Community Outreach

What do we mean by Community Outreach?

Community outreach often refers to bringing unique library services to underserved groups, in untraditional settings outside the library. However, the language of communty outreach can be imprecise. The term sometimes refers to programs and services specifically tailored for targeted populations, but offered inside the library building or through the Internet. Community outreach may focus on youth who are disabled, home-schooled, immigrants, minorities, incarcerated, pregnant or parenting, GLBTQ, and others who are not willing or able to come into the library for various reasons. Community outreach is closely linked with marketing (Pfeil, 2005), but it goes beyond making youth and their families aware of the library, to establishing community partnerships and delivering services as well. Barco listed "connecting, delivering, partnering, collaborating, teaming up, joining forces, fostering engagement" as synonyms of community outreach (Smallwood, 2010, vii).

Why community outreach is of interest to libraries?

According to the Library Bill of Rights, "...books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves" (American Library Association, 2011, Library Bill of Rights). Especially as the population becomes more diverse, community outreach offers a way for public libraries to be more inclusive in serving all the people who live in the community. While the particular populations targeted through community outreach may sometimes be small, the individuals in these groups may have the most pressing needs, and the potential to benefit the most from library services. Community outreach also creates new library users, who pass the word onto their friends and families about library services.

History of Community Outreach in Libraries

Mobile services

Librarians have long been concerned with offering services to those not able or willing to come to the library. In 1893, Melvil Dewy developed traveling collections, consisting of boxes of books taken to schools (Bashaw, 2010). Children's librarians visited not only schools but also settlement houses (Osborne, 2004). By 1899, there were more than 2,500 traveling collections delivered to rural residents in the United States (Bashaw, 2010). In 1905, the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Maryland created a horse-drawn book wagon, and within the first six months, delivered over 1,000 volumes to rural residents.

With the invention of the automobile came the bookmobile. According to the ALA's webpage on Services to Bookmobile Communities, "bookmobiles have served rural, urban, suburban and tribal areas, bringing access to information and life-long learning resources to all classes and communities" for over 100 years (American Library Association, 2011, Services to Bookmobile Communities). The number of bookmobiles has decreased from approximately 2,000 in the 1970's to around 732 in 2006, with rising fuel costs being one of the issues (Bashaw, 2010). However, bookmobiles remain a key method of outreach to youth and other populations, not only to rural areas, but also day care centers, summer camps, schools, mobile home parks, housing developments, and other locations .

ALA OLOS Celebration of 100 Years of Bookmobile Services: Everett, Washington
Everett, Washington

Today, libraries like the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County are updating the notion of mobile services with "cybermobiles" equipped with laptops and Internet access (Hyatt & Craig, 2009). By focusing on community needs, the library determined that a mobile internet cafe was one way that they could help bridge the digital divide. Through the cybermobile, children play online games and teens update their social networking profiles, while adults register children for school, check email and search for jobs. While outreach staff conduct instructional sessions, rather than one-way teaching, they encourage an exchange of ideas with patrons, as they create, collaborate, and share their work online.

The video below is a time-lapse of youth visiting a cybermobile for Logan City Libraries in Australia.

Current Trends and Examples of Innovative Outreach Programs

In addition to the mobile internet cafe described above, there are many other different ways in which libraries are reaching out to various groups of children, youth, and their families, several of which are described below. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but to help identify some considerations and ideas as you develop a program that is specifically tailored for your community.

Community Outreach to teens

Successful outreach to teens follows one simple rule: go where the teens are, whether that be in schools, community groups, or even online. Outreach efforts do not need to be monumental tasks. Although there are large scale outreach programs, booktalks, housing library materials in classrooms for teen students, conducting writing or other skill training workshops, manning a table at a fair or farmers' market, talking at community meetings, or holding a book group at a location outside the library are all current modes of teen outreach. One interesting view of outreach includes any online service to teenagers, like online homework help, ask-a-librarian, or blogs, because it connects the library to teens wherever they are outside the library (Gorman & Suellentrop, 2009).
  • Going where teens are can also mean going with their interests and abilities. At the Vanderburgh Public Library in Evansville, Indiana the youth librarian reached out to a student who had a strong interest in anime and manga. By supporting his leadership, a small group of ten grew to fifty youth meeting every other week. Over time, all students, from those taking advanced placement classes to high school dropouts, "were able to find common ground and a place of acceptance" (Smallwood, 2010, p.59), resulting in a variety of programs designed and led by teens.

