All In Together Now: Building Community Through Outreach Services at the Frazar Library

By Joshua Finnell

McNeese State University, a member of the University of Louisiana System, is academically oriented both to the liberal arts and professional programs. McNeese has an important responsibility for education, research, and service in Southwest Louisiana. The university is committed to providing learning opportunities; enhancing intellectual, civic, and cultural well-being; influencing economic and technological development; and improving quality of life.The Frazar Library, therefore, actively participates in outreach services executed in accordance with the library’s mission statement to provide access to information and other information services to both the McNeese and Southwest Louisiana community.  A majority of our staff is deeply rooted in the community, and each member uses their resources and areas of expertise to provide outreach services in their own distinct way.  As a corollary, outreach services are not confined to one specific department in the library; rather they are shared among the various departments in the library and focus on fostering a sense of community.

According to Richard Dougherty, former Director of the University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley Libraries, “college and university librarians have for too long sat on the sidelines.  They have resisted the opportunity or responsibility to reach out and become more involved with young people in their community.” Overall, he underscores the importance of librarians, both academic and public, to collaborate on inculcating a love of learning and reading in the youth of today. 

Joe McNeil, systems administrator and head of the cataloging department, has embodied this ethos as a volunteer story reader at both the elementary school and the public library in Lake Charles.  On one particular occasion, Joe impersonated Benjamin Franklin, telling the children in attendance all about Franklin’s life and work.  In addition to entertaining the attendees, Joe also used this opportunity to highlight the “Friends of the Library Program” at McNeese, which allows members access to Frazar library materials.  According to Joe, “the ‘Friends’ program is something I tell our kids about as a way for them to extend the materials they are able to find in their own school and public library.”  Joe also highlights the Frazar Library collection as a part-time reference librarian at the Calcasieu Parish Central Library.  Bridging the gap between the academic and public library in Lake Charles, Joe is in the unique position of highlighting the various databases available through the Frazar Library that are not available from the public library. 

While Joe has reached out to the younger crowd in Lake Charles, I have been promoting the reference services at the university library through a monthly trivia night hosted at community and university hangouts.  Using our accumulated reference questions from the month, we create trivia questions and source the answers to reference material found in our respective libraries.  We charge $2 per person to play and the winner takes home the total for the night.  The outcome of this outreach program is two-fold: 1.) we engage with students and patrons outside of the library; this, in turn, forges relationships making them more likely to use our reference services; and 2.) we show them that the physical library, not just the internet, is still a great repository of knowledge worth accessing.  Contestants are often puzzled when they get a question wrong, assuring me that their knowledge came directly from Wikipedia.     

By engaging with community members at a young age, it is our hope that even before someone steps foot in the Frazar Library they have an expectation of interacting with a friendly, fun, and helpful staff.  To reinforce this idea, the library actively participates in Howdy Rowdy Week, a freshman orientation program that introduces new students to various services and social groups available at the university.  Along with several fraternities, the school newspaper, and other groups, the library has a booth in which we showcase the services of the library through various handouts.  In addition to giving students pertinent information relating to the general functions of the library (resources, hours of operation), it is yet another opportunity to build relationships with students as they begin their collegiate career.  The relatively simplified and focused environment of Howdy Rowdy Week is designed to allow new students to make friends easily and develop a social support system and “surrogate family.”  Letting students know that they have a friend in the library makes them less reluctant to ask librarians for assistance.

Approachability is crucial in today’s library environment where the continual proliferation of online resources in university libraries can be overwhelming to a new student, making Google all the more enticing.  This dilemma was most recently noted by the librarians at the University of Rhode Island.  According to staff at URI, “Though our online resources have also increased greatly in number (with approximately 70 databases and 23,650 online journals), discerning authorized sites and information and use of these resources of these resources is not innate.” The teaching of information literacy is a key component to outreach services at the Frazar Library.  Like many college and university libraries, our library conducts numerous library instruction and information literacy programs at the beginning of each semester.  These courses further inculcate the importance of performing effective, authoritative, and ethical research.   A particularly strong component to this program is that librarians from several library departments participate in leading instruction courses.  In addition to strengthening the communal approach to outreach at McNeese, it also gives students a chance to interact with librarians who are not always visible to the public (Government Documents and Interlibrary Loan, for example). 

At the same time, Jessica Hutchings, head of the reference department, is making a concerted effort to extend library assistance beyond the physical walls of the library to students enrolled through our distance learning program.  After identifying the need and investigating a variety of usability parameters, we decided to proceed with recording multimedia tutorials using Camtasia Studio software.  Since most of our tutorials for distance learners were a collection of static web pages with explanatory text, we wanted to mirror the actual online navigation involved in our information literacy courses, complete with mouse moves and clicks.   We hope to launch these tutorials from the library website during the summer of 2008. 

