Outreach and Diversity

Man in wheelchair at library

The transformation of libraries in terms of outreach and diversity takes many forms, with initiatives targeting an ever-wider range of underserved populations—including those who would become librarians.

Baby Boomers require new approaches to “senior” services

The aging of America has profound implications for public libraries, says Diantha Dow Schull, principal of DDSchull Associates and author of 50+ Library Services: Innovation in Action (ALA Editions, 2013), implications that challenge library professionals to reconsider traditional approaches to “senior” services and to develop services and programs that respond to a growing and diverse population of active older adults.

The sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation, the largest in U.S. history, means that libraries must be prepared to work with more adults in their fifties and sixties, many of whom are in transition from one life phase to another and most of whom do not fit the stereotype of a dependent “senior,” Schull says. The size and characteristics of this generational cohort raise many questions for libraries, including:

  • Are they prepared in terms of collections, services, spaces, programs, staffing and communications?
  • Do they have the visibility, identity, and partners necessary to connect with Boomers?
  • Are they ready and able to allocate the resources necessary to respond to the age wave?

Besides the larger number of older adults, other aspects of the “age wave” have implications for libraries: the trend toward a healthier older population and the greater longevity that are evident throughout American society. More and more adults over 65 are continuing to take part in the work force or the voluntary sector, changing professions rather than retiring, returning to school to gain new skills or enrich their lives, and living independently.

Given these trends, Schull asks: “Is the traditional model for ‘senior services’—consisting primarily of outreach to nursing homes or senior centers—adequate? Are large-print books and weekly afternoon movies sufficient to engage and connect with today’s active, mobile 50-plus population? Can libraries meet the challenge of continuing services to isolated and dependent elders while also providing resources to improve the lives of more active older adults?”

The diversity of this population presents yet another challenge for libraries as they explore ways to respond to the aging of America, Schull says. “In fact, diversity may be the most important underlying concept for designing a 50-plus library services plan” and the most complex, since it can involve employment and lifestyle status, varied cultural backgrounds, spiritual beliefs, linguistic traditions, housing and transportation situations, educational goals, and interests in books, media, conversations, and program topics. “Chronological age is less important than individual preferences and circumstances,” Schull says.

To fulfill their potential as service and learning centers for the growing number of adults aged 50 and over, Schull says, the library profession must embrace a more inclusive view of older adults, allocate resources for professional training and institutional transformation, and effect changes in staffing, services, collections, spaces, partnerships, programs, and communications.

Libraries are well positioned to meet the challenges

But libraries, by virtue of being age-neutral, are well positioned to respond to the needs and interests of the multiple generations of 50-plus adults. Centrally located, trusted and free, with a mission to meet the information and learning needs of their communities, libraries have the potential to be centers for positive aging. In some communities this potential is being developed through expanded information services, increased marketing, and new opportunities for learning, social interaction, and volunteering at the library or in the community. These libraries are building new relationships with older adults while building a new identity as centers for lifelong learning and community engagement.

Some libraries stand out for their innovative approaches to working with older adults. These libraries offer instructive examples that can encourage change across the profession.

  • Next Chapter, at the New York Public Library. One of the most extensive initiatives undertaken by a library system, Next Chapter includes special programming, new classes, multiple partnerships, grant-funded projects, a blog, and a Facebook page.
  • Book to Action (PDF), developed by Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library and now expanding to libraries in California and several other Western states. In this book-discussion model, participants read a text concerning a particular social issue, such as local farming or domestic abuse, and then visit a local nonprofit working on that issue to help with a service project or community event.
  • Get Involved: Powered by Your Library, a statewide initiative sponsored by the California State Library. In partnership with Volunteer Match, a national organization, CSL provided training and technical support to expand the visibility and contributions of skilled volunteers. The project helps libraries move beyond their traditional uses of volunteers (e.g., as shelvers or book menders) to engaging older adults in high-skilled/high-impact volunteerism (such as graphic design, event planning, and computer coaching). The program has stimulated libraries in other states to reconsider how they recruit, prepare, and deploy 50-plus volunteers.
  • The Creative Aging Public Libraries Project, a program developed by Lifetime Arts, a national organization dedicated to positive aging through the arts and demonstrated through a partnership with Westchester (N.Y.) Library System. The Creative Aging model involves arts education for older adults, in multiple disciplines, provided by trained arts educators. Lifetime Arts works with libraries and library systems to offer training and technical support. A grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services is enabling Lifetime Arts to expand to libraries in other communities and states.
  • Tempe Connections, a partnership between the Friends of the Tempe (Ariz.) Public Library and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University that provides Tempe Boomers and other active older adults opportunities for intellectual stimulation and exposure to a wide range of academic topics.