Community Outreach to ethnic/minority youth and families

In order to reach ethnic/minority youth and their families, libraries need to cultivate relationships with local nonprofit organizations, churches, and others who serve or are part of those populations. One of the challenges of serving different immigrant populations is that they may come from countries where free libraries are not part of the culture (Block, 2007). For undocumented immigrants, they may even be wary of libraries as government institutions. According to Avila (2008) one of the main factors for successful outreach is to "just show up," participating in community fairs and events "on their own turf...within their social networks." Another strategy is to put information about the library in ethnic media. Library branch managers in Queens, New York keep an eye out for restaurants, grocery stores, businesses, and newspapers which provide signs of new populations (Block, 2007).

  • In Burlington, Vermont where over thirty languages are spoken in the schools, the Fletcher Free Library brought together teenagers and parents to share their immigration and assimilation experiences, as part of a book discussion series called The Long Journey. The goals of this outreach program were to improve cultural understanding, build friendships across ethnicities, and to facilitate dialogue between first generation parents and their children (Smallwood, 2010).

(see more in Non-Native Speakers of English)

Community Outreach to incarcerated youth and children of incarcerated adults

Libraries have a history of specific outreach activities with incarcerated youth. These include populating the correction center library or staffing it, and offering the same types of programs that a library would hold in a traditional school setting such as booktalks or discussion groups. However, librarians working within a detention center may need to modify their materials, topics, or activities in order to comply with security measures and other institutional rules. For instance, pens, pencils with metal bands around the erasers, spiral notebooks, and hardback books may be prohibited. In addition, detention center administrators may put certain topics off limits, such as race, gangs, sex, drugs, and violence. The key to successful outreach programs with incarcerated youths is to develop strong relationships with not just the youth but also with the facility's corrections officers and director. The stronger the relationship, the more access librarians generally get to the youth.

  • In an effort to help youth offenders become more successful whenever they were released from the detention center, the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County helped teens to address their lack of technology skills. Expanding beyond previous book club discussions, the youth learned keyboarding for resumes, created podcasts and videos, and played online Scrabble and other video games. The librarians have learned to develop one-session classes because of the high turnover of the group. They also realized that certificates of completion, are meaningful for participants who not used to receiving positive recognition (Craig, 2010).

  • The Enoch Pratt Free Library partnered with the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup to create reading opportunities between adult inmates and their children. The goals of the program were to help prisoners improve their reading skills, to facilitate positive parent-child interaction (which would help improve behaviors and academic performance at school for the children), and to encourage use of the public library by the children and their parents when they are released from prison. The library modified their summer reading game and provided a rotating deposit of children's books. Many of the men had never read to their children, so the librarians modelled storytelling for them. None of the children had library cards, so applications were brought to the prison. The program was originally targeted for children ages eight and younger, but based on the potential benefits of positive parent-child interaction at any age, was expanded to include preteens and teens (Smallwood, 2010).

(See more in Incarcerated Youth)

Community Outreach to homeless families and youth

While libraries may be accustomed to homeless people spending time in their buildings, some have developed outreach programs to serve them more proactively. Families with children represent one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in the the United States, and around half of children experiencing homelessness are under the age of five (Terrile, 2009). Given the lack of stability in their lives, children who are homeless are at risk of behavioral problems and literacy deficits. In addition to families who are homeless, are teenage runaways and those who have recently been released from the foster care system. Because people who are homeless may lack transportation, libraries can teach computer classes and conduct story times at shelters and comunity agencies. They may need to modify requirements for a library card in order for patrons to take full advantage of library services.

