COMMUNITY OUTREACH AS A SURVIVAL STRATEGY
In a time when government is distrusted, privatizing of public services is common, and anti-tax protesters are loud and organized, even public services that are well-run and well-liked are at risk. In part this is because what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, is poorly understood. Even social security, as sacred a government program as we have in this country, is under assault, a sure sign that the agency has done a bad job of explaining that it is not just a pension fund for individual contributors, but also income insurance in case of disability, an additional pension for non-contributing spouses, and a life insurance policy that protects the contributors' children.
That suggests to me that it is not sufficient for libraries to simply do a good job. That's a good start, of course, which will endear us to our regular patrons, and perhaps even create a benign view of libraries among the people who never use their services.
The benign view of the uncommitted, however, is not the same as active support. It cannot be counted on. It may not hold when libraries, by asking for bond issues for new buildings or computers, remind taxpayers how much money they cost. It may not hold when private businesses and the internet compete with us, delivering, for money, the services we provide for free. It may not hold if librarians, under sustained attack from people like Dr. Laura, are perceived as operating with complete disregard to community values. [While I am speaking primarily about public libraries here, academic and corporate libraries face equivalent challenges to their existence, and have an equal need to generate active support.]
Our profession's public relations have been almost entirely defensive. We have reacted with stunned surprise and hurt when groups like Focus on the Family attacked us. Certain of the goodness of our motives, we assume that of course the community will support us. We have been entirely unprepared to face actual enemies who are better than we are at warfare, who understand, as we do not, that this IS war.
It's time to go on the offensive, I think. We need to make our case positively to the public, preferably before we are attacked. We need to not only BE good at what we do, but be SEEN to be good. We need to prove we do our work better than the competition, show that we perform unique services that are vital to the community's well-being, and that we provide excellent value in return for tax money. We need to see each segment of the community we serve as a potential ally, and the better we serve them, the better an ally they will be.
That requires us to look at every library service and ask ourselves not only who benefits from it, but also who should be benefiting from it but currently is not? Instead of waiting for them to come to us, perhaps we need to make more of an effort to go to them.
The first ally we want is the local power structure. Do librarians know what their mayors' [CEO's, president's] pet projects are, and supply them with a steady stream of books, articles and information about how other towns are accomplishing the same things? Do they regularly route information to the city manager, the police chief, the aldermen, the editor of the local newspaper, the head of the Chamber of Commerce? If not, why not? There's nothing like meeting people's needs before they even know they have them to make them realize that librarians -- not the bookstores, not the net, not the commercial services that are trying to provide for a fee the same services we do -- are the go-to people for information.
Business leaders [faculty, executives, researchers] need to be reminded how much information librarians give them to enable their decision-making. We need to point out to them that, though there's an overwhelming amount of pertinent information on the net, librarians know how to FIND it and sort through it. Constructing an excellent business reference web page is one good method; so is a regular e-mail newsletter alerting them to new web sites and articles that might interest them.
We need to make sure they know how much of the important information we offer on our web pages is not, in fact, free, but rather their tax money at work, in costly licensed databases we deliver BY WAY OF the net. We should make ourselves part of any downtown revitalization efforts, and remind business leaders that we are the kind of specific destination that draws people downtown.
Parents need to be reminded of the services we provide. We need to do a better job publicizing our story hours and puppet shows and Halloween parties and homework help. But we also need to send our children's librarians to daycare centers and elementary schools to read to kids and offer them library cards.
We need to publicize our parenting information better, as well as our home schooling resources. Our web pages are particularly good places for posting bibliographies and links on these topics, along with opportunities to ask a librarian for assistance. There are programming possibilities here too -- we could offer speakers on parenting and topics like children's literature and storytelling.
What outreach are we providing for our elderly, who we would wish to serve well even if they didn't have such a splendid track record for taking the time and effort to vote? Are we providing rotating collections for retirement communities? Offering some of our workshops there? Providing web pages directed at their needs and interests?
Because the constraints the first amendment places on us are poorly understood, it is easy for people to portray us as opposed to religion, even though we are our community's greatest resource for information about religion and spirituality. We need to do a better job promoting our religious resources, and forming relationships with local pastors of all denominations. If they know we are eager to assist all the local ministers in their information needs, they are more likely, when controversy erupts, to understand that we are not anti-religious but multi-religious.
Before we come under attack for our internet policies or book selection, I think it's important to make our case positively. We need to make sure our community knows we are just as concerned as any parent about protecting children from pedophiles and violations of their privacy when they're online, but that existing filter systems are faulty, biased, and aimed solely at excluding bad stuff rather than including particularly good stuff. We can show them with our web pages that our preferred method is carefully selecting enjoyable, safe and educational sites for children that we know will answer most of the questions and information needs of the children we've known and served for years.
Perhaps we could even make valuable alliances by enlisting interested parents to work with us on constructing the children's library web page, so they can not only contribute their own ideas, but see the policy considerations that go into our selection. [If anybody has done this, I'd be interested to hear how it worked.]
I think we are obligated to display our selection and access policies up front, for web sites as well as books and videos, and explain how we arrived at those policies. If we've only recently introduced the internet into our libraries, we need to bring in community leaders and journalists to show them the kinds of information we've included on our web pages, and discuss our policies with them. If controversy arises, we want our community to already understand what we're doing and what principles are involved.
More than that, we want them to know US -- because we have delivered books to their disabled aunt, told stories at their son's child care center, helped them find zip codes for their Christmas card list, taught them to use the Internet, supplied the information they needed for grant applications, found rails to trails information for a scouting expedition, or found them a web site that compared insurance rates. We will not have to ask an uncommitted public to take our good intentions and professionalism on faith if we've been reaching out to them and working with them.
It's for the same reason football teams love to dominate in time of possession: The best defense is not to have to play defense at all.
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We the people of this place,
Having set ourselves to the task,
having planted an idea
and nurtured it into action,
Having committed our resources
to the re-creation of this
We, the people of this community
now open its doors to all.
Chris Dodge and Solveig Nilsen. "Open the Doors: Ridgedale Library Grand Opening Poem." Reprinted in Alternative Library Literature, 1998-1999.
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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.