Still, in other communities libraries are trailing the age wave, Schull says, offering limited “senior” services such as large-print books, weekly movie programs, and outreach to senior centers or nursing homes. While these services are important and merit increased resources to align with the increase in the numbers of frail and isolated elderly, they do not reflect the demographic changes taking place across the country and the potential for libraries to become community centers for the many independent, active, engaged older adults who are redefining aging in America.

ALA panel agrees: Diversity should begin at an early age

Addressing the need to emphasize diversity for readers at the other end of the age spectrum, about 50 librarians and educators joined the Children’s Book Council’s (CBC) Diversity group in a discussion of the need for diversity in children’s books in a program held during the ALA’s 2014 Midwinter meeting. Children’s book editors were among the panelists. Some highlights:

  • Wendy Lamb, publisher and editor of Penguin Random House, said she has learned that diversity encompasses not only people of color but also members of other marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities, mental illness, and weight issues. The editor of books such as Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy (1999), Lamb often works with authors writing from an outsider’s perspective.
  • Dan Ehrenhaft, editorial director at Soho Teen, spoke about the importance of authenticity in teen books with diverse characters. When working with an author who is writing about an underrepresented group, Ehrenhaft tries to familiarize himself with that community—and he has found that there are usually more universalities than differences. “There is no normal,” he says. “Let’s embrace it and not be afraid to have that conversation.”
  • Little, Brown editor Connie Hsu, who considered herself “white” for most of her childhood, said she began to confront issues of race and ethnicity when she went to college. Hsu encourages aspiring authors to hone their craft and apply for an Angela Johnson Scholarship, a talent-based grant for writers of color attending the Writing for Children and Young Adults Master of Fine Arts program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
  • Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein, an executive editor at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint and moderator of the panel, said that often writers of color don’t even send submissions to her, even though she’s been looking for manuscripts with diverse points of view for years. Last year, she received “only two submissions from people of color and ended up acquiring one of them,” she said.

During the question-and-answer period, Oralia Garza de Cortés, a leading member of Reforma (The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking), spoke passionately about the need for transparency between publishers and librarians.

“I know a lot of you are doing good things, but if you want to make a difference you have to talk to us,” Garza de Cortés said. “A lot more conversation needs to be had: How are publishers being held accountable?” Garza de Cortés said publishers should set targets and keep track of how they’re doing. “Show us the statistics,” she said. “Put a target: ‘This year we’re going to publish two books and start from there.’ . . . We know the Latino community. We know the writers that are getting the door shut on them, and they are now turning to self-publishing.”

Turning underserved communities into key audiences

Tonya Badillo, director of the Long Branch (N.J.) Free Public Library, defines underserved communities as “groups that do not have equal access to programs and services, or have not been identified as a key audience for library services.” These include single-parent households, second-generation caregivers, veterans/former military personnel, the physically or mentally disabled, the homeless or displaced, ex-offenders, disconnected youth, virtual patrons, the unemployed and underemployed, low-income people, immigrant populations, and the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transexual, and intersexed) populations.

Complicating outreach efforts is the fact that these “hidden” populations “are usually not vocal about their needs and sometimes not comfortable with identifying themselves as belonging to any specific population,” Badillo says. Many of them “have to overcome hidden bias, outright prejudice, and a lack of resources,” often in the very communities in which they were born and raised.

Badillo says many librarians have found it difficult to identify the needs of these groups because they lacked “clear identifiers”—i.e., the groups were not homogeneous but were made up of individuals with “unique attributes, histories, and characteristics.” Ideally, library staff should get out into the community, “walk their business districts and low-income neighborhoods, visit your jails, clinics, veterans’ hospitals, homeless shelters, bodegas, local eateries, [and] mom-and-pop stores” to find out what community members need from their public library and tailor programs and services to meet these needs. “If staff can’t get out of the building,” Badillo says, “a simple email, call, or meeting to ask ’How can we help?’ might . . . get the ball rolling.”

And regardless of the success of these outreach efforts, librarians should remember that “we are the one building in our community that has the resources, staff, and knowledge to . . . serve the literacy, social and communication needs of our community based upon an equal-access system. Many of us . . . are the community triage centers when it comes to issues such as unemployment, literacy needs, health issues, and more. And while library staff cannot be expected to solve the world’s problems, what we can do is lead the way by example.”

Ultimately, Badillo says, “If we don’t remain relevant and necessary to our community, we will not continue to exist. Therefore, the necessity of providing our core traditional services must be balanced almost daily with the ability to learn and incorporate new technology and provide relevant services to every population within our community.”

