Friday, January 21, 2011

Big Ideas

At a meeting yesterday, in addition to the suggestion to remember what excites us about our jobs, we were asked to ponder what about the library we would change or create if we had the chance (meaning the time, the money, the permission, whatever it would take).

I'm sure most of us instantly thought, "Hire more librarians! Go back to 6 and 7 day service! More staff development!" And definitely, we want and need all those things - and will get at least some of them if Measure L passes.

More intriguing is to imagine not just improving what we already have or wrenching our libraries back to the level of service we provided before all the 2010 cuts, but rather doing things differently than we've done them before.

In our system, we have a Youth Services coordinating office (consisting of a skeleton staff of one Acting Principal Librarian - moi, one Librarian III, one Library Assistant, and one clerk-typist), a Children's Literature Room in our Central Library (one Senior Librarian, one LIII, and three Children's Librarians, plus support staff), a Teen'Scape room at Central (one Senior Librarian, one LIII, two Teen Librarians, plus support staff), and 72 branches (one Senior Librarian, one Children's Librarian, one Teen Librarian, plus support staff and in some cases an Adult Librarian).

With such bare-bones staff, outreach is very difficult. Children's and Teen Librarians are finding it very hard to visit any of their local schools, preschools, early childhood centers, and youth organizations, let alone most or all of them. And yet these visits are essential if we are to reach out to our communities and especially to those who don't use our libraries.

Even if we receive additional funding and are able to increase our staff and service hours to their pre-2010 levels, outreach will remain difficult for librarians in branches. So much of their time must be spent simply making sure the information desk is staffed - and then there is programming, collection development, and so much else to consider. And let's face it, not every Children's and Teen Librarian is necessarily great at outreach. We all have our different strengths, after all.

So - I would love to see an Outreach office or department at our library. It might be totally a totally separate department with its own staff, overseeing outreach for all levels and all parts of the Library and the City, or it might be part of the Youth Services office, concentrating on outreach to youth ages 0 to 19 and their families, teachers, and caregivers, as well as the organizations that work with youth.

If a part of Youth Services (which I'd prefer, control freak that I am), a Senior Librarian would coordinate and supervise a staff of 3 (or 4? or more?) librarians - well-trained professionals with an enthusiasm for getting out into the community, a gift of persuasion and communication, and preferably Spanish-language skills - whose mission it would be to visit all those preschools, daycare centers, teen and family homeless shelters, WIC agencies, Head Starts, centers for teen mothers, Boys and Girls Clubs, and all the rest of the organizations that branch staff don't have time to visit.

And these Outreach Librarians would offer storytimes and early literacy workshops and information literacy workshops, and they would offer presentations on all the services and resources the library has to offer, both at branches and online. They would be the ambassadors of our library, bringing essential services directly to the community, but also luring the community to the library.

It would be SO AWESOME!

No, it's not a new idea - plenty of library systems have this kind of outreach department. But we don't. And we need it desperately, because Los Angeles is one huge and needy city.

So that's my Big Idea for LAPL. With some luck and hard work, it might even become a reality some day soonish.


  1. There are plusses and minuses. I always felt stretched thin at LAPL, and a lot of the time, I'd end up going on school visits on my days off, since there was no other time to do it, and it was so much fun.
    As a visiting librarian, you really are like a superstar celebrity to those kids!

    I'm at a library now where there is an "Events and Outreach" staff -- and having just a few people to do ALL the storytimes, and most of the school visits has been a way for administration to slash the youth services staff at the branches. What a shame.

  2. Multi-year start up funding for an outreach program would make a compelling grant proposal...have you shared your thoughts with the Library Foundation people? I can definitely see this as a multi-year grant request to one of the Foundation's major funders.

  3. I'm at an LAPL branch and I love outreach. If someone from Central would come down here, it would be less contact that I have with the community. When they come in my branch they know me and have worked with me. If it was someone from Central they really have no connection to this community. With the 5 day schedule there is time for outreach if the CL and the manager make it a priority. If we go back to 6 day, it gets more difficult.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Oh, I'd never eliminate outreach from a children's librarian's duties - but no children's librarian, even a dedicated and energetic one, can possibly visit every preschool and early childhood center and WIC center and so on in her service area. The outreach librarians would be hitting all the places the children's librarians can't get to.

    So the children's librarian (and YA librarian) would do what they could to visit schools and so on, knowing that if they can't get somewhere, it doesn't mean that agency won't get any service or outreach.

    And I'd never have an events department doing storytimes in branches in lieu of the branch children's librarians - horrible thought!

  5. One downside to centralized outreach that I've observed in library systems that use this approach is that over time a culture develops in which the branch staff stays in the building, leaving the outreach to the specialists. And the outreach people sometimes lose track of what is actually happening in the library. There are probably ways to be sure that the centralized outreach component is well-integrated into local branch operations, but it needs attention.

  6. Yes, the outreach department would have to be very aware of what's going on in libraries. But I want to emphasize that I don't see the outreach librarians as supplanting the outreach efforts that branch librarians currently make. The children's and teen librarians in branches make crucial connections with kids (and parents and teachers) when they go out to their local schools and organizations. Outreach, particularly to schools, would still be very much a part of the job description for branch staff.

    However, it's a fact that many - I'd say most - families in LA have never been to a library and have no contact with librarians. They don't know what we offer, have never seen a storytime or heard about the importance of reading, talking, and singing with their babies and toddlers. This is because we only have one children's librarian in each of our 72 branches, and that one person is VERY busy. The outreach librarians would make contact with the organizations that don't get visited by branch librarians.

    We need outreach to be done by the branch librarians, who know their communities intimately and who offer services for them - and by the outreach librarians as well, to supplement what the branch librarians do.

  7. I'm glad to read that the idea is not to take away outreach duties from the in-branch librarians, but to supplement so as to provide support. Going to organizations in your branch community really is the best way to connect. While super important for this Team Outreach to get out to organizations that support families and teens, I agree with you that ideally having them go to a broad range of establishments and agencies, not just ones that are for families and children, would be beneficial. For example, reaching working parents is difficult, yet they would benefit so much from understanding how to use our e-resources and how to maximize their limited library time. Also, in my experience, many adult library visitors who haven't been to a library in a while are pleasantly surprised by all it has to offer, whether they have kids or not. Google has this great lunch box series where they invite people to come speak at a lunch (of course, Google does have a huge budget to pay guests and awesome lunches), but I like the idea of Team Outreach going to unexpected places or working with corporations who would get behind a "lunchtime" visit or other kind of program. AND, that being all said, I think that the most fun and cool way to do this would be to have a lunch-truck-sized bookmobile (if the food nerds can do this, why not the book and library nerds?), hooked up with WiFi that could even line up with the food trucks at lunch spots. Additionally the lunch-truck-sized book mobile could go to all those other organizations either provide a place to demo all that is highlighted (databases, catalog searching), a place to issue cards, a place to maybe check out a few books. How about impromptu storytimes at a city park? Once there are "virtual" followers for the truck, a tweet could be sent out and people could come if they were already at the park or around. How about parking it near a high school after school? Possibilities are endless!

  8. You GO, girl! Now that's thinking big!!