Posted by: Maria | November 20, 2008

Library Outreach: Futile Frustration or Fruitful Fun?

I think it is fair to say that if you are an academic librarian who has been trying to engage in library outreach and try out new ideas, you have been disappointed.  Disappointed by:  lackluster attendance at events.  Or:  disinterested students who ignore you when you thought it was a great idea to be a laptop-equipped mobile librarian in the student cafe.  Yes, many of us can relate to this frustration.  We want to reach students where they are!  But they don’t seem interested!  What are we doing wrong?  What can we do differently?

This is something I’ve been grappling with at my library.  This semester, one of my primary missions was to find ways of getting the library involved in campus life activities.  I wasn’t sure exactly what we might do, but surely there was something.   I talked about this extensively with my library director, and then I tried talking to a few people involved in student programming, but I couldn’t get any traction.  Part of the problem was that I had this vague sense of wanting to be involved without having any specific ideas.  And another part of the problem was that I was talking to people who didn’t get what I was trying to do.  (Probably because I was failing to communicate it clearly.)

Then, finally, a two-part breakthrough!

1.  I did some searching in Library Lit to find articles on library outreach, with particular reference to student life non-academic activities, and came up with some really cool ideas.

2.  It occurred to my library director that instead of my trying to talk to the students involved with program planning, we should go right to the top.  So!  He called the Dean of Student Life, and BAM!  We were invited to the next campus life staff meeting, just like that.

So, my director and I went to this meeting yesterday.  I was armed with the ideas that had been inspired by that article.  And the campus life people were armed with their enthusiasm and their expert knowledge of student life:  their needs, what works, what doesn’t work, and so on.  It was a very productive meeting, and I left totally excited and energized about the possibilities promised by a Library + Campus Life partnership.

Lessons learned:  When you’re struggling to get some new ideas off the ground, you should do your research, and you have to have to figure out who the right people are to talk to, and then build relationships with them.  This seems so obvious that it hardly sounds like revelatory advice, but it’s true.  I think we here in the library can all too easily get too far removed from the workings of our campus, especially campus activities that fall outside the realm of academic affairs.  Also–and I’ll cop to this–I think I know everything about students because I see them in my library classroom a bunch of times a semester.   My experience and knowledge as an instruction librarian does equip me with some amount of expertise, but this doesn’t make me a total expert on student needs, behavior, and activities.  It was very helpful to be reminded that taking some time to think creatively and talk to the people who know students in other capacities can be invaluable.



  1. We are totally in the relationship business!

    Your post comes at a timely time for me. I was in the gym yesterday learning the ropes of my new campus fitness center, and the campus television station has a slot on the fitness machines. So I watched while I sweated, and saw that these students have a very active life outside of the library. (Same thing–DUH.) But still, I began to get glimmers of how outreach might eventually work, and the ground floor maybe consists of a) doing our research about our own ideas for projects and b) figuring out who our patrons are. Some of mine appear to like slightly off-color comedy, sports, and freestyle dancing. Not sure how I’ll use that knowledge yet, but it feels good to be in the data gathering stages.

    Also: Read the student paper.

  2. Yes, the student newspaper! I was reminded of this at a Student Life Committee meeting (which is also a very good way to stay connected).

    I think you should incorporate freestyle dancing into your instruction sessions. Good idea, no?

  3. I enjoyed this post because we have a lot of these same issues in the public library realm, except that instead of a campus we’re trying to connect to an entire city.

    It’s the same basic problem though, how do you make your institution/collection/space relevant and interesting for a user population that’s mostly indifferent? The solution ends up being the same for us as it is for you, basically you have to do your research, figure out what your people want, and then publicize the heck out of it.

    And if that fails, freestyle dance in front of the building. That never fails.

  4. I hosted a radio program on the campus station. I don’t think I had thousands of listeners, but I met all of the students (maybe 50) who had their own shows.

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