Engaging in Outreach Efforts & Meaningful Community Building

As a MLIS student at San Jose State University (SJSU), I often read about the importance of promoting library services through outreach efforts. During that time, I ran across the following quote that illustrates this point, and it continues to resonate with me:

Gone are the days when libraries can simply open their doors and expect to be perceived as the number one option for information services. With fierce competition for funding and more people assuming everything offered by a library can be found online, libraries are feeling the pressure to blow their own horn (Hallmark et al., 2007).

Last year, I started as a Lecturer Librarian at CSU Northridge. Since I began in the summer of 2023, I did not immediately have instruction requests or deadlines for collection development. Instead, I directed my attention to outreach opportunities, which continued to be part of my priorities throughout the fall and even now in the spring. I work closely with the Outreach Librarian to deliver outreach programming to keep patrons abreast of upcoming library events, and to promote library collection materials by designing book displays. I have collaborated with faculty, staff, students, and community members to make these events successfully happen. So far, I have remained committed to outreach efforts by participating in the “Ask a Librarian” tabling events, the Resources & Services Fair, the New Student Orientation, CSUN Open House, National Transfer Student Week, and library tours for K-12 students. I am particularly proud of my involvement in creating virtual and in-person book displays for Latinx Heritage Month and Black History Month.

While the outreach opportunities mentioned above have been quite rewarding, I was curious to participate in wider campus efforts centered on outreach and community building. Late last fall, I was selected to be a Library Liaison for the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) at CSU Northridge. This office strives to enhance academic experiences through community-based (service) learning, engaged research and sustained partnerships within the San Fernando Valley, and the greater Los Angeles Area. In my role, I support faculty members as they develop community-engaged projects and/or courses. Faculty members receive support in creating syllabi that outline community-based learning outcomes centered on equity, diversity, and inclusion. I expect that I will also recommend community-engaged readings, and activities for their syllabi.

Since I’m serving in the inaugural cohort, the other Library Liaisons and I have been working on recruitment. During our last departmental meeting, we offered our librarian colleagues a brief overview about the OCE, and we introduced them to grant opportunities designed for faculty members committed to community-engaged courses, projects, research, or creative activities. Additionally, I have been spreading awareness about the OCE to professors and lecturers in the department of Central American & Transborder Studies. After I teach my information literacy sessions, I’ll typically pitch an elevator speech to these faculty members. Usually, faculty members teaching Ethnic Studies already incorporate community-building into the design of their courses, which makes them great candidates.

Overall, I’m hoping my efforts evolve into effective partnerships, so that I may further engage in meaningful practices centered on community building and social justice. I’m definitely in the early stages of developing my own approach towards outreach and community service. I was hoping to hear from experienced academic librarians. Would anyone be willing to share their own strategies?

In search of community

I’ve always felt a strong sense of professional community as a librarian. I had a close local cohort of friends in my distance MLIS program, a fantastic group of ALA Spectrum Scholars who helped me feel accepted and included, and great colleagues. I’ve been lucky to have worked at institutions that invest in the professional development of their librarians (especially early-career folks) and therefore have been able to attend conferences, leadership institutes, and other learning experiences. I joined the social media platform formerly known as Twitter in 2008 and shared thoughts there and via my personal blog, connecting with librarians across the country on everything from critical information literacy to elder millennial jams.

Then the pandemic hit. We still had all the finest web-based apps needed to maintain our ability to work, but something about connecting online didn’t feel right anymore. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. I missed grabbing dinner with friends, going to yoga class in person, and visiting family (among all of the comforts of having a “normal” day-to-day life). The isolation was crushing. All of the fledgling communities I had started to build in a new city crumbled and the long standing professional community in LIS was struggling. We all trickled back into our “normal” routines eventually, but things were markedly different. We were different, and the communities that sustained us throughout the years of isolation were not necessarily the same ones we relied on pre-pandemic.

I finally left what was then still Twitter in 2023, as did many of my colleagues and friends. I’ve struggled to feel motivated enough to attend conferences and professional activities in person given the number of free or low-cost online offerings (book a flight and wait to be reimbursed? in this economy?). But I do miss being able to catch up with colleagues at other institutions in person. I miss the serendipitous collaborations that sprung for venting sessions over coffee or lunch after a thought-provoking presentation. I miss getting to know people outside of their identities as librarians. I don’t know where the librarians are online anymore, but I know that I miss them! Occasionally we see one another in professional service organization meetings, private-chatting each other via Zoom, but of course, it’s not quite the same.