  • In Portland, Oregon the Multnomah County Library provides reading materials to more than thirty shelters and transitional living programs, 60% of which include services for children and teens. Volunteers deliver and pick up books, and the partner agencies can distribute the materials in any way they consider appropriate. Residents can take books when they leave the shelter. While not specifically fa program or children, children's materials are a particular consideration in collection development for the program (Osborne, 2004).

Community Outreach to GLBTQ youth

GLBTQ youth have signficant information needs that change over time, depending on the stage of their coming out process (Mehra & Braquet, 2006). Given the social stigma of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and the bullying and harrassment that GLBTQ youth experience, they are at a greater risk of suicide than youth in general. According to Mehra and Braquet, libraries have the opportunity to play a "meaningful role" (p.2) in the lives of GLBTQ youth, and need to develop strategies to become identified as a safe haven.

In their "Queer Manifesto" Mehra and Braquet (2006) outline a number of outreach opportunities--in the community, within the library building, and online, including:
  • developing "aggressive and proactie adverstising of sexuality-related events and resources" (p.10);
  • collaborating with schools to share information about sexuality;
  • offering library meeting rooms to the GLBTQ community, their friends, and families;
  • participating in safe-space programs;
  • co-sponsoring programs about GLBTQ issues with community organizations; and
  • listing the library/librarians as local resources with GLBTQ organizations.

(See more in GLBTQ Youth)

Community Outreach to pregnant and parenting teens

There are multiple national, state, and local programs dedicated to getting health materials and help to teenage parents. Libraries can partner with these programs so that along with health information, expecting or new teenage parents can receive materials about early literacy and what the library offers to help early literacy. It is also possible to partner with health clinics, hospitals, and daycare centers to begin teaching parents about the importance of early literacy. Some national literacy programs with which libraries can partner are "Born to Read," "Reach Out and Read," and "Raising a Reader."

  • As a result of an early childhood literacy outreach program working with pregnant and parenting teens, the youth librarian at the Vanderburgh Public Library in Evansville, Indiana discovered that 1) teen mothers' attitudes towards reading and their reading skills improved; 2) they visited the library to check out books for their babies; and 3) some of them went on to discover and enjoy young adult literature for themselves. While librarians treated participants as adults in their role as mothers, they also remembered that these parents were also teens who had their own personal interests (Smallwood, 2010).

Challenges of Community Outreach

The challenges of community outreach range from the philosophical and administrative to the very practical. As highlighted in Current Trends and Examples of Innovative Outreach Programs, there are many reasons, that people may feel alienated from the library or cannot access library services easily. Therefore, the "if we build it, they will come" mentality is naive and can be costly, if community outreach serviceds are developed without community input and consideration of the issues which may arise.

Philosophical issues: Osborne (2004) cautions that when outreach is defined [soley] by group differences, those groups can be further marginalized. Rather, she encourages libraries to focus community outreach on the underlying principle of equitable service delivery, and to integrate community outreach into core library activities, rather than treat it as "an extra" (p.5). Even when libraries can demonstrate postive outcomes from community outreach, "the presumption still remains in librarydom that outreach is not real library work, and thus many services and programs...may even be set up to fail because of lack of sound organizational commitment and support" (p.27).

Funding issues: Outreach services are often funded with soft money, such as time-limited grants awarded for a specific program or service. When the grant money goes away, so does the outreach. As Osborne observes, this demonstrates a lack of commitment and sends mixed messages to targeted groups, who are sought after and welcomed only as long as there is specific funding available to do so (p.28).

Partnership issues: As discussed in Factors for Success below, community outreach nearly always involves partnership with other organizations, which can create a number of challenges, including time-consuming meetings and different agendas among the partners. External organizations, which may have more direct relationships with groups targeted for outreach, have their own policies and procedures that the library must learn, navigate and comply with.

