Naming what I do

Making fish out of paper plates at the Kenosha Peanut Butter and Jam Concert Series

Every Thursday in the summer two student workers and I pack my car with craft supplies and head to a public park in our college’s town. We’ve developed a partnership with a local radio station that puts on a free concert for the public every Thursday. They give us tables and a tent, we give the community a free, fun craft. Why is an academic librarian doing this? And why should more of us consider broader community outreach? Why indeed.

In our presentation at ALA this past year on outreach, Rudy Leon of UN-Reno explained that outreach is best viewed as a relationship. It’s not a pen with our name and chat service address on it. It’s not a sheet of paper touting our services. And it’s not a request from our administrators for money for magnets. It’s definitely not a transaction. Interaction with library staff and more visible library staff can potentially lead to more academic persistence and success for students (ACER, 2009.) Ok, so why do I put on programs in public parks, far from my main patrons?

First, academic institutions must stop operating as job-suppliers, tax-payers, and property-owners for whom towns should be grateful. Acting as lords and ladies of the manor does no favors. It creates harmful divisions and resentments. It prohibits growth in college towns that could benefit the non-gown population. It does not serve our students well to view college towns as bars and Wal-Marts.

Many colleges and universities use the vague-sounding “whole student” pitch. They cater to the whole student; they unite mind, body, and soul (and heart even!); they develop the whole person. Nice words with very little actual meaning. Sorta like when people paint “inspire” on a canvas and put it up in their breakfast nook. Helping students develop vocation and passion come as close to the “whole person” concept. Which is where community outreach like mine can come into play.  Student groups help me host regular family events, providing the opportunity to interact with local families. Local families respond very favorably to having their kids interact with college students and see what life is like at college. (See Halverson and Plotas, 2006 for info on how an academic and public library partnered to serve the community.)

Second, it offers librarians the opportunity to showcase our value. Consider how community outreach and access could be part of rethinking/redefining/reimagining the 21st-century academic library. Yes, collaborative, project-based spaces are important as are mobile whiteboards and multiple screens. What if we consider the impact our library resources could have on our town? How unique and invaluable could we make ourselves to a wider community!

Third, simply put it keeps me engaged in my profession. I have relationships with public school teachers, community parents, and public librarians who keep me abreast on what their kids are learning and using in school. I can see clearly down the pipeline what we need to prepare for in our next generation of students. I find lesson plans I use for community programs adapt very well to library instruction and that college students react quite positively to them. They also really like when the library hosts arts and crafts nights to deal with excess community supplies. I am challenged to plan and implement programs for a wide audience which at its core has much in common.

My job is fairly rare. I am not aware of any other academic librarian specifically charged with serving the town community. I would love to hear if you know of one. Research is just coming out examining town and gown reconciliation programs and assessing allowing the public to use collections. Myriad issues arise out of expanding the focus of an academic librarian. I hope to address many of these here.  In the meanwhile, I hope you’ve given thought to how else academic librarians  can evolve.

Creating and Capitalizing on the Town/Gown Relationship: An Academic Library and a Public Library form a Community Partnership.
Halverson, Kathleen; Plotas, Jean. Journal of Academic Librarianship, Nov2006, Vol. 32 Issue 6, p624-629, 6p.

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