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Mobile Outreach to Underserved Families: No Budget? No Problem!

Library outreach in 2023 continues to evolve and include services for underserved families more than ever. While there was previously a strong lack of information on the topic, there are now many more librarians researching, writing articles, and sharing their processes and success stories to enable others in the profession to continue this important and wonderful work.

Many library systems offer robust outreach services and allocate funding for it into their budgets, but there are also many libraries both big and small that don’t receive adequate funding to purchase and operate a bookmobile or hire dedicated outreach staff. While funding and support are incredible to have, it simply isn’t always there to start, and that’s ok! Luckily, there are many outreach services that librarians can provide at little to no cost.

Bookmobiles & More

Many libraries have fully embraced the idea of on-the-go librarianship and outreach, and bookmobiles have been at the forefront of this trend. While boarding a large custom bookmobile can be an exciting event for children, there are still ways to bring fun, educational, and literary experiences to any community with just a car and a plan.

For those who don’t mind using their own personal vehicles, pop-up storytimes and other programs can be established with only a trunkful of books and supplies. When first starting out with these endeavors, however, it’s a good idea to research your community to see where these pop-up events would reach the most underserved families, and what services they would benefit most from. For tips on how to find that information, you can check out the Getting Started Guide for the Library Services for Underserved Children and Their Caregivers Committee (LSUCTC) toolkit.

One library system that provides extensive mobile outreach opportunities is the Suffolk Library in Virginia. Their Library2Go program enables librarians to bring the library directly to underserved families, and reduces the effects of yet another barrier to access- transportation. For those without a dedicated vehicle for this purpose, it will likely not be feasible to plan as many outings due to lengthy loading/unloading processes and staffing limitations, but it certainly IS possible to plan at least one mobile library outreach session per month, or more for those with less time constraints. Even if children are unable to check books out, providing pop-up programs allows them the joy of experiencing library activities and books, without barriers such as transportation getting in the way. This type of outreach is also very flexible, and something that partnerships only strengthen.

The Power of Partnerships

The Seattle Public Library (SPL) in Washington utilises partnerships with the Department of Parks and Recreation and their local Boys and Girls Club to more strategically provide services to underserved families. With or without funding, building partnerships like the ones SPL have fostered are well within reach! While the Department of Parks and Recreation was serving free meals at a local park, SPL librarians would stop by and give away books, meet with families, and offer programs. From there, the librarians learned about interest for a yoga program from the families, and began to provide a storytime followed by a yoga session conducted by an instructor. By listening to these community led ideas, SPL enabled families to enjoy experiences they might have otherwise been unable to. 

Creativity is the Key

When working with any community, creativity is the key to getting around funding troubles. While the Suffolk Public Library and Seattle Public Library own and operate dedicated mobile library vehicles, many of the services and outreach programs they offer can be conducted by any librarian with transportation of their own. Low funding can certainly make implementing programs more difficult, but as long as you keep underserved families at the forefront of your outreach, you can continue to build equity in your community and provide access to amazing educational opportunities for all children and families.

Ewa Wojciechowska is a Youth Services Librarian at the New Castle Public Library in Delaware and a member of ALSC’s Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers Committee. All views in this blog post are her own.

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