Practical issues: Because outreach calls for delivering services in new ways to new users, it can require specific staff training or different skills, special equipment, and incremental investment in the collection (Block, 2007). It can be challenging to convince staff to incorporate community outreach into their responsibilities if they already feel over-committed. There are situations when outreach may take them into neighborhoods, where violence threatens the safety of staff and participants (Diaz, 2009).

Factors for Success/Practical Advice

Organizational Commitment: Libraries need the commitment of directors and board members, in order to sustain community outreach beyond time-limited, grant-specific funding, and to integrate outreach into their overall service philosophy and daily activities. Outreach goals should be prioritized in strategic plans, based on assessment of both community needs and assets (Osborne, 2004). From there, outreach can be operationalized through the library's marketing activities, staff development, and ongoing evaluation processes. While community outreach has traditionally been the responsibility of a few staff, the need to develop more staff with outreach skills is growing, and libraries may determine that "outreach is part of everyone's job description" (p.112). Staff may need training to analyze the library from the community's perspective, communicate with a diverse customer base, and engage the community through partnerships (p.113).

Partnerships: Collaborations are the "cornerstone of outreach" (Smallwood, 2010, p.157), through which partners can "maximize the expertise and interests of staff members, share costs, attract a broader audience, and increase community awareness about each organization"(p.153). Librarians need to learn the names of schools and other organizations which provide services to youth, and then initiate meetings with representatives from those organizations to identify opportunities for partnership. Outreach specialist Roberta Reiss says, "In today's enviornment of limited resources, minimal staffing, and growing underserved populations, I prefer deep and far-reaching conversations with potential partners...discussion and collaboration with partners increases the probably of success" (Osborne, 2004, p. 102). Some important considerations for successful partnerships include:
  • While each organization may have different agendas, they must find a common goal to drive the partnership, with a commitment to kids remaining at the forefront as a guilding force.
  • Partnerships work best when each organization focuses on its own strengths. Partners need to clarify the roles of each organization, and how they overlap.
  • Libraries need to invest in building relationships with partner organizations, taking extra time to maintain current communication, offering flexibility to accommodate their needs and special requests related to schedules or procedures, and admitting to mistakes when they arise.
  • Given the complexity of partnerships, libraries need to be realistic about what can be accomplished within a given timeframe and with available resources.

(Smallwood, 2010)

Sustainability: While ideally the commitment to community outreach should be evidenced in the operational budget and integrated throughout the organization, it is likely that funding and staffing will always be of concern. Even though small grants may not seem worth the effort, Dinsmore observes that they can "offer a unique opportunity to build relationships, network, and advertise," potentially leading to larger projects and long-term support through monetary and other resources (Smallwood, 2010, p17).
Potential sources of support include:

In addition to the above, volunteers can offer valuable resources of both money and time, whether delivering books for off-site book deposits, storytelling, tutoring or computer instruction. The most enthusiastic volunteers may include teenagers, themselves. AmeriCorps VISTA workers can provide intensive one-year support to build a library's capacity for community outreach, through program development, grantwriting, awareness campaigns, volunteer recruitment, and other activities.

Building Trust and Credibility: The youth and families you are trying to reach may have previously been made to feel unwelcome at the library, be marginalized by society, and lack the literacy skills one would associate with using the library. They may feel threatened or suspicious of advances by the library to deliver services. As a result, your initial outreach efforts may be not be embraced enthusiastically. Rather than a one-time, or short-term program, libraries need to approach community outreach expecting to develop long-term relationships. In order to build the trust and credibility necessary for successful outreach, librarians can learn from the lessons of others:
  • " order to encourage children to come to the library, you must go where they are, honor where they come from, and understand what they love" (Diaz, 2009, p.38). Meeting youth "where they are" refers to both physical location--parks, community pools, recreation centers, schools, day care centers, grocery stores, churches-- as well as their interests and abilities. Diaz recognized that "because our young people come from different backgrounds and have differing needs and abilities, we had to prepare to serve them as individuals" (p.37).
  • "the most valuable connections are individuals and members of groups who serve as pathways to the heart of a particular segment of the community" (Osborne, 2004, p.3). By attending community meetings, you can make contacts that may lead to others.
  • Do not give up. "...your first visits may make you feel as if you are wasting your time. However the teens are often paying closer attention than you realize" (Smallwood, 2010, p53).

