Blogger Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee

What Do You Mean by Special Population?

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Since I started serving on the Committee for Library Services to Special Population Children and their Caregivers I am often asked, “What do you mean by special population?” The more I think about this question, the more I realize that the answer is far from straight forward.

Defining Special Populations

The term “special population” covers a wide range of communities, from ESL students to children with incarcerated parents. Other special populations can include children who::

  • live with foster families
  • live with single, separated, or divorced parents
  • live in remote or difficult to reach areas (urban, suburban, or rural)
  • have learning, physical, or mental disabilities/differences
  • are homeless
  • are adopted
  • are mixed race
  • are in the juvenile justice system
  • are part of the LGBTQ community
  • come from various cultural/ethnic backgrounds

This is by no means a complete list of special populations. These categories are not exclusive; some children belong to two or more special populations at the same time.

Your Community

Research your community to identify special populations in your particular area. Just because a special population exists in the world does not mean that it exists in your community. Also, keep your eyes open as your community changes to see if a special population emerges over time.


In some cases identifying members of a special population can be obvious due to appearance. A  child/caregiver might also mention it during a conversation at storytime or during a reader’s advisory interaction. In other cases, it is not so obvious. Sometimes the child and/or caregiver will not readily share information about the communities to which they belong. They may be embarrassed, scared, or just value their privacy. As much as you want to help a patron, remember to respect their choices and privacy as you would in any other situation.

There are two major ways to begin connecting with special populations in a respectful yet helpful manner. The first is to talk with a self-identified caregiver who is willing to give you feedback on desired services and programs. Ideally, talking to one caregiver will lead you to communicating with more caregivers so you can gain a wide range of ideas and needs. The second method is to start a community partnership with an organization already known and trusted by the target special population. Both ways allow you to gain insight into the special population from an insider.

Services and Programs

As you plan, consider the pros and cons of exclusive programs and services. Reaching your targeted audience is the goal, but that does not always mean you have to exclude other patrons at the same time. For instance, how can you adapt your regular storytime to be more accessible and enjoyable for ASD children? On the other hand, some programs, such as book clubs for children in the juvenile justice system, are necessarily exclusive. Remember that sometimes pointing out differences is more harmful than helpful. Clearly, there is not one correct answer here. Make informed choices based on your community and ask members of the community what they think/want/need.


There are a lot of special populations to consider, but do not be intimidated! Start by identifying one or two populations in your community and go from there. Remember that all patrons are individuals, not just members of one group or another. Creating services and programs for special populations is really just a way to make sure the library is accessible and welcoming to everyone.

For more resources to get started serving special populations, check out Renee Grassi’s post, “Learning about Serving Special Needs Populations”, as well as Amy Johnson’s post, “Serving Special Population Children in the Library…How Do We Get Started?” You can also search the ALSC blog for posts using the keywords “special populations.”


Amy Seto Musser Amy has her MLS from Texas Woman’s University and is a children’s librarian at the Denver Public Library. She is always on the look out for creative ways to incorporate the arts into children’s services and programming to extend books beyond the page. Check out Amy’s blogs: &

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.


  1. Tess

    What a wonderful post about a great committee that I had the honour of serving on a few years ago. So-called “special” populations can be thought of as having extra barriers to accessing library services that many others take for granted. Amy has provided some very good examples of how children’s librarians can and should work to overcome such barriers. It is my belief that, in most cases, society’s imposition of status quo/expectations/presumptions etc constitute most barriers to participation – so it is up to us to take them down! We are thoughtful, educated professionals who work in communities, therefore our community members should count on us to help them to participate in meaningful ways. Sometimes that is just an invitation where one did not exist before, sometimes that is a serious amount of work to rethink the way we do things that have always been done a certain way…Keep up the great work, I am inspired daily by the work of children’s librarians in communities!

    1. Amy Seto Musser

      Thanks, Tess! What inspiring words! I agree, as librarians I think should always push ourselves to think outside of the box when it comes to eliminating barriers and providing greater access for ALL our patrons. It’s hard work, but oh-so rewarding!

  2. Nicole

    This article is confusing to me. By your definition, any population is a special population. I’m all for finding ways to reach out to the undeserved and underrepresented, but I also don’t see myself as a member of a special population (I’m a single parent). For some, their status isn’t a point of embarrassment or shame, but simply a non-issue. So I think I would look at my community, observe what demographics use the library regularly in proportion to the community’s demographics, and see what I can do to reach out the the underserved in my community.

    1. Amy Seto Musser

      Hi Nicole-

      Sorry it has taken me a bit to reply, summer reading took my life away!

      I think that perhaps we are thinking of the same groups of people but using different terms to refer to them (underserved, special populations). Yes, a special population can be any population that isn’t the primary user group of a library. Regardless of terminology, the important thing is that as librarians we are looking at ways to make these groups feel welcome at the library and find out what services and programs we can do to better serve them.

      I agree, in many cases group status isn’t embarrassing or shameful. And in these cases creation and promotion of programs and services can be much more straight forward. But I think it’s important to be aware that some individuals may be sensitive, especially if their status isn’t readily accepted or understood by mainstream society.


  3. Bethany Lafferty

    This was very helpful. I am also searching for examples of state library association’s that Marietta committee dedicated to serving special populations. I want to develop this sort of committee in my state library association.

    1. Amy Seto Musser


      Sorry to be late in commenting. Summer reading ate my life.

      If you have any questions about the committee, please let us know. Contact info can be found at the bottom of our committee page:


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