Outreach is dead. It’s time we put its body in a coffin, say our collective prayers and move on.
You see, for most of the summer I undertook a long series of “outreach” trips to promote and educate the public at large about a grant-funded project I’d been working on for the past year. I drove all over the state of Oregon, to the desert in the East, the rolling mountains in the South, up and down the rocky coast, and through the farm and ranch land in Western and Central Oregon. During these long trips (imagine expanses of high desert for 200 miles before you hit a rest stop or gas station) I had a lingering feeling that what I was doing was definitely NOT outreach. Instead, I was promoting and marketing a service and tool that, for the past year, I had been helping to build at my place of employ.
What IS outreach in libraries today? It became my mission to discover a succinct working definition of what we do that so many of us consider outreach, yet my conclusion remained embedded in that same violent phrase: outreach is dead. When this thought first occurred to me my brain immediately began singing the lyrics to Bauhaus’s hit Goth Rock song Bela Lugosi’s Dead. (“…Bela Lugosi’s dead/ undead undead undead/Oh, Bela/Bela’s undead…)
We need to lay rest to outreach’s physical body–that separate entity that comprises library departments and ancillary programs. As well we need to lay to rest the word “outreach,” whose separate existence inhibits and deters us from doing what we as libraries, librarians, and information professionals should be doing. Instead of integrating library promotion, advocacy, and community-specific targeted services, we have left “outreach” outside of the inclusive library whole to be an afterthought, a department more likely to get cut, or work function of only a few, such as your subject librarians. If we kill this notion, if we consider the word and the separate entity of outreach as dead, we are more likely to be able to embrace and participate in activities formerly known as outreach and incorporate this essential part of our jobs into our daily work routine.
Before I came to the conclusion that outreach is dead, I attempted to re-define outreach as such: Outreach is marketing. If the people who you’re attempting to reach seek services from you (rather than you reaching them) it is not outreach. The agenda behind library outreach should be to offer services without monetary gain, and to identify and fill service voids for people who are not looking for them. Unsatisfied with my definition I asked my dad. His response was “I let the NSF [National Science Foundation] define that for me.” (My dad is an organic chemistry professor.) I was not convinced that a funding agency should have the ultimate say in what “outreach” activities should be or include; particularly in libraries. It was then that I decided to turn to my colleagues and professional literature to seek a good definition.
Scott Pointon (Public Libraries, 2009) refers to the following definition: “Draw a circle around the central or main library building–every library service, program, or library-related endeavor taking place outside that circle is outreach.” (5-6). Likewise, in her introduction to the Extraordinary Outreach section of Public Libraries last winter, Nann Hilyard points to the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary definition of outreach, “noun: the act of extending community services to a wider section of the population. Transitive Verb: to reach beyond, exceed” (20). Unsatisfied with both of these definitions I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online (thanks, Multnomah County Library, for my remote access to this!) I found:
Outreach. Noun. b. spec. The activity of an organization in making contact and fostering relations with people unconnected with it, esp. for the purpose of support or education and for increasing awareness of the organization’s aims or message; the fact or extent of this activity.
None of these definitions are satisfactory to me. And none of us define outreach in the same way. Pointon’s definition is great, but it pulls into play the struggle libraries are having with “library as place,” an issue recently addressed in The Journal of Academic Librarianship by Sennyey et al., 2009. Current library services transcend the physical boundaries of a library building. Many collections and services offered by public and academic libraries are used remotely. Users access library services from home, in their offices, and even via mobile devices. “…the bond between users and the physical library will change and if poorly managed the “library as place” will become just another campus building” (Sennyey, et al., 2009). In this way, defining outreach by physical boundaries (a body) does not reflect the wealth of services that libraries provide and undermine our community-centered work.
The OED definition is great, but to me this definition gets back to my first instinct: this is marketing, not outreach. In fact, I looked at the OED definition of marketing, and felt that the two, for our intent, are almost interchangeable.
Marketing b. The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business) the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product, etc., including market research, advertising, and distribution.
Our product is our service. To many librarians marketing can be a dirty word and outreach almost saintly. But in so many articles about outreach authors seem to refer to library service promotion as marketing anyway. (see Dawn Bussey’s Getting the Word Out, Eugene Jeffers’s Electronic Outreach and Our Internet Patrons, and Rebecca Donnelly’s The Misguided Relationship.) I think we should embrace marketing for what it is, and let outreach diffuse into our daily routine. Moreover, the first use of the word outreach in this way was over 100 years ago, in 1899 according to the OED. Since libraries have changed so much over the past 100 years isn’t it time we find a new way to express and incorporate community-centered work? The OED definition reminds me of a picture I snapped while on my outreach excursions.
The paint is peeling. Obviously its current physical manifestation could use some help. Likewise, when we use the term “outreach” we typically refer to an older and more traditional notion of what the word means. For us to move beyond this idea, we just might have to start using different words and detach current assumptions about “outreach” to discuss our “outreach” activities.
Differences Between Academic and Public Libraries
In academic libraries outreach seems to mean one of a few things. First, you have to reach your constituents. Some libraries have a Facebook page and some libraries tweet. You might also provide orientations to new student cohorts or you might offer satellite library services in a different building such as a dorm or a student center. Other examples could be creating relationships with faculty to provide services that support teaching as well as to their students to support course-specific learning. These examples seem to encompass much of what academic “outreach” focused activities include. To me, all of these services should not be contained within a separate body, department, or undertaken by just the “Outreach Librarian.” Instead, they are part in parcel what we do. As professionals we should all be talking about the library in our communities and fostering relationships. We should be offering satellite services and, yes, we should all have down pat our 30 second “why the library is important” elevator speech. These are essential aspects of a library and of any librarian’s job. They are not separate nor should they be contained in a different or a sole unit or entity.
