Community Outreach and the Devaluation of Children’s Librarians

I’m one of those people who excitedly awaits their copy of the American Libraries magazine every two months so I can read up on all the cool stuff people are doing in our field. In the May 2018 issue there is an excellent article by Meredith Farkas called Get Out of the Library: Embedding Librarians in Our Communities. Coming from an academic library stand point, Farkas talks about the concept of embedded librarianship which situates librarians within their communities so that patrons don’t necessarily need to come to the physical library to get help.  She gives a few examples of how this model works in different types of libraries; for example, public library staff attend local community events to share books and answer questions.  She states that “embedded librarianship is about building strong relationships within the communities libraries serve and requires a deep understanding of the needs and habits of our patrons.” I wholeheartedly agree.

What Farkas calls embedded librarianship I’ve known under the phrase community-led librarianship. The model and philosophy is similar. I highly recommend reading The Community-Led Libraries Toolkit for concrete strategies on how this model works.  Being a community-led library means investigating barriers to library service, especially for socially excluded communities, and finding ways to empower those communities to be involved in the planning of future library services. It requires library staff to be embedded in the community as relationship building is crucial. It is slow, sometimes difficult work, but absolutely necessary in helping the library be a force for social justice. At my library we have community librarians whose major job responsibility is to be out in the community, but children’s librarians are also expected to do community-led work. At its best, this model involves all level of staff in community outreach efforts.

A few weeks after reading the articles by Farkas, I came upon another article on the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) blog about community outreach. This one is titled  Getting Creative: Utilizing Volunteers in Early Literacy Outreach.  The title alone gave me pause, but reading it through filled me with many questions and concerns. It sat in stark contrast to the first article I read where outreach is seen as a key and critical role of our job as library staff. I wanted to take some time to dive into the post and the broader problem I see with regards to children’s librarianship specifically and outreach.

In the blog post, the author begins by noting that her library is  “working with too few staff and is receiving more requests for outreach visits.”  It’s an unfortunate reality that many public libraries are understaffed. This library’s solution was to enlist volunteers to fulfill these requests for outreach visits. The author notes that they worked with their Human Resources department to “determine that providing outreach storytimes was an acceptable task for a specifically trained volunteer because it is not an essential service and it is an expansion of services initiated and managed by the library staff.” [bold text added by me]. And that folks is where all my questions begin.

In the very next paragraph the author says the volunteers are managed by the Youth Services & Outreach Librarian. How is outreach not an essential service if it is literally in the name of one of the jobs at this library? Is this not what the Youth Services & Outreach Librarian spends a huge chunk of time doing in her paid position?  Even the fact that an “expansion of services” can be done by volunteers is worrying to me. Why would the library ever need to hire more youth services librarians when all that extra work is now done by volunteers?  It doesn’t even matter if the volunteers are already knowledgeable about early literacy. Sure, that will make the visits more successful for the kids. But it does nothing to advocate for our unique positions as paid library staff members who bring value to our community. We are outsourcing our jobs for free and we’re somehow excited about it.

A part of me wonders if library outreach volunteers are more common for things like storytime because working with children continues to be a devalued service.  Which is the case for any job dominated by women. You’re just reading to kids, right?  You just sing a few songs, right? Storytime does not hold the same prestige or value as the embedded work in academic libraries Farkas describes in her article.  As much as we tirelessly advocate for how important the first three years of life are for setting up brain development for the rest of life, it is still not seen as something that should be fully funded and protected. We advocate for how the work we do as youth services professionals contributes to a self-regulating, literate population that is able to keep using the library in all it’s different forms.  But sometimes it feels like someone hears us singing “Roly Poly” and our credibility goes out the door. All we have to do is look to the U.K. to see the hollowing out of children’s public library services which this research article shows is “coupled with a rise in closures, community run and outsourced libraries, and volunteering.”

Another thing that worries me about the use of volunteers for library outreach is the move away from relationship building, the key component of community-led libraries, towards a system of “wine and dine them” for preschools and daycares. When I visit preschools and daycares I am doing much more than just a storytime. I am investigating the level of need among their kids and their space. Do these kids have regular access to books? What library resources can I further connect them to to continue to support their literacy after my visit? What is their neighbourhood like and what resources are nearby? Is there potential for another sort of partnership between the library and this group?  What training is needed or wanted by the preschool teachers themselves? These are the in-depth questions we ask when we do outreach as part of our job. I’m sure a volunteer could be trained to ask some of these questions, but they will miss the bigger picture of how this visit fits into an overall strategy of serving a distinct library user group.  Sending volunteers also assumes a one-sided relationship between the library and the centre (i.e. the library has something to offer and the centre is there to consume). These relationships are shallow, often short-lived, and do not help build community relationships to the same degree.

So we’re in high demand. So we’re understaffed. What can we do instead of implementing volunteers who do outreach for us? How can we maintain our value to the library itself and to the community? Here’s what I’ve got:

Bringing in volunteers to do the paid work of a youth services staff member isn’t creative. It’s scary.  I believe embedding ourselves in the community is part of our jobs. How can we creatively make this happen without devaluing our profession?