Re-Tagging Outreach

Re-tagging Outreach
Charged with a directive to give a shot in the arm to boost outreach efforts in libraries, on the whole, the literature suggests trusty prescriptive measures with the added caveat that full restoration may rest on our willingness to look beyond our own medicinal stores: Engage. Elicit. Empower. Try. Tweak. Try again. Outreach revitalization is a booster shot for libraries and communities…Coupling sage advice with tips from a current model of success may lead outreach and libraries from what ails us to what “sails” us.  
Yes, what “sails” us and also what “sells” us: creative license notwithstanding, you might say I’m modeling what I’ve termed “Valerie Gross-Dynamics.”  Valerie Gross is the President and CEO of Howard County Library System in Maryland. Ms. Gross is a powerful speaker. Her (October, 2013) webinar was recently brought to my attention by a mentor and librarian. In her webinar, Valerie Gross reminds us of “the power of language; “perception is everything…what is perceived as valuable gets funded…adding wind to your sails.”
Ms. Gross illustrates how industry branding tactics proved successful ‘’gambling was changed to gaming; liquor to spirits.’”  Library Application: Change our words.  Change our image.  Education is valuable.  Public Libraries equals education; this is based on three pillars: “Self Directed Education (books, e-resources); Research Assistance and Instruction (individual; group); Instructive and Enlightening Experiences (Community/Cultural Center, signature initiatives and partnerships.”  Real World Application: Howard County Library partnered with the local school system and later with the local community college.  Together they represent a united front with a common goal to educate.  For the library, the results since 2001 are measurable and (and admirable) “doubling library usage to 7.4M and funding to &14.7M. Attendance at Classes and Events have more than tripled to $252,000; accolades are numerous, including the 2013 Gale/ Library of the Year“. Though mentioned in her webinar and on the Howard County website, this news originally appeared in Library Journal (June 15, 2013) in an article written by John N. Berry.
Outreach applications: Change programs to “classes”.  Programming becomes Curriculum, classes, and events. “Class content development is required to instruct others; again, education is who we are and what we do.”  This word change reinforces our purpose.  Our purpose is to educate. “Education is a universal value.” Changing word tags credits what libraries have been doing all along.  Thanks to Ms. Gross and the Howard County Educational Partners for leading by example, sharing experiences; educating us all. 
Outreach-specific information from the literature plus highlights of a conversation with Outreach leader Kathleen Mayo:
Community Engagement.  The literature reiterates the need to engage, elicit, and empower our target audience.  Public libraries provide education for all.  Singular efforts are not as successful as building on relationships over time, accessing and acknowledging changing needs, and acting accordingly. Engaging target groups leads to the development of curriculum (a plan of activities) that provides transformative experiences. Chances that outreach classes and events are enriching and interesting are increased if they are reflective of the target group.
Community Engagement (CE): the objective of which is to get your target group “to consider and express their views on how their particular needs are best met.” With the input of the target group, ways to enhance, advance, and improve the services offered are realized. According to Sung and Hepworth (2012) community engagement is a two-way process in which it is necessary to “embrace community knowledge…emphasis on professional knowledge indicates one way service planning and delivery
Good intentions aside, we must ask ourselves (students, paraprofessional, and professionals): Are our outreach efforts, an activity calendar filling exercise?  Is the latest cutting edge theme appropriate for and desired by the target group? In the Misguided Relationship: Learning from Outreach Experience (2009), Rebecca Donelly generously shares that her initial efforts at early literacy outreach aimed at teens in a WIC (Women, Infants, & Children) program was ill-suited, though well intended “…when they asked, ‘Where is the library?’”  She also points out that “marketing to non-users “ calls for different approaches; avoid making assumptions about what people may or may not know.” We are the enriched by the willingness of others to share what works and what doesn’t work in outreach.
In a recent telephone interview, Retired Outreach Librarian Kathleen Mayo, still a frequently asked presenter of senior-focused workshops illustrated the effectiveness of building relationships with community service providers: connecting with Area Agencies on Aging (Meals on Wheels Program).  “Their newsletters helped to promote our books by mail program and we shared information regarding their services in or newsletter.” Ms. Mayo and others stress the need for frequent interactions instead of simply having meet and greet associations through one-time events.
Remember the trial and error nature of outreach services every good idea make not turn out as planned.  Ms. Mayo said (like many newcomers) in the beginning, she was over confident at times, she reiterated the trial and error-nature of outreach services.   
 She humbly repeats an admission she makes to aspiring and working outreach professionals; paraprofessionals, and volunteers, that even with four decades of experience she still makes mistakes.  This is a confidence boosting tactic by a wise professional who realizes how paralyzing fear of making mistakes can be, especially after a disappointing effort.
Remember, once source doesn’t have all the answers.  Ms. Mayo reminds us to continue visiting other libraries in person and online to see what others are doing.  While she’s enjoyed success in Florida she said, “Pennsylvania has had success with “senior spaces” and California has done well with their focus on “boomers”; in other words, share the work; share good and bad experiences; share the glory.
Building on the strong foundation that has been set by Ms. Mayo and her predecessors (as she is quick to point out) while taking into account trends, current applications, and sage advice from practitioners in the field may mean the difference between floating and sailing.
*For information about marketing and public relations, check out other Team 4 posts!                                                           

Gross, V. (October, 22, 2013) Who We Are, What We Do, and Why It Matters: Establishing Our Distinctive Sense of Purpose [Webinar] Retrieved from LMC@the Forefront
Mayo, Kathleen (2014, March 16). Telephone Interview.

