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Programming with Purpose through Community Engagement

For those looking to program with purpose, the entire process begins and ends with your community. Similarly to how we perform diversity audits on our collections, it’s important to also take a critical eye to the programs and services we offer. As professionals we understand that every community is different and has different needs, and that our offerings ought to be tailored to those needs. It can be easy to go on “auto-pilot” when it comes to programming, especially when we have recurring programs such as LEGO® Clubs or storytimes, however we should remember to look at all programs from time to time to evaluate their effectiveness. 

Programming with purpose means that ideally every program we offer has some kind of goal for our community behind it. The first two questions I always ask myself when planning programs are:

1. Which population in my community am I serving/who is this program or service reaching?

2. What are my patrons getting from this program?

Which population am I NOT reaching?

Of course some programs are specifically for young children while others are suitable for a more advanced audience, but let’s dig a little deeper with the first question. As a member of the committee for Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers (LSUCTC), I also intentionally ask myself, “Which population am I NOT reaching with this program?” This allows me to consider the gaps in my outreach, and prompts me to consider if I have any programs that can be brought out into the community, or if I need to research more deeply and develop more community partnerships before proceeding.

The second question often leads to longer answers. While many of our programs might offer inherent entertainment value, how do they go beyond fun? As those who work with youth, we know the power of play in learning, but what if we look deeper and find that all of our programs feature similar types of play? Whether you think your program is perfect, requires only a few changes, or needs to be altogether different, it can be helpful to ask this second question often. 

While most libraries might have storytime programs, depending on community wants and needs, those storytimes might incorporate bilingual learning, might need to be offered in the evening due to family work schedules, might need to incorporate sensory activities, and so on. Libraries modify programming as they discover patron’s wants and needs, which can be learned through building relationships during outreach.

Community-first/Community-centered Programming

Community-centered programming is wildly successful because rather than trying to figure out what our patrons want or assuming based on what we see, we can instead get right to the bottom of things. While some have the wonderful opportunity to work solely as outreach librarians, we all have the ability to conduct outreach in some capacity. Consider starting small and simply speaking to patrons during or after programs about what they liked or wished they could see more of. As you become a better listener and continue planning programs around patrons, you might start to consider how you can reach underserved patrons who cannot physically make it into your library.

Interested in working with underserved patrons in your community? Take a moment to visit the LSUCTC Toolkit for all our recommended resources.

Additional resources below will also be helpful to those looking to learn more about reaching out to their communities to expand upon programs and services, or continue to develop existing offerings. The presentation “Before Bilingual Storytime” explains the importance of conducting community outreach before planning and implementing programs, and The Philadelphia Free Public Library has an excellent curriculum, “Skills for Community-Centered Libraries”, that is free for all to access.


Before Bilingual Storytime: The Outreach Bridge to Engaging Latino and Spanish-speaking Families

Free Library of Philadelphia Skills for Community-Centered Libraries Curriculum

Listen. Partner. Follow Through: Community Engagement Principles

Ewa Wojciechowska is a Youth Services Librarian at the New Castle Public Library in Delaware. All views in this blog post are her own.

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, V. Outreach and Advocacy.

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