I am very curious to discover what community looks like now for folks in LIS, especially early-career folks. I will admit that moving into a management position and recognizing that I’ve been in libraries for 17 years(!!!!) have also contributed to a shift in community for me, but it hasn’t changed the fact that I need a community. I think we all do. We all want to feel understood and valued in our profession. So what does librarian community look like now, and what can we make it?

ALA’s 2023 Emerging Leaders Program

Over this past year, I have been in ALA’s Emerging Leaders’ program, for the class of 2023. I consider myself very fortunate to have been selected to be a part of this year’s Emerging Leaders; it’s been a transformative experience. The people involved in putting this program on do an amazing job, and the people I met through the Emerging Leader program show me the future of librarianship is bright. I wanted to write a reflection on Emerging Leaders so others can think about taking part in a program to increase their library community of peers and enhance their leadership skills.

ALA Emerging Leaders, Class of 2023

Overview

The ALA Emerging Leaders program is a leadership program for librarians with less than five years professional experience, intended to gain leadership skills through working groups and introduce participants to the ALA governance structure to use leadership skills through future ALA volunteerism.

ALA Emerging Leaders attend LibLearnX (previously called ALA Midwinter) and ALA Annual to meet with their group and the other leaders, work on projects, hear from guest speakers, make connections, and ultimately present their project work with a poster presentation at ALA Annual.

I found the program useful for three main reasons: leadership development (ALA-specific and librarianship more generally), working on an ALA division or section-sponsored project, and making lasting connections.

Leadership Development

The motivation for my application to Emerging Leaders was to develop my leadership skills. I want to continue to develop as a librarian and as a leader, both formally and informally. While the program does not offer in-depth leadership training, you develop leadership skills through collaborative working groups and other settings throughout the program. You work closely with your group throughout the first-half of the year, working as a team to accomplish the goals of your group’s project.

Through this collaborative working group, there’s the typical leadership skills you’ve likely encountered while working in groups throughout grad school or at your library—things like organizing, delegating, time management, communication, and ensuring group members are meeting their deadlines.

There are also guest speakers that present to the Leaders at both LibLearnX and Annual, and webinars between the conferences. These speakers address a variety of topics, but you can learn a lot about what it takes to be a library leader, both at their library and throughout ALA. While some speakers were more relevant and engaging than others, I appreciated the time they took to speak to our group, and I took away something from every speaker.

Group Project

One of the main goals of the program is for participants to contribute to projects proposed by ALA divisions and sections. Between LibLearnX and Annual, Leaders are put into working groups and work on one of that year’s projects. In this way, the Emerging Leaders give back to ALA throughout the program. There were ten projects to choose from for 2023, some examples were examining censorship to update statistics and informational material, developing new membership onboarding, documenting forty years of the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), and engaging library community members to vote.

Group B: Chris Vaughn (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Justin Fuhr (me!), Kelli Anne Gecawich (Georgia Southern University), Julia Martyniuk (University of Toronto), and Lee Bareford (Georgia Southern University) (L-R)

I selected a project by my sponsoring section, ACRL’s Distance and Online Learning Section, to develop and publish a survey to gain insight into accessible online learning tools that academic librarians are using.

This involved:

  • Scanning the literature to find research on accessibility issues and universal design,
  • Developing survey questions and creating a draft in Qualtrics,
  • Piloting the survey and implementing feedback, and
  • Presenting our work through a poster, video, and written report.

To see our group’s work, it’s available at http://hdl.handle.net/1993/37407.

Lasting Connections

One of the greatest benefits of the program, at least for me, was meeting people: meeting my working group members, meeting the program coordinators and hosts (special shout out to Beatrice Calvin, Christina Fuller-Gregory, and Libby Holtmann!), meeting Chimene Tucker and other members of ACRL’s Distance and Online Learning Section, and attendees of ALA LibLearnX and Annual.

But along with this great group of people, there are the other Emerging Leaders. The 2023 class of leaders were an eager, productive, fun-loving group of future library leaders. These are people who I believe will end up leading our libraries and leading ALA; they’re inspirational and you know they’re headed towards great things in librarianship. We came from all corners of the continent, from all types of libraries.

I can remember in the week leading up to LibLearnX, one of the members of our cohort created a collab Google doc to arrange carpooling from the airport. I put my name on there, along with when I was arriving, and I got a text in the week leading up to LibLearnX asking if I wanted to share a ride into the city, with a couple other people. I didn’t know it at the time, but the two people I shared a ride with – we spent nearly the entire conference together, along with others from our cohort.

