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?

Dwindling Reference Questions

“If you build it, [will] they will come[?]”

As another season of baseball is just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about ways to get hits and avoid strikes—so decided to break out a classic quotation from Field of Dreams and apply it to academic libraries. In recent years, our library has seen dwindling reference questions. We’re not getting nearly the number of students at our front desk asking questions, nor making as many appointments with librarians, compared to pre-pandemic.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this. I can’t imagine students not needing library services, such as help with literature searching, questions about using databases, or help with citation management software. Not to pump our tires up too much, but these skills typically don’t come intuitively or out of thin air—at least at the level academic librarians support students. Our help is still needed, but without students seeking us out to get that help, we’re missing out on a huge number of opportunities to make students’ lives easier. We want to help.

I suspect that in our post-pandemic era, a ‘generation’ of students don’t have the same familiarity with libraries as they did in previous generations. Did these students miss out on using their high school libraries when they were completing high school largely from home? Did social interactions change post-pandemic? Do students prefer online reference questions and consultations, rather than in-person? And is this affecting the number of questions we’d normally get?

While this is a problem, there’s also opportunity; opportunity to devote more time to seeking in-class instruction—where you seek students out and not vice-versa; opportunity to work on offering enhanced library services; opportunity to plan library events; and more.

I’ve thought about how to address shrinking reference questions. If you assess the number and type of reference questions you’re getting, and it’s different from before—such as fewer or simpler questions—in broad strokes you can approach the issue from a couple perspectives:

  • You can make decisions reactively (e.g. less library staff at the front desk, shorter library or front desk hours), or
  • You can make decisions proactively (e.g. broad, university-wide promotion strategies to inform students what library staff can do for them, reinforce there are no stupid questions and it’s worth getting help from library staff).

Whichever approach you take, you need to think about your goal: are you reacting to fewer reference questions to maintain the status quo or are you proactively trying strategies to ensure students are getting the help they need, and meeting them where you are?

I always think that if we build it, they will come. But maybe we have to tell them what we’ve built. And one thing’s for sure: we must think hard about what to build.

Bad Art Day in the (Academic) Library

Last week, I hosted Bad Art Day, my second public program at Carroll Community College. Bad Art Day (or usually, Bad Art Night) is a popular program at public libraries, and it’s something I’ve wanted to try at an academic library for a while. The concept is pretty self-explanatory: you set out a bunch of art supplies and tell participants to go to town trying to make the ugliest piece of art that they can. 

This program had simple objectives: Creativity is messy. It’s ok to make mistakes. You don’t have to be a perfectionist. I even quoted Jake the Dog from Adventure Time: “Sucking is the first step towards being sort of good at something.”

"Dude, sucking at something is the first step towards being sort of good at something," Jake the Dog quote

I made a call for donated art supplies through our faculty newsletter, and got most of our art supplies this way! The only thing I needed to purchase was a selection of glues (glitter, stick), because all the donated glue was dried out. 

I was anticipating that it would be a hard sell to get students to stop, sit down, and do an active-participation event. I was truly bracing myself to paste on a smile and say “well, sometimes the programs are a bust,” and dutifully clean up my art supplies. Instead, we had 17 participants, including a few faculty members! 

Student making bad art using art supplies
An artist at work

Since starting programming in Fall 2021, our participation has been surprisingly good; there has been a real appetite for screen-free, face-to-face, low-stakes activities on this campus.

Students came between classes, they brought friends, and they chatted with each other while creating. The program was self-explanatory and students were eager to dig in to the art supplies. For the Bad Art Contest, I had the students give their pieces titles, which added to the humor and depth of the entries. 

After Bad Art Day, I created little table-tents with each artist’s name and the title of their pieces, then put them all on display in the library lobby. Students could come see the ugly art, and could even vote on their favorites! Having the art on display stretched the program into the rest of the week; just about everyone who came into the library stopped to look and chuckle at the pieces.

Photo of Bad Art on display across two folding tables
The titles that the students chose were widely regarded as the best part!

Outreach and programming work is possible by yourself, but I don’t recommend it. Whether I’m making a puzzle, choosing a program, or thinking through the logistics of an interactive display, I find myself running my ideas past another person. Interested circulation staff, an eager student worker or volunteer, and even my partner and family have been called on for their two cents on the wording of a discussion question or the layout of a poster. My best ideas have come from these conversational brainstorm sessions at the desk. 

No programming librarian is an island. And if you don’t have colleagues, Pinterest, blogs, library literature, and your patron audience can be your collaborators. I am finding inspiration everywhere.

How are you doing? (redux)

Bird sitting outside a window
Photo by Ziba Maghrebi on Unsplash

We’re coming to the end of another year of grappling with pandemic-related changes across higher education, and the ACRLog blog team thought this might be a good time to check in on how things are going for all of us in our libraries, as we’ve done around this time for the past two years.

What’s the situation at your institution at the time of writing?

