Roving Outreach Specialists

In the course of preparing for Summer Reading, I came upon what seemed like a good idea: setting up a table at local farmer’s markets in the city to promote the library and get sign-ups for the Summer Reading program. I contacted the person in charge of one such non-profit farmer’s market organization and explained what I wanted to do. The organization’s director said he would be happy to have the library represented at the farmer’s market but explained that I would need to list his organization on our insurance policy first. Upon hearing this, I immediately knew this wasn’t likely to happen. I could already envision the yards of red tape I would have to dance through to get anyone in my library to sign off on such a thing. But I decided to at least investigate the possibility.


Even in the best of times, getting a very large urban library system to respond to this sort of request would be challenging. Nowadays, however, my particular system is going through some organizational changes and growing pains. This means that many people are unsure about who’s in charge of what. On top of that, it became clear that even were I to secure the proper paperwork, getting the time necessary to leave my branch and do this level of outreach would be near impossible.


While my farmer’s market idea seems to have failed (for the time being), it did spark another idea- having a position devoted entirely to outreach. Now, this is not a new idea. In fact, my own library system has a very hard-working outreach services division. Their focus is mainly on new immigrants and underserved populations such as the disabled.


What I’m envisioning is a roving librarian specialist- let’s say, a children’s librarian- who’s job it is to reach out to the community and inform them about library programs for children, do card sign-ups, class visits, street fairs, PTA meetings, Community Board meetings, referrals to local branches, and be a liaison between the specialists working in the branches and the community at large. This sort of activity used to be part of the responsibilities of the librarians at the local branch. These days, however, with increased hours and less time available to leave the branch, a separate position may be the answer. While current specialized administrators do some of this work, they are, like the branch-level specialists, responsible for many other functions. Outreach is but a fraction of what they do. And expecting two or three librarians to be able to cover events and do sufficient specialty outreach in a large city is unrealistic.


To make this position truly viable, these roving specialists would need flexibility, responsiveness and cooperation with other departments, and most of all, communication on all levels- from the branch up to the directors. Imagine a librarian equipped with a laptop (outfitted with roaming wifi, of course) who is assigned to a particular district. They can give out library cards on the spot, direct parents to age-appropriate programming in their neighborhoods, locate information in the nearest branch, demonstrate the use of the online databases and digital collections, promote special programs like Summer Reading, inform the public about new collections- such as graphic novels and video games- and gather feedback and suggestions from both users and non-users.


Back in my undergrad days, the idea of roving campus librarians was just taking off. Twice a week, a librarian would leave the main library, and with laptop in hand, set off for the Student Union, the Quads, or the dining halls. Undergrads who otherwise wouldn’t step foot into the library were introduced to the magic of Lexus-Nexus, the expertise of subject-specialty librarians, and the mind-boggling number of holdings- both academic and popular- available at the libraries on campus.


For those users who won’t or can’t find the library, the library must find them. Let’s get out in the streets and bring the library to the people!


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