The transformation of libraries into community anchors

“Libraries are becoming community anchors as well as lending institutions,” Badillo says, and “are becoming more versatile when it comes to creating programs and services that meet the needs of their own community.” Badillo cites several outreach programs as examples:

  • Disconnected youth—The Young Adult Literacy Program (YALP) is a partnership between the City of New York Center for Economic Opportunity, eight community-based organizations, and nine public library program sites run by the city’s three public library systems. YALP targets youth 16–24 years old who lack the reading, writing, and/or math skills needed to enroll in a general educational development (GED) tests preparation program. Participants receive pre-GED basic skills training along with full support services. Students with an 80% average attendance rate may also participate in a paid internship program. Since 2008, when the program began, YALP has served more than 2,000 young adults and helped 852 of them achieve a gain of more than one grade level in reading scores.
  • Ex-offenders—The Long Branch (N.J.) Free Public Library’s Fresh Start program  was designed and initiated by library staff and city officials before the Great Recession, when record numbers of community members already were coming in to do job searches, create résumés, learn computer skills, or file unemployment claims. The staff noticed that many of the job seekers were checking “yes” when asked if they had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime, and that many lacked computer skills. Badillo adapted the library’s back-to-work services and launched the Fresh Start program, which provides 11 one-on-one computer training and job-search sessions to the previously incarcerated and then transitions into the library’s regular open-lab sessions.
  • LGBTI community—San Antonio (Tex.) Public Library provides inclusive information to the city’s well-organized LGBTI community through a wide variety of programs that are inclusive  and demonstrate the value that the city places on diversity, including (among many others: Pride: Watch Out—screening of a feature-length movie for Pride Month; Pride: Act Out—the LGBTI community shares stories through spoken word, visual, and performance art; and Pride: Come Out—Local LGBTI community leaders tell their coming-out stories.
  • The homeless—At Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina, Angela Craig, teen services coordinator/ Library Loft manager, helped start a book club for the homeless, organized tours that include explanations of library rules by security staff, and recruited tutors to teach the homeless to use computers. In Florida, the Alachua County Library District hosts Monday movies—sometimes with popcorn—for the homeless, keeps a book collection at a shelter, and opened a social-service center at a branch, library Director Sol Hirsch says.

Literacy as a goal for librarians’ outreach

The ALA reaffirmed basic literacy as a core value during its 2013 Annual Conference. As libraries and librarians continue to design and deliver literacy services, they may be mindful of the results of the 2012 National Center for Education Statistics’ Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) study.

The goal of this household study is to assess and compare the basic skills and the broad range of competencies of adults worldwide. The assessment focuses on cognitive and workplace skills needed for successful participation in 21st-century society and the global economy. Specifically, the study measures relationships between individuals’ educational background, workplace experiences and skills, occupational attainment, use of information and communications technology, and cognitive skills in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving.

One of the study’s key findings was that the average score for U.S. adults (age 16–65) was 283/500 on the PIAAC literacy scale, 16% higher than the average score of African Americans (244/500) and 21% higher than the average score of Hispanics 233/500).

ALA resources support outreach and diversity efforts

As libraries continue to transform their services and the communities they serve, the ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services provides resources for library and information workers who serve new readers and non-readers as well as groups that have been historically subjected to discrimination. Among the resources available are:

  • Issues briefs for target populations, including an overview, and statistics, plus perspectives to consider when working to provide services.
  • Toolkits designed to help libraries move from planning to delivering services. Each toolkit is designed with background information, statistics, and real strategies for service delivery to target populations.
  • An annotated list of additional resources.

And the ALA Office for Diversity provides resources to the library community to support their work, including:

  • Diversity Leadership Online, a suite of online learning modules to assist libraries in championing diversity.
  • Diversity Research Grants, established in 2002 to address the critical gaps in research on diversity issues within the library and information science professions.

Transforming libraries by expanding the spectrum of librarians

Finally, the ALA Office for Diversity also continues to administer the well-established Spectrum Scholarship Program, which transforms libraries by addressing the specific issue of under-representation of ethnic librarians within the profession while serving as a model for ways to bring attention to larger diversity issues in the future.

Applications for the program are accepted from individuals from the profession’s five most underrepresented groups: American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American or African Canadian, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander. The scholarship combines financial support with leadership development to fast-track scholars along their careers and professional activities. Throughout their scholarship year and beyond, the Spectrum Scholars are provided with opportunities to network with other scholarship recipients and library leaders via electronic discussion lists and other professional development tools and activities.

In June 2013, the Office for Diversity awarded scholarships to 51 students pursuing master’s degrees in library and information studies—after receiving three times as many applications as there were available scholarships. ALA divisions also sponsor Spectrum scholars who express an interest in specific areas of librarianship. Case in point: The Association for Library Service to Children, through the Frederic G. Melcher Endowment, named as its 2013 Spectrum scholar Marco Veyna-Reyes, an MLIS candidate at the University of North Texas and children’s services assistant for the Mesquite branch of the Las Vegas–Clark County (Nev.) Library District.

The State of America's Libraries 2014