Administrative and Management Skills

Overwhelmed By: Researching Your Community

Reaching traditionally marginalized or underserved communities is overwhelming. We don’t want to make this work look easy; it truly isn’t. However, we believe library staff at all levels can do this work with the right tools and support. This year, we’re bridging the gap between tangible resources and getting started. Today, we’ll focus on researching your community.

Librarians are practitioners, not experts. We hope to share ideas to get started, but it’s important to remember there are community experts better prepared to provide specific expertise and guidance. We’d also love your ideas – feel free to comment below to start the conversation.

Ask Questions

To best focus efforts, we need to know our audience and reason for reaching out. Perhaps the best way to find knowledge and service gaps is asking questions. The more honest we are, the better equipped we are to identify our start. Here are some conversation starters:

  • Engage all staff levels. Front line staff have different perspectives than management. More perspectives add value. Involving everyone in the conversation encourages buy-in.
  • Picture the community. Start by asking if patrons visiting the library reflect community demographics. Who’s missing?
  • Talk about resources AND barriers. Library resources and staff expertise add value, but it’s equally important to address things that get in the way for both patrons and staff.
  • Consider the biggest need. Whether it’s access to technology, spaces, or programming, knowing what our communities need lets us ask if, or how, we can help address it.

Consider Community Needs

Our patrons tell us a lot about who we’re serving. They can also tell us what we’re not offering, whether it’s programs, collections, or representation. Here are a few places to find input:

  • Have informal discussions. Day-to-day interactions in the library and at outreach help identify questions and needs. What do patrons consistently ask for or about that we’re not offering?
  • Reach out to school districts and local organizations. They can identify service gaps, but also promote our programs and services.
  • Engage on social media. Engage patrons where they are. Surveys don’t have the best response rate, but they’re a start.
  • Get out of the building. Traditional approaches tend to reach current patrons. Engage new voices with focus groups or personal invitations. We recommend compensation for in-depth input. Be respectful of demands on limited time and resources.

Key Takeaways

  • We are practitioners, not experts. Some of our ideas are great; others, great failures. That’s both expected and okay. Receptiveness to feedback and commitment foster success.
  • Be honest. You don’t know what you don’t know. Instead of assuming you’re an expert, reach out for guidance.
  • Take your time. Reaching underserved communities and research are both processes. Both take time. A sense of urgency fuels progress, but don’t let it overwhelm a thoughtful approach.
  • Combine dreams and reality. Dreaming big is important. It’s equally important to be realistic about our capacity and limitations.

Getting started is intimidating, but you’re not alone. Together, we can navigate feeling overwhelmed. We encourage you to use these resources to start, but be open to additional learning.

For More Information

Check out these toolkits to help serve particular underserved populations. Recommendations for future toolkits, comments, or questions are always welcome. Please email

Jaime Eastman is a Public Services Librarian, Senior at the Plano Public Library. She can be found attempting needlework, singing loudly (and badly) during her commute, or reading (currently, Just Work by Kim Scott. She is regularly inspired by the members of her amazing committee, especially the no-holds-barred brainstorming sessions with co-chair Melody Leung.

*This post addressed core competencies I. Commitment to Client Group, VI. Administrative and Management Skills, and VII. Professional and Professional Development.

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