Rebecca Troy-Horton, government documents librarian, has embarked upon a faculty and public libraries marketing campaign, sending out folders of information on how they can best utilize government documents for their students and patrons.  She also circulates an email newsletter listing popular government resources online and in the library collection, expressing her willingness to teach government document classes, and integrating web 2.0 initiatives.  Her recently created blog, Gov Docs on the Bayou! has been successful in reaching
beyond the university, as several professors and colleagues across the state subscribe to its Resource Description Framework Site Summary (RSS) feed.  

Our goal is to open the lines of communication by integrating technology and public visibility into our outreach services. Echoing a common sentiment among college and research librarians, staff at the University of Chicago Library summarize outreach services quite well: “Our hope is that by building these relationships early in their college years, our students will continue to see their librarians as resources.”

Of course, communication barriers can be linguistic as well as spatial.  At McNeese, we have a thriving international community of students with various levels of information needs.  As Karen Bordnoaro, information literacy instruction coordinator at Brock University, points out,  “[International students]  not only have difficulties in accent to overcome, but they often have difficulties in comprehension as well, when they attempt to communicate with library staff members in an environment in which only English is spoken.”  In order to meet the needs of these students, Walt Fontane, reference librarian, has been collaborating with English as Second Language (ESL) instructors to design specifically tailored library instruction courses for effective cross-cultural communication.  As Walt points out, “It is not only important to point students to the right resources, but also to an accessible one - given their language skills.”  Fostering a sense of community, Paul Drake, interlibrary loan librarian, regularly attends the International Coffee Hour, an informal event that brings together students, faculty, and community members.  Having completed four years of graduate work in Canada, Paul can relate to adjusting to a new culture: “I try to talk to a few students, ask them why they selected McNeese, and ask about how they are adjusting.” Through informal conversation, Paul lets students know that the library can request reading material in their native languages that aren’t found in the general collection. 

Of course, the main goal of reaching out is to pull patrons into the library.  In addition to showcasing the talents of our staff, we also market the physical space of the library.  As Mark Sanders, outreach services librarian at Lousiana State University, articulates, “Academic libraries must learn that in addition to the traditional role of supporting the university’s teaching and research, they should try harder to showcase the overall institution as a community center.”

The Archives department at McNeese, consisting of Kathie Bordelon and Pati Threatt, has been very active in partnering with the Southwest Louisiana Historical Association (SWLHA), incorporating the five-parish Imperial Calcasieu area.  In addition to their work on the SWLHA newsletter and website, they have also collaborated with the association in hosting photo fairs.  These events, which are open to the public and hosted around the community, invite community members to bring in their historic photos to display and share with others.  SWLHA offers a prize to the best photos in several categories.  Many of the photos are either donated directly to the archives department or scanned as photographs into the digital library collection, returning the originals to the owner.  In an effort to preserve these culturally significant artifacts and make them available for researchers, the archives department showcases the university’s commitment to local history and scholarship.  

In addition to photo fairs, the archives department also hosts several exhibits and receptions for one our largest collections, the archive of Lake Charles High School (LCHS).    Every year the library hosts various reuniongroup receptions, complete with displays of an archive from their year of graduation.  Guests are treated to wine and cheese while viewing yearbooks, photographs, and varsity letters exhibited in the display cases around the lobby.  This archive continues to grow, as members from graduating classes contribute their own artifacts for display at the next reunion.  In addition to fostering community, this event has created fundraising opportunities in the form of tote bags and Christmas ornaments with the LCHS logo.

While our main focus remains on the members of the university community, our academic library also creates an inviting experience for community members as well.  Several different community groups use our meeting rooms throughout the year, and our annual book sale is well attended by the public.  In addition, Debbie Johnson-Houston, serials librarian, has been instrumental in creating a community reading center on the second floor of the library through the purchase of new furniture and tables.  This new area creates an enticing space for study, as well as an informal lounge where students or community members may relax and browse our collection of newspapers and magazines. 

Overall, an undercurrent of building community runs through each stream of our outreach services.   Through partnerships with public libraries in reaching younger generations, engaging and educating our diverse student population, and hosting community events, we are building relationships with users over the long term.  Terence Huwe, past president of the Librarians Association of the University of California, reminds us that technology will continually change, but the principles of effective outreach remain the same. He articulates, “A focus on users needs, a personal touch, a commanding knowledge of the challenges of research – these values guide guided effective outreach 10, perhaps even 30 years ago, and still do.”  It is not inconceivable for a child in Lake Charles to have one of our librarians read to them in grade school, entertain them with trivia in high school, teach them
information literacy in college, and host their high school reunion 40 years later. 

Joshua Finnell is Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor of Library Science at Frazar Library, McNeese State University

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 Bordonaro, Karen. “We All Have an Accent: Welcoming International Students to the Library.” Feliciter 52, no. 6    (2006): 240.
 Sanders, Mark. “Paperbacks and a Percolator: Fostering a Sense of Community in the Academic Library.” Mississippi Libraries 69, no. 1 (2005): 5.
 Huwe, Terence K. “Some Best Practices for Personalizing Outreach.” Computers in Libraries 26, no. 2 (2006): 36.