The back and front ends of outreach

Just ask my student staff, I’m big on boundaries. I like writing in terms of bookends: start ’em out with a story, write your piece, then finish what you started at the beginning. I started thinking about our jobs visually and I came up with this: we are both the back-end and the front end of things.

Bear with me.

Outreach can be 80% splash while only 20% of our jobs. Or it could be 80% of your job and feels like 100% splash. Or something like that. In other words, what are most people “seeing” you do compared to what you actually do? And why is this important?

My colleagues and I were recently asked to outline projects that would help meet the goals we established for the next ten years. I realized much of what I had to contribute connected to larger college goals of being a good neighbor and not necessarily goals of making the campus community aware of our services/programs. Suddenly I felt my job was all “splash ‘n’ flash” and akin to diplomatic missions to France.  I was not rewiring buildings to improve student internet access nor was I helping to migrate vasts amounts of data over to a new management system.

It’s the front end and the back-end of things. I do both and yet the splashy front end is often the one most associated with my job. This is equally as valuable, but harder to quantify. Outreach does not just entail programming and awareness, it encompasses people’s perceptions of and feelings about libraries. We should care if our library is welcoming and if patrons feel comfortable asking for help. And yet much like housework, this is often seen as “not real work”. It’s throwing on some glitter. But, Outreach is serious business.

What are your thoughts and experiences with perceptions of your services?

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4 responses to “The back and front ends of outreach

  1. Exactly! Outreach isn’t just the programming, or communicating out, it’s listening and responding, whether that response is about lighting, hours, collections, friendliness, or services. Outreach is the connector piece between the library and it’s users, and when done well the Outreach Librarian should be able to provide user insight to all library services, or identify where more ‘listening’ is needed.

  2. My director has been very supportive of outreach. But every now and then, he’ll say, “But how do we know any of this is increasing their usage of the library?” I understand where he’s coming from, but how do I respond to that? I talk about the benefits of outreach until I’m blue in the face, but he’s a numbers guy. Showing him attendance figures makes him smile, qualitative comments are nice, but he wants usage stats. IMPROVED usage stats.

    • Why do “improved usage stats” mean to him? Better grades for students? more students using books or databases? I totally understand needing to please quantitative folks. I think a good first step is getting them to articulate the kinds of numbers they want. Then we can work on figuring out a way to assess. And yes, that’s an offer to work on this with you!

  3. I get the message that I’m not doing “real work” from within and outside the library. And the variation of “whatever it is that you do, even though it’s all just fluff, why aren’t you doing more of it?” Sigh. Indeed, how do I respond?

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