Unlike academic libraries, Public library outreach programs seem much more identified by space and place. Bookmobile services, library services provided to those in jail, services at senior centers and in schools are all examples of what would fall under the “outreach” umbrella. Dawn Bussey discusses the various things that the Glen Ellyn Public Library has done in their community and outside the library’s walls (Public Libraries, 2009). But let’s face it, these services and the community-based nature of public libraries are essential to what today’s library is. It is not extra, it is mandatory and we should all be engaged and providing targeted, community-based services to our constituents.
Community Engagement and Marketing are Essential
The nature of libraries has changed enormously. The physical building is less important. Books are less important. Due to these changes libraries will become obsolete in today’s current market where information needs are created and fulfilled by (my favorite “frenemies”) Google and Facebook. People purchase books from Amazon, they read blogs, wikis and other online commercial (and non-commercial) information sources. But libraries have what they don’t and we need to let our users know this. We have the ability to be in our communities, to engage them and offer specific targeted services. Our engagement with our communities can be the defining aspect of what a library is to any given community—and that sounds a whole lot like what one “outreach librarian” was doing or one “outreach department” does in the old “outreach” paradigm. I am not trying to undermine the importance of marketing, advocacy, or library services. Traditional “outreach” services should be an integrated part of what we do, not an aside, a tacked on item.
Problems We Face in Death
Just because libraries need to change and have changed does not mean that the politics of our respective institutions and governing bodies have. Many institutions, such as my own, have “outreach” outlined in their missions. Institutions might use “outreach” to exemplify their worth for grant or other funding sources, which frequently require “outreach” activities be incorporated into funded projects. (Much like my dad’s example and my recent travel around the state of Oregon.) We need for our city governments and our library and university administrations to advocate for libraries and library services in the manner I have described. When crucial administrative decisions get made, for example to open a new campus, build a new building, or to add a new degree program at a college or university, libraries and their services need to be represented. If we have successfully advocated for our constituents by providing them with quality targeted, community-centered services, they will advocate for us. In the end, we might be able to provide those essential library services without being restricted by traditional “outreach” departments or initiatives.
Another issue facing libraries and library staff is training. How are we going to train library staff to provide those 30 second elevator speeches? Who will take the lead to ensure that circulation staff, reference staff, and others know how to engage in the services we’ve been calling outreach? If we expect everyone to engage in this work, staff need to have the skills and knowledge to be able to do so.
Finally, outreach is usually considered a separate department, when marketing and promotion of outreach activities within institutions get delegated to separate “marketing,” “communications,” or “public relations” departments. Wouldn’t it be best if the two were integrated? These departments often produce and distribute printed and written materials such as press releases, brochures and flyers, or craft an organizational mission statement. This kind of community engagement remains essential. We must learn to embrace marketing and collaborate with our marketing and communications departments for our community-centered services to achieve their potential.
Kill your notion of outreach. We should demolish the body of outreach, but keep outreach activities alive. We should disallow outreach a separate body, but fold its spirit into our daily work and activities, for it is this spirit of work that is the very kernel of what makes a library. Let’s use different words to talk about what we do. (Please, if you have a suggestion on a new term to replace “outreach” leave a comment!) Let’s work to engage our administrators and our institutions in changing the attitude and political structure surrounding “outreach.” Let’s bridge the divide by collaborating with community and institutional partners to create and promote services. Let’s make sure library staff has the training to be able to give an elevator speech about why the library is important to community. Finally, let’s reshape our attitude and view community-based library services as essential; as the core of what keeps libraries strong and relevant to our communities.
Thanks to Gail Kouame for providing her thoughtful feedback to this post. Also thanks to Lead Pipe Colleagues Derik Badman, Ellie Collier, and Hilary Davis for their edits and feedback. Additionally, thanks to my office-mate, Andrew Hamilton, who is a great springboard for ideas.
References and Further Reading
Adams, T. M., & Sean Evans, R. (2004). Educating the educators: Outreach to the college of education distance faculty and native american students. Journal of Library Administration, 41(1), 3-18.
Aguilar, P., & Keating, K. (2009). Satellite outreach services program to under-represented students: Being in their space, not on MySpace. The Reference Librarian, 50(1), 14-28.
Bussey, D. (2009). Getting the word out. Public Libraries, 48(1), 20-21.
Connell, R. S. (2009). Academic libraries, Facebook and MySpace, and student outreach: A survey of student opinion. Portal: Libraries & the Academy, 9(1), 25-36.
Donnelly, R. (2009). The misguided relationship: Learning from outreach experiences. Public Libraries, 48(1), 24-25.
Hilyard, N. B. (2009). Cultivating support for library advocacy. Public Libraries, 48(3), 16-19.
Jeffers, E. J. (2009). Electronic outreach and our internet patrons. Public Libraries, 48(1), 21-23.
Pointon, S. E. (2009). Library outreach is the future! Public Libraries, 48(2), 2-5, 24.
Sennyey, P., Ross, L., & Mills, C. (2009). Exploring the future of academic libraries: A definitional approach. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 35(3), 252-259.