After walking down Frenchmen Street in New Orleans with daiquiris in hand, well, I like to think we’ve solved librarianship. Not quite, but I did bond with my cohort and now have a strong network of inspirational future library leaders who are so fun to talk with and very, very supportive.

Beth Jarrell (Sanibel Public Library), Stacey Akahoshi (Maricopa County Library District), Justin Fuhr (me!), and Laura Tadena (Austin Public Library) (L-R) at Jackson Square, New Orleans, LA

While the Emerging Leaders program consist of librarians from all types of libraries, these were mainly public librarians that I was talking to and walking around New Orleans with. This was so nice because I’m often stuck in academic libraryland, talking with other academic librarians about very important and very serious issues in academic librarianship. It is nice to have a close group of friends who are public librarians, to expand our connections throughout librarianship, and hear new perspectives. To hear from these librarians about their experiences both inside and outside the library, from their personal and professional lives, I can say these people are role models. I’m so thankful to have met them.

Then there was my working group, a group of academic librarians working on our project. Unlike some projects I encountered while at library school (so sorry, University of Alberta SLIS alumni!), this was a highly motivated group, eager to meet our goals with work that we’re all proud of. Our group of academic librarians met regularly between the conferences, and before and after our working meetings, we’d chat about the weather (who knew it varied so much across the continent?!) and catch up with what’s going in in our lives. These were great moments, and it was an honour to work with the others in my group.

The Memory of The Time

Overall, the Emerging Leaders program is a fantastic leadership development initiative and one I took away a lot from. With elements of leadership development, ALA volunteerism fast-tracking, creating deliverables for ALA’s divisions and sections, and making lasting connections, there’s so much to the Emerging Leaders program. I’ve enriched myself and set myself up for future stages of my library career. This was a group of future library leaders who—knowing nothing about each other—left the program as friends.

I am so thankful I was accepted to the program, that my library, supervisor, and library director were supportive of my attendance, that I was sponsored by ARCL’s Distance and Online Learning Section, and that I was privileged enough to attend conferences in New Orleans and Chicago.

If you’re able and eligible, I highly recommend considering applying. Applications are now open for the Class of 2024 Emerging Leaders program. The deadline to apply is September 9, 2023. If anyone has any questions about Emerging Leaders, or is considering putting together an application and wants some advice, please reach out to me! I’d be happy to share.

Learning from Public Libraries

Inspired by April Hines’s recent tweet about what academic librarians can learn from public librarians, I’ve been thinking about the topic myself. It’s been especially front of mind as someone who transitioned from working at public library branches to working at a community college library. Similar to April, I’ve also heard academic librarians shy away from conferences that they consider to be too focused on public library issues, such as social work and safety and/or security. In the back of my mind, I’m reminding myself that those are issues that those working in academic libraries are, or at least, should be concerned about as well.

Many of us have had an experience where we didn’t know how to best help a student who was in distress. That’s social work. Many of us have had an experience where we were faced with an emergency or natural disaster. That’s safety and security. Dismissing these concerns, and dismissing public librarians in general, does us all a disservice; especially at a time when librarianship, in and of itself, is under attack. There are many ways that public and academic librarianship are similar, including having to constantly prove our worth to stakeholders and having to manage and maintain collections and other resources on limited budgets. 

Among others, here is a list of skills that those of us working in academic libraries can learn from all staff working in public libraries.

Performing Outreach: Public libraries excel at outreach because, well, they don’t have a choice. When you’re constantly asked if you’re still relevant, you brainstorm ways remind your community of all you have to offer. Milwaukee Public Library has become known for their clever use of social media, including viral videos on both TikTok and Instagram reminding people that reference librarians can, in fact, help you with whatever questions you may have. Meanwhile, DC Public Library used Twitter to satirize current events, and remind the community about the library’s robust audiobook selection. In a time where many academic libraries could stand to do better at making our voice heard, it’s in our best interest to not only learn from, but also to ask our friends at public libraries for advice.

Navigating Censorship: Navigating bans and challenges is not new to public libraries (and school libraries as well). Voices of censorship have long sought to cater library collections to their point-of-view; since 2020 these attacks have increased in intensity. Academic libraries should not dismiss these as concerns that are only facing our colleagues working at public and school libraries. These concerns have already started moving toward higher education, with debates about what students should or shouldn’t be allowed to learn. Academic materials and collections are already becoming the next target in these ongoing attempts at censorship. We could learn from public libraries about strengthening our collection development policies and reconsideration forms,  and learning more about First Amendment Audits, so that we can be better prepared for when, not if, these challenges arise. 

