Defining Outreach

By: Rick Medrano, Outreach Librarian, High Plains Library District and Rosa Granado, Outreach Manager, High Plains Library District

We work in a geographically large and diverse library district, and our district has been restructuring our Outreach department for the last three years. During this time, there has often been a disconnect between branches, staff, administration, and patrons about what Outreach is and what Outreach does. Between the two of us, we have 11 years of Outreach experience. For us, and others who work in Outreach, the definition of Outreach seems apparent.  When tasked with trying to help our district define who Outreach serves and what we do, we realized that it is not so clear.

Early Literacy Fair

Judy Koch, HPLD Outreach Librarian working with students at the Spring Early Literacy Fair in Partnership with Billie Martinez Elementary School, Greeley, CO.

The American Library Association does define Outreach Librarianship on their website, but this is as close to a formal definition of Outreach as our profession seems to get. Traditionally, in our profession, Outreach has often been an afterthought. We tend to focus on our brick and mortar buildings: we build collections for our buildings; we hire staff for the buildings; we create programs for within our buildings; and we design our policies and procedures for our buildings.  

These big-ticket items need to be reworked a little—or a lot—to translate well in Outreach. We often treat Outreach the way that art, music, and libraries are treated in public schools . . . we do them with leftover funds and leftover resources. This does not provide stability, and it lends itself to a certain disassociation with the rest of the profession. The lack of resources often presents itself in understaffing which creates a whole new set of issues including the lack of historical data for Outreach services in libraries. 

Outreach as an afterthought? To further drive this point home, think about your MLIS program. How many of those programs offered solid instruction in Outreach? Did you take a class about Outreach that was truly about reaching patrons outside of buildings or was it something closer to marketing? While marketing is a form of Outreach, it is only one, small part of what Outreach services look like. Outreach is different enough from what happens in traditional libraries to warrant at least a one-semester, three-credit class in every program to learn about the different ways we reach those in our communities facing barriers to service. 

Porter House event
Rick Medrano and Tim Ruth, HPLD Outreach Librarians providing summer reading activities at local, subsidized housing.

In order to move forward with Outreach Librarianship, we need to remedy these problems by focusing on what Outreach is and how it is done. Here are a few areas where work needs to be done:

  • Define Outreach

  • Create best practices
  • Create norms and standards
  • Reevaluate library policies and practices to better support Outreach
  • Better educate library staff, administration, and students about Outreach
  • Create templates to help new departments get off the ground
  • Teach advocacy for better Outreach resources 
  • Collect and analyze data pertaining to Outreach services 
  • Create tools to gather data and assess Outreach services 

Until we come together as a profession and begin making steps towards formalization of Outreach services and librarianship, Outreach will remain on the fringes of our profession.