Sensitivity in outreach: why it matters, some ways to do it

Good-IntentionsWarning: DO NOT Google “politically correct” and look under the images on a Monday morning. The results are worse than your average comments section.  Being sensitive, nay even politically correct, while doing outreach is crucial. We never truly know the stories behind our patrons, communities, and co-workers. I believe it is my job to create as welcoming and accessible library as possible for anyone who could come through our doors. Here are a few things I’ve learned about doing this successfully, in no particular order.

Family structure

Not everyone is being raised by a mother and father.  Some kids we work with are being raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, two moms, two dads, one dad, two dads and a mom, foster parents, etc. Some kids come to programs with social workers, nurse caregivers, Girl Scout leaders, or teachers, among others. Luckily there is a really simple way to address this, no matter where you stand on issues or your community. Here’s what I do to try to make everyone feel welcome and on equal footing:

  • Use the term “caregiver” in your PR materials to refer to any adult legally responsible for a child. Sound clunky or awkward? It might be at first, but it’s a single yet comprehensive term to encompass all of the family structures to which your patrons might belong.
  • When talking with kids I often use “the adult you came with.” Okay, it’s a long one, but they understand it. For example, “you are welcome to have a cookie if it’s okay with the adult you came with.”

Has your library found a way to address these issues in comfortable, inclusive ways? Please share!


Here are a few questions to ask yourself about programs:

  • Are programs planned so all abilities can participate? And do you include that information in PR materials?
  • Do the presenters or facilitators speak other languages? And you guessed it, do you include that information in PR materials?
  • Are programs advertised and implemented in culturally appropriate ways? Example: have you considered offering single-gender activities for communities that do not allow mixed-gender socializing outside the home? Not all of your programming needs to do this, but ask patrons who might have cultural needs which programs they especially value and how you can make them more comfortable for them.
  • Do programs require attendees to “out” themselves in potentially uncomfortable/embarrassing/dangerous ways?
  • Do you offer programs that meet the needs of various family structures? I’m not saying throw out your mother’s or father’s day programming. But how can you include those folks we talked about above? How will you let families know they can attend the mother’s day program with an aunt, foster-mother, or grandma? How will kids know they can make both of their dads a father’s day card?

A word on murder mysteries: I did these frequently until I listened to an episode of “This American Life” in which a woman whose father was murdered relayed how seeing these events advertised impacted her. I’ve changed it to a Mystery Night and attendees solve the case of  Who Stole the Refreshments? Once they solve the case, the refreshments are returned and we all eat.  It actually works better (fingerprinting a plate instead of a body is easier!), it’s more lighthearted, and now the event is more inclusive.

A good rule of thumb in sensitive outreach is the impact vs. intention rule. Your intentions are wonderful, but what are the potential impacts? A wise woman once told me: “you might not intend to hit someone with your car, but the impact on them and you trumps your good intentions.”

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts at

3 responses to “Sensitivity in outreach: why it matters, some ways to do it

  1. I always use “grownup” when working with kids: “Let’s go find your grownup” or “Ask your grownup before going upstairs.” It’s short and sweet and open, makes no assumptions!

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