Offering Literacy Resources: From answering complex reference questions to teaching courses to first-year students to staying up-to-date with ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, literacy is at the core of what we do as librarians on college campuses. Like all skills, developing competency in assisting students with information as well as digital literacy takes time, and we don’t always get it right on the right try; I know I don’t. And it’s always a good reminder that public librarians offer information, digital, financial, and even health literacy resources for their communities, both through programs and classes as well as at the reference desk. Instead of dismissing public librarians for not having a specialty, we should be appreciative of the fact that they are able to navigate complex fields of literacy, often with limited time and resources. 

Lastly, in the past few years, we have already seen colleges and universities throughout the United States eliminate departments and majors, scale back on tenure, and reduce library staff. Not only have public libraries been used to fewer staff and static budgets, they have also had to continue performing outreach, navigating censorship, and offering literacy programs while doing so. We are fighting the same fight in terms of figuring out how to best serve our communities while trying to prove our worth to those who might not value it otherwise. The least we could do is communicate with and learn from each other.

Notes on a Banned Books Class

Last semester, I taught my first semester-long class at the community college where I work. Many community colleges offer both credit courses and classes that are for continuing education, workforce training, and recreation — my class was one of these, based on a class that a previous librarian taught.

That librarian presented a series of discussions of literary classics, largely ones that were banned in the 1960s-1980s. When I took over the class, I focused on recent examples of books that have been targeted by book challenges and bans, since that has been a relentless topic in the news. I selected most of my titles from the past few years of ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books lists. I had about 10 students, most of whom were older members of the community from the surrounding county.

I explained the difference between challenges and bans, and we looked at the landscape of book bans in the United States — where challenges take place (mainly school and public libraries) and who initiates them (until recently, individual and small groups of parents). We also discussed how the process to investigate challenges works in different types of libraries and the role that public comment and citizen advocacy can play in resisting book bans and other types of censorship.

Infographic from ALA's Censorship by the numbers
Censorship by the Numbers, ALA

By covering titles that are on current lists of challenged books, our conversation felt urgent and relevant to the lives of my students. We talked about the troubling trend of challenging books that feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes, as well as discussions of race and racism. 

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America

We began each class period with a discussion of each book’s themes and literary or storytelling merit. When it came time to evaluate the reasons each book was banned, students frequently found these book-ban objections to be cherry-picked and politically motivated.

Respectful debate is possible
In the first class period, we discussed “ground rules” for a civil exchange of ideas in this classroom. I was bracing myself for heated conversation, since we were reading books that addressed sensitive topics. But I found my students to be open-minded and respectful, and that spending time with these characters increased empathy and curiosity about different perspectives. It was gratifying to find that people in a small, safe environment were willing to be vulnerable and open with each other. 

It’s OK to over-prepare…
Like any first-time teacher, I over-prepared for this class for sure, but I quickly found a groove. I brought a lot of statistics (thanks to the incredibly detailed reports from PEN America and ALA), which helped contextualize specific examples from different school districts and public libraries in the US. I tried to resist the urge to enthusiastically “info-dump” or guide students toward the conclusions I was entering the classroom with. 

…but leave lots of room for where the conversation can go.
I remember for my first class, where we discussed Melissa by Alex Gino (a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl in 4th grade), I expected a lot of questions from my students about gender-affirming healthcare for children and adults. Instead, students honed in on the different types of allies in the book, and a rich discussion emerged on how to be a good ally and make spaces safer wherever we go.

When I first encountered Banned Books Week as a new librarian in 2015, book bans felt like a quaint, relatively nonthreatening relic of history to me. I remember making making simple book displays with imagery of fire or prison bars (lots of red and black construction paper), highlighting the “silly” reasons people challenge books. And I’ve heard critiques of Banned Books Week as being a complacent celebration of individual classics, that takes the focus away from the pressing issue of coordinated censorship attempts going on right now. PEN America’s Banned Books 2022 report sums it up well:

Many Americans may conceive of challenges to books in schools in terms of reactive parents, or those simply concerned after thumbing through a paperback in their child’s knapsack or hearing a surprising question about a novel raised by their child at the dinner table. However, the large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Ban Books

The banned books game has changed, and it’s more important now than ever for librarians and library users to be able to clearly articulate just what is so harmful about this phenomenon. Even in academia, where we are more confident in our academic freedom of speech, we need to be vigilant about the right to read. It’s an issue of democracy, diversity, and freedom for all of us.

I adapted this excellent Bookriot article into a one-page handout with specifics on how community members can resist book bans and other censorship attempts on a local level: Combating Censorship in Your Community. Please feel free to continue to adapt and share this resource if it is relevant to your academic library!