Avila (2008, p.48) captures these lessons and others in an eight-step process for outreach to Spanish-speakers, which offers good advice for community outreach, regardless of the target audience(brackets inserted):

O---Outreach feeds on outreach. The more outreach you do, the better you will become at it and the more people will come to value the library.

U---Understand the complexities of [Spanish-speakers]. The one-size-fits-all concept does not apply here. You must do some research if you want to reach people.

T---Time is of the essence. It usually takes about three years of constant involvement before you notice your hard work pay off. Don't give up before then.

R---Reach with urgency. Libraries cannot afford to wait. Act now as this generation and the following generation will dictate the success of this country.

E---Everyone is your customer. Make a concerted effort to familiarize people with your services and programs on their home turf. The customers will follow.

A---Attitude is of the utmost importance as a positive first impression will determine whether people feel put off or welcomed.

C---Care for the needs of [Spanish-speakers], even if they are not library-related. This means working toward creating public value within this segment by addressing their needs.

H---The Human factor needs to be in place. Remember that people enjoy talking and interacting. Take this element away and you are back to square one.

Online Resources

ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS)
According to the Mission Statement found on the ALA website: The Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) serves the Association by identifying and promoting library services that support equitable access to the knowledge and information stored in our libraries. OLOS focuses attention on services that are inclusive of traditionally underserved populations, including new and non-readers, people geographically isolated, people with disabilities, rural and urban poor people, and people generally discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, language and social class.
"Tips and tales from the field": Blogposts on a range of topics covering various underserved populations and literacy, including downloadable materials.

Print Resources

From Outreach to Equity: Innovative Models of Library Policy and Practice
From Outreach to Equity: Innovative Models of Library Policy and Practice

From outreach to equity : Innovative models of library policy and practice

Robin Osborne, Editor (2004)

Chicago : American Library Association

Connecting young adults and libraries: A how-to-do-it manual

Michele Gorman and Tricia Suellentrop (2009)

New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers

Librarians As Community Partners: An Outreach Handbook
Librarians As Community Partners: An Outreach Handbook

Librarians as community partners: An outreach handbook

Carol Smallwood, Editor (2010)

Chicago: American LIibrary Association


American Library Association. (2011) Services to Bookmobile Communities. Retrieved from on November 8, 2011.

American Library Association. (2011). Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from on November 15, 2011.

Avila, S. (2008). Crash course in serving Spanish-speakers. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Bashaw, D. (2010). On the road again: Children & libraries. The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 8(1), 32-35.

Block, M. (2007). The thriving library: Successful strategies for challenging times. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Craig, A. (2010). High impact partnership: Serving youth offenders. Young Adult Library Services, 9(1), 20-22.

Diaz, R. (2009). after school mobile literacy: serving youth in underserved neighborhoods. Teacher Librarian, 36(3), 37-38.

Gorman, M. & Suellentrop, T. (2009). Connecting young adults and libraries: a how-to-do-it manual. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Hyatt, J., & Craig, A. (2009). Adapt for outreach: Taking technology on the road. Computers In Libraries, 29(9), 35-39.

Mehra, B., & Braquet, D. (2006). A “queer” manifesto of interventions for libraries to “come out” of the closet! A study of “queer” youth experiences during the coming out process. LIBRES, 16(1), p. 1-29.

Osborne, R. (Ed.). (2004). From outreach to equity: Innovative models of library policy and practice. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Pfeil, A.B. (2005). Going places with youth outreach: Smart marketing strategies for your library. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Smallwood, C. (Ed.). (2010) Librarians as community partners: An outreach handbook. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Terrile, V. C. (2009). Library Services to Children, Teens and Families Experiencing Homelessness. Urban Library Journal, 15(2), 1-10.