement, which has allowed the libraries to connect with patrons in unexpected ways. This machine has helped highlight the libraries’ unique collections and encouraged students to ask about our Special Collections and University Archives. Button making has also facilitated conversations about copyright and finding images, topics on the minds of many academic librarians. Lastly, the button maker helps students have fun and leave the library smiling. These moments have led to more reference encounters, departmental collaborations, and unique experiences happening at RUL.”

In 2018, the Riverside Library of the New York Public Library launched the NYPL Grow Up Work Fashion Library, where adults and teens can borrow ties, belts, briefcases and purses when they attend job interviews.

The concept came to [librarian Michelle Lee] in 2016 when she was teaching a free class at the library about job seeking and résumé making. She told the high school students in attendance: “You want to look professional. You shouldn’t be bringing a backpack to a job interview.”

She was surprised by their reaction.

“For a lot of them it was eye-opening because they never thought about it,” Lee said. “One of the students said he didn’t have anything like that. The other kids were like, ‘I don’t have nice things.’”

She realized the students needed more than a résumé class.

Visits to a free veterinary clinic in Vancouver, BC:Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 11.49.06 PM

A community librarian with Vancouver Public Library makes regular visits to a free veterinary clinic (hosted by BC SPCA) for pets living in the Downtown Eastside.  Many of the pet owners would otherwise have no connection with the library; people who are homeless or who have inadequate housing do not have the option to leave their pets at home–but they cannot bring their pets with them inside the library, either.   The clinic is drop-in, so pet owners welcome a chat with the librarian while waiting their turn. In several cases, pet owners have subsequently made an effort to visit the library branch, after the community librarian assured them of a warm welcome and described what services they might expect.  Others, who are not able to find a place to leave their pets, look forward to the reading material the librarian brings with her on each visit.

Conclusion: Evolving ideas

A lack of cohesive agreement regarding “what is outreach” might be because library workers serve in varying environments. It might be because service philosophies continuously evolve. It might be because the word itself is outdated or imbued with a limited meaning. (As another example, ten years ago we spoke of computer training, but today we think of digital equity and 21st century literacy.)

Our investigation suggests that outreach is thought of as any effort that extends beyond physical and virtual library services to reach new patrons and, sometimes, to enhance the service to existing patrons. Most definitions and examples had a few elements in common: extending oneself to better understand a patron or community need; altering standard services in order to meet a need; or simply to provide a more pleasant and welcoming experience to patrons.

If people do agree on one aspect of outreach, it seems to be about making  deliberate, proactive and intentional efforts. BCLA’s value of diversity, “promoting the equitable provision of library resources and services as determined by the needs of library users” underscores that knowing our library users and their needs is the best starting point.


Stephanie Kripps is the branch head of nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona branch, Vancouver Public Library.

Chris Middlemass is an adjunct Professor at the iSchool at UBC, the incoming president of BCLA, and a retired manager from the Vancouver Public Library.

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