(Alex) As the College of Medicine’s library, we are attached to medical facilities and have the same masking requirements in place, visitors are still not permitted into academic spaces, and library employees are all still hybrid or entirely remote. The rest of our university, though, seems fairly back to normal; they don’t have the restrictions we do, but they do allow remote work on a case-by-case basis.

(Maura) Our campus and library fully reopened last Fall, and with the increase in in-person instruction at the college for the Spring we’re definitely seeing more students in the library than we did last semester. Still, it’s quieter than it was in the past, perhaps not surprising as about 50% of classes are still online this semester (we struggled a lot with crowding and noise pre-pandemic so this change is not entirely unwelcome). The university (and the college) lifted the mask requirement a little more than a month ago, though many folx are still masking on campus, both students and employees.

(Emily) We fully reopened last Fall as well, and in early March (coinciding with the CDC’s updated guidance), our school dropped the mask requirement, although as Maura said, many on our campus are still wearing masks indoors. Having more students on campus has meant more business for library services, both at the desk and over chat and email. I chalk it up to students becoming aware of our virtual communication options during the pandemic, and some finding that they prefer that mode even when face-to-face is available.

(Angie) My campus resumed in person classes last fall with a vaccine and mask mandate in place for a brief period. The summer prior, the Libraries began transitioning remote faculty and staff back to hybrid work that was at least 60% onsite. In the Spring semester mask mandates continued in all indoor campus spaces as Omicron was peaking. Then in March they became optional in non-classroom settings, and later that month became optional in classrooms. My impression of the physical spaces is they still seem sparsely populated by normal comparisons,  and request volume in technical services is still only 30-50% of pre-pandemic levels. We have had a lot of employee turnover and are in the middle of 3 of 5 faculty searches. This has definitely affected morale, especially since many, if not all, were already experiencing significant burnout before taking on additional duties these vacancies may have left to them. 

Do you anticipate changes in your library or campus situation in the Fall semester?

(Alex) We were recently asked how many days per week each person would like to work in-person after Labor Day, so the plans are being made for changes, but they aren’t finalized yet. It’s hard to say what other changes may come at that time.

(Angie) It’s hard to imagine *not* anticipating changes, right? But I hope the drive for normalcy will hold some sway in keeping major changes to a minimum. Orienting some new faculty and staff will bring positive, new change. In my area of the library we’re also seeing an urgency to support new orientation for all students – not just new ones. With the university experience of the past few years being so irregular, many haven’t had the chance to experience the usual things libraries offer students, like our spaces, the help desk, or ILL. Talking with my leadership, I’ve learned there is actually a campus-level priority to ramp up outreach as a matter of mental health as much as academic success. I love this acknowledgement of my favorite philosophical problem (not knowing what you don’t know) and the stakes and responsibility involved in helping solve it.

(Maura) We do anticipate that there will be more students on campus in the Fall, with an estimated 80% of classes scheduled fully in person or hybrid next semester (though that can certainly change as students continue to register throughout the summer). We’re starting a strategic planning process here in the Library that we aim to complete by the end of the Fall semester, so in many ways we’re not anticipating changes as much in the short term as we are thinking about changes we’d like to make in the next 3-5 years.

What pandemic-related challenges are you still facing in your library work?

(Maura) Librarians and staff are required to work at least 70% in person this semester, which has made scheduling somewhat complex, especially for service desk shifts. We’re managing it, though it took a few weeks to settle into our new routines. It’s not clear what the requirement for on-campus work will be for fall, but we’re keeping an eye on that. It’s also been somewhat challenging this year to reach students who started at the college last year and to raise their awareness of library services and resources. While that group did have information literacy instruction in their English Composition I course, as all students do, since those courses were fully online last year they didn’t have the opportunity to come to the physical library. We’re continuing to do outreach to all students and hopefully have reached at least some of that cohort with in-person instruction in their Comp 2 class this year. 

(Emily) The library staff where I work are all facing burnout and morale-related challenges, caused by negotiating telework and on-desk scheduling, feeling unrecognized by campus administration, and a protracted expectation to “keep the trains running” over the last 2 years. In light of this, our library director has instructed us to treat this summer as a period of recovery, urging us to take vacation time and avoid piling on extra projects like a usual summer. I’m hoping that this recovery period, combined with a reconsideration of some of our processes, will be enough to improve our overall morale.

