One of my goals when I began my current librarian position was to develop accessibility programming and resources. My library did not receive many requests for sensory programming or other accommodations, and the sensory friendly programs historically had low attendance. However, a community assessment showed many organizations and services dedicated to accessibility, and the public school district employed a robust special education department. My first step was clear – I needed to connect with the people who supported the community I hoped to better serve.
When you wish to advocate to an underserved community, it is good advice to contact the school district, recreational department, parenting organizations, or therapy practices. The problem here, as anyone who has attempted to perform outreach in this manner will confirm, is that you will likely not get a response. These are big, busy entities and it’s likely that your phone message or email is falling between the cracks. Contacting the mothership may present a barrier that will grind your best laid plans to a halt. Instead, try this:
- Identify the connectors. Who knows a lot of people? Is there someone in your department that has done a lot of outreach? Do you know someone who teaches for the district? People who are members of boards tend to be connected. Parents who organize events or serve on the PTA know a lot of people. Let these people know what you’re hoping to do in the library and see if they can introduce you via email to someone more closely aligned with your mission.
- Once you’ve identified someone on “the inside,” invite them to the library for a tour and a chat. Meeting in person is well worth your while. Chances are, they will be delighted to learn about the modern library and the resources you already offer. They will share knowledge about the community you wish to serve. You will most likely have a stimulating brainstorming session and you will both end the meeting on an inspired note.
- Follow up in a timely fashion. Write a thank you email reiterating the action items you may have discussed and gently prompting any relevant introductions.
- Keep the ball rolling with outreach.Offer to present at a staff meeting or event at a relevant organization. At this point, you still may not be directly serving your target community but you’re doing something equally important – supporting the people that already serve that community. You’re also building trust with possible community partners and advocating for your library.
As you build an informational network one person at a time, you will learn more about your target community. Now’s the time to build an outreach tool kit. Here’s some ideas:
- Make a checklist of talking points for staff meetings, community events, and other presentations. Mine includes descriptions of our library’s physical attributes, material and digital resources, existing library programs, and library expectations. Don’t forget to dispel myths such as the library is a place of silence! You can also include busy and non-busy times of day.
- Go-bag of materials. For me, this included board books, early readers, Playaways and Readalongs, and videogames.
- Social Stories. If you are programming for children with sensory processing disorders such as autism, create a social story. This is a collection of photos and simple text that lets people know what to expect when they visit the library. This should be embedded on your library’s website but you can also print a hard copy to bring on outreach. It’s like a library tour to-go!
When you meet with staff members or caregivers, be ready to describe your vision and ask for feedback. You’ll get a lot of questions. If you don’t have an immediate answer, it gives you a great reason to follow up! You should also be prepared to present your Asks. What do you need help with to launch your accessibility programs and resources? This is the time to ask for help with promotion, language, or even a partnership!
This post addresses ALSC competency V.6 Communicates and collaborates in partnership with other agencies, institutions, and organizations serving children in the community to achieve common goals and overcome barriers created by socioeconomic circumstances, race, culture, privilege, language, gender, ability, religion, immigration status, commercialism, and other diversities.
Sarah Jo Zaharako is writing this blog on behalf of the Public Awareness and Advocacy Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org