Recently a friend asked if more academic libraries had an outreach librarian on staff. Yes, more academic libraries are hiring outreach librarians or adding the duty to job descriptions. More academic libraries are having conversations about the topic, including whether to extend the service outside college walls. What struck me most about outreach is not whether academic libraries were hiring specific personnel to meet this need, but rather how we tend to think of outreach: as a one-shot. Much like one-shot instruction, we tend to organize, create and view outreach in the same manner.
Understandably, we think most about outreach when the new academic year is upon us. Often we craft or recycle scavenger hunts for new students (nothing wrong with a good scavenger hunt! I use them a lot!) or lament how to make fresh and fun the mandatory session all new students have to attend in the library. Making a good, strong impression on new students is important and we should be questioning how to improve. But we must not stop there. Truly effective outreach is a year-round process and should not always be instruction/resource/service-focused.
I’ll call attention once again to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s House Party as an example of an excellent new year kick-off event. There’s no bait-and-switch, but they have built-in incentives to keep students coming back to use the library for its intended purpose. For example, the winner of the Texas Hold’Em tournie wins their own study table in the library for the year, complete with a nice sign designating it their table. The first interaction most new students have with a librarian is having their palm read or playing ninja tag with them, not finding out about resources which they don’t yet need. We do much the same with our button-making booth and CARNinfoVAL. It’s a strong, unexpected first impression.
Outreach does not have to operate on a grand, flashy scale like this. But it should operate year-round. What are smaller events/programs that you could host monthly? And outside of the library! We want them to come in the library, but asking them to come to us is not always our best move. Get outside of the library and into the student union, hallways and quads. Creating small but meaningful (and fun) activities and events in their space helps provide opportunity for relationship-building. Students rarely check or read email. Posters get lost amidst other posters. But relationships are pure gold. In addition, faculty get to see you out there, in the trenches. Such visibility can remind them to email you to set up library instruction. It sends all of campus a strong message about your commitment to serving them when you leave your space and come into theirs.
The first week of classes in incredibly important, but I challenge us to get out of the “orientation” mindset and start thinking about little ways to accomplish what we hope orientation activities can year-round.