(Angie) Hybrid schedules have turned out to be really challenging, both for those onsite who rely on others’ consistent onsite availability and for those who feel their work could continue to be done entirely remote. Selfish example: it has been much more difficult to grab coffee with my work bestie on a whim! The freedom we have been given to set the type of hybrid schedule is certainly nice, but it has proven practically at odds with rebuilding the kind of serendipitous connection for which it was intended. The variety of schedules means fewer people in the office at the same time for serendipity, or even intentional connection, to take place. The supportive technology onsite for hybrid meeting rooms is necessary but still kind of awkward – I think we prefer seeing each other in individual Zoom boxes rather than a combination of seeing individual’s boxes with another box of people distantly meeting in another room. I’m observing (guilty of) remote attendance at meetings happening from an individual desk in the same room! And maybe that’s OK. Maybe that is what we learned is necessary to preserve from remote work after all. I do worry that people’s pandemic-related burnout has been exacerbated, rather than eased (yet) by a logistical “return to normal.” The motions may be mostly normal, but people’s lived experiences have not returned to normal, and this makes it very difficult to authentically connect at large –  as a team, as an organization. Wherever our library has created those very intentional opportunities to connect, even in a hybrid way – award ceremonies, holiday parties, all staff meetings – this has seemed to help the most. It’s curious, right? That intentionality should be the necessary ingredient for serendipity.  

What positive changes have you seen this year in the ways your library supports the mission of the institution?

(Alex) We don’t hesitate to make changes that we think will benefit our users. I wouldn’t say we were “afraid” to make change before, but I think we’ve grown accustomed to pivoting (ugh that word) at the drop of a hat, so saying things like “let’s change this policy, it isn’t fitting students’ use of our resources” or “should our hours be this way, or can we adjust them to work better for us?” has become easier.

(Maura) We’ve also seen what Alex highlights — my colleagues and I are definitely more amenable to making changes in library services to align them more closely with what students and other library patrons seem to need, even if it’s different from what we’ve done before, or a change in the middle of the semester. We’ve adjusted printing limits to better accommodate students who are coming to campus less often, and shifted our study room policy to allow single-student use for taking online classes. We’ll be thinking about how students and faculty use the library now as we head into our strategic planning process, too, and will hopefully hold some focus groups in the Fall to help us learn more.

(Angie) At both our Library and University levels, there has been intentional effort by the administration to address salaries and diverse hiring in meaningful ways. We have had three different tiers of staff already getting across the board increases based on market studies. In my experience it is the hiring process that provides the most intentional and practical avenue for scaling awareness and development of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Given that we are doing so much hiring, and that those serving on search committees are experiencing that process, these are both positive changes to increasing DEIB awareness and (hopefully!) growth into other areas.

We’d love to hear how things are going in your library, please drop us a line in the comments.

A First Year Librarian’s First Service

Outreach has quickly become one of my favorite parts of being a librarian. I love the fact that I get to work and interact with students in several nonjudgmental capacities. Whether it’s a research consultation or a one-shot library session, I love telling students that the library isn’t here to judge you; it’s here to provide the support you need to be successful. I trace this habit back to my library internship and my old supervisor. Coincidently, my internship is also where I picked up the idea for my first library service – Research and Writing Lab (R&W Lab).

Much of my current philosophy of librarianship is informed by my internship’s supervisor. For instance, the importance of one-on-one interactions between students and librarians is something I picked up from him. As part of my internship, I often observed my supervisor in several capacities. One of those was sitting in on his R&W Lab sessions. The R&W Lab was designed as a one-stop shop for students needing help with either or both the research and writing components of their assignments. It was through these observations that I realized how important student-librarian interactions really are – especially since typically the highest number of interactions librarians have with students are through one-shots. This is most certainly the case at my current institution as well.

Aside from our credit-bearing courses, one-shots, and consultations, our library doesn’t really have a set time devoted to helping students with their research. On top of that, our Writing Center is typically booked up well in advance. Because of this, I realized that replicating my previous supervisor’s service at my institution could go a long way for our students. The thing is that, since this was to be my first library service, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get the ball rolling.

Like all good ideas, I proposed R&W Lab on a whim during one of my department meetings. Lucky for me, my department head was receptive to the idea and helped me get the service going. She set up the initial meeting between us and the Writing Center director, and I came up with a game plan. This might sound a bit basic, but I drafted my plan using the tried-and-true method of answering the Five Ws – who, what, when, where, and why. After coming up with and proposing a plan to the Writing Center Director, the next thing the service needed was volunteers and promotion.

In comparison to the rest of the planning process, this next step was relatively easy. I’d attribute this to my colleagues’ commitment to service and the wonderful support of our libraries’ communication specialist. Thanks to my lovely colleagues, we were able to staff the service from mid-terms to the week before finals. I sent out emails about R&W Lab to our campus cultural centers as well as groups focused on first-generation/first-year students. But, we were really able to promote the service across campus thanks to our communication specialist who knew exactly which channels to use in order to get the word out.

Flash forward to this semester, we’ve actually expanded R&W Lab. Instead of starting at mid-terms, this semester the lab has been running since the fourth week of classes. Though it feels a bit early for assessments, if there’s one thing I learned from starting R&W Lab it’s that nothing happens in a vacuum – especially on a college campus. Much like campus itself, there are often several moving pieces that need to be taken into consideration before a service can even be planned out. Thankfully, I had several people in my corner to aid and support me throughout the process.  

This semester’s flier for Research & Writing Lab