Hui-Yun Sung and Mark Hepworth Modelling community engagement in public libraries                           Malaysian Journal of Library & Information Science, Vol. 18, no. 1, 2013: 1-13 p | 1

Rebecca Donnelly, The Misguided Relationship: Learning from Outreach Experiences (2009) Public Libraries 48 no1 24-5

For background information re: Howard County Library, and Ms. Gross:
For more information regarding the LJ award to Howard County Library, and their education partnership written by Jonn N. Berry:
A telephone conversation with Kathleen Mayo on March 16th supplemented and reiterated ideas which may also be found in her “Keeping the Outreach Brand Viable” program notes at:

Background information on outreach programs for older adults in which Ms. Mayo is quoted can be found at

Also for more specific senior service-related information from Ms. Mayo visit:

For more information regarding the LJ award to Howard County Library, and their educational partnership written by John N. Berry:


  1. Hi,

    This post is well-put and timely: public libraries do need to change our images and re-brand - especially services such as Outreach, which is term without meaning for many patrons. Recently at my own organization Administration recognized the need to restructure and give new life to our Outreach department. This department had previously been in charge of Bookmobile services and outreach to senior centers, as well as Books By Mail. The new version combines this department with a Business, Local History, and Digital Literacy librarian (all new positions) to create a Community Outreach department. To be honest, consensus on the new name hasn't been reached and I've heard different versions of this name and job titles! That brings me to my point:
    When libraries decide to re-brand and take on new Outreach roles, there needs to be a well-thought-out plan beforehand. If the library struggles with internal communication and management decisions, it's a better idea to address these issues first before starting an ambitious change. Your line here is also relevant: "Are our outreach efforts, an activity calendar filling exercise?" Without structure, a new Community department might fall right back into this trap.

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. This was a really great read! A strong outreach department can make or break a library system. Their influence in the community depends greatly on their presence in the community.

    The library I visited for the comparison project is currently undergoing a remodel. They will also be changing their operating system based on Transforming Our Image, Rebuilding Our Brand by Valerie Gross. The Assistant Director of the library system even read me a few excerpts in her office.

    I never shy away from an outreach. This means I am out at least three days a week visiting schools and daycares. Sometimes, unfortunately, it does feel like a calendar-filling exercise. It's always hard to gauge if you are really having an impact... but I like to think that I'm doing some good :)

  3. I am so glad that you included Ms.Mayo's quote on trial and error. I know the librarians at my branch try a variety of different programs. Sometimes these programs are a hit, and sometimes they are a miss. It is not always easy to predict how a community or group of people will receive an outreach program. Knowing that it is alright to try, fail, rethink your strategy, and try again is encouraging after a program that turns out to be a 'miss'.

  4. Yes, thanks to all for comments. Failing programs may occur even with careful planning. Ms. Mayo assures us that by building relationships with the community, the programs planned will better suit their needs. People have busy lives, things come up, sometimes they miss the very program planned with them in mind. Outreach is not easy, but some find it rewarding.

  5. Thanks for sharing! Perception IS so important. What is valued gets funded! Outreach has been a valuable service in many libraries, for many years. But, as pointed out in your blog, is it still? Reevaluation is key. No one wants to be caught in a budget crunch having to defend something with only, "We've always done it that way!" My small library has an opportunity to change staff responsibilities as we are hiring a new full time person. I am going to share this information to help us see if we are operating like a 21st century library with 21st century PR, marketing, and outreach!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. There's is an informative program dealing with medical errors:
      Along that concept of "library talk" where medical error programming can be found is within the dynamics of "Partnering for patient empowerment through community awareness" (Grant funded by the National Library of Medicine)!

  7. Very interesting post! I love how by simply changing the terms we use to define what we do it we can welcome a whole new perspective. I often see confusion on faces of the general public when I speak in "library talk". Words like, "patron, circulation, hold shelf, interlibrary loan," are common to all of us but not to non-library users. If we want to draw in non-library users then we need to speak to them in terms they will understand. Even highly educated people need help with searching finding the correction information. Just yesterday a physician asked for my assistance in finding information on medical errors. He told he had "been Googling it and came up with nothing". Our library has tried very hard to market ourselves to the nurses who are going back to school for higher education, the medical students and the resident physicians. They are always shocked when they find out we will do the research for them and locate the full text of the articles. It is a hospital initiative to nurture education of the employees and we try to market our library as a resource all employees can utilize for the purpose of scholarly activity.
    Thanks again for sharing this with us!