By Rachel A. Gut, Outreach Services Manager, Dayton Metro Library, Dayton, OH
As amazing as it is to those of us in the field, not everyone in our profession understands the importance of Outreach; while it seems most important that the directors and boards of trustees be aware of our value, each member of the library team needs to know how Outreach services are building the future of the library every day. City councils, library boards, directors and staff need to know why what we do matters for them; too many times we advocate for our patrons and services, but don’t show what we are doing for the library as a whole. Outreach is expensive, and sometimes seen as an unnecessary indulgence. How are we relevant to the overall library, the overall community? Outreach provides 3 major commodities that all libraries need: great PR, new patrons, and high visibility in the community.
Great Public Relations
Outreach typically serves those who would not get library service any other way and are a wonderfully endless source of feel good stories. Who wants to read an article about how many items the North branch checked out? People will read a story about the bookmobile staff building early literacy skills in at risk children in head start centers, and the amazing increase in local KRAL scores. No matter how big or small a library’s outreach services department, there are plenty of heart warming stories about lives being changed because of the services offered. Even the demographics of Outreach are becoming more impressive; currently 15% of the US population is disabled, 12.5% (and rising!) are over the age of 65, 11% are new immigrants, and 6.5% are under the age of 5. That’s a lot of people, many of whom can and will vote in every election. There aren’t many directors who can ignore a ready pool of dedicated voters. Collect both the stories and the statistics, and keep them both in front of the director and board as often as you can. If they will let you, give a monthly report in any format about the Outreach services. This shows your accountability for the resources allotted to you, and makes them see the value to the community and library. Continually evaluate your services for efficiency; are you doing the most you can with what you have been given for the community you have been directed to serve? Are there ways you could do it better with new or different technology? Directors and boards know they have to be as lean as possible; by showing the value you provide for the money, you are telling them the need for Outreach Services in a language they understand.
Outreach is designed to bring in new patrons; it’s right there in the name. Reach out and bring them in. No matter what type of program, Outreach brings the library to people who had no previous service. In some programs, Outreach creates new patrons that can eventually be filtered to a stationary library; in others it provides for those who could never use a typical library. Either way, more people are using the library services and more items are being checked out. Both of those are quantifiable ways to show worth, especially to governing agencies charged with dividing the public money for public benefit. We are outgoing people, both literally and in personality; outreach staff can suggest ways additional ways to advocate for the library as a whole. Gently remind your director and board that you have the easy means to reach these patrons; instead of waiting and hoping that they will come to a library and pick up literature about your funding and the upcoming ballot issue, you can take that information directly to them. Just make sure you do it within the guidelines of the law!
High Visibility in the Community
If the library is going to compete with the police, fire and schools for public dollars, it better be very visible in the community. Outreach provides the booth at the county fair, the bookmobile in the summer festival parade, and the daily recognition of a rolling billboard on Main Street. Outreach brings program flyers, material lists and a sampling of library services where the community is, and directs the community back to the stationary library for more. Spend a little time figuring out what it would cost for the kind of publicity you provide and give that information to your director. Look for ways to track the number of people who come to the library in response to an outreach initiative. This is not easy to do; Dayton Metro Library offers an incentive program, paid for with grant money, in which a child who attends a bookmobile program gets a coupon for new, free books when they bring it into a branch. This has encouraged new patronage at DML libraries, which is one of the goals of the bookmobile program, and has provided a way to track the quantity of new patrons brought in by Outreach. Communicate these realities to your board, director and staff frequently and in as many different ways as you can. Invite them and other staff to spend time in Outreach; offer to do a job exchange or job shadow program if possible. Ask to speak to staff at department and branch staff meetings, and tell them all that Outreach is doing. Present both the numbers and the feel good stories; together they present an accurate and comprehensive picture of Outreach’s value to the library and community. Every library has different ways of communicating with staff and patrons; use your website and intranet, newsletter, bulletin board, and whatever else you have to advertise for Outreach. Each time circulation hits a new high or patron numbers are up, publicly celebrate, and include the staff, director and board in the invitation. Although those outside of the Outreach department will never fully understand what we do or how we do it, they can know how very valuable we are to the library, and what we provide beyond basic library services.