The Heart of Our Work

Recently I attended a few presentations on community work that reminded me of my favourite part of my job: Relationship building.

In truth, I felt disconnected from community work for a long time. The pandemic disrupted many relationships. Libraries were closed, practising social distancing, and dealing with high staff turnover. Community partners had the same stressors. Upon returning to in-person service at a new branch I found it especially challenging as many places were not open to outside visitors. Layer on the immediate demands of in-branch service and you can see why community work is often the first thing to be set aside.

Looking back, what I was struggling with is community outreach. Edmonton Public Library’s Community-Led Toolkit explains the difference between outreach and community development:

Outreach is a wonderful, essential part of being a children’s librarian. I have also seen the word “Outreach” evolve over time. In ALSC’s Engage, Cultivate, Provide, Assess: An Outreach Model for Serving All Children and Families White Paper they say the goal of outreach is “taking library resources, services, and programs out into the community without the expectation that the recipients will ever come into the library.” They stress relationship building (they cite me!! My name is spelled wrong, but still!) and reaching those who face barriers to library service. That sounds a lot like community-led work.

In traditional library outreach, the library is at the centre. The Working Together: Community-Led Libraries Toolkit explains it this way:

We have a message that we need to convey, so we create a service, program, or presentation that allows us to convey the message and then take it out into the community to ensure people understand the important services we offer. Outreach happens in the community. The librarian is the authority, and the focus is on “information out” or service delivery.

What I have been trying to get back to is the community-led library model. Starting from a community-led model means approaching the community with no other intent except to learn and listen. It requires us to become comfortable talking to strangers. To take off our library hat. To step into that grey area where who you are as a person and who you are as a library staff member becomes blurry. It requires librarians to connect and learn about communities–– on the communities’ terms.

Here is a breakdown of what it means to do community-led work:

  1. Listen to people talk about their interests and needs, especially those who have been traditionally excluded from library services. This practice is the basis of relationship building. It requires library staff to get out of the physical library space and to step out of our role as “expert” or “library sales pitch person.”
  2. Develop services (in the broadest sense) collaboratively with community members based on the information you gather. Planning together can only happen if relationships exist.
  3. The community and the library are both transformed.

I plan to write more about community-led work, specifically sharing my learning from the presentations I attended. For now, I am happy of this reminder of what it means to prioritize equity over equality and to value human connection over data.

Key Resources

Working Together: Community-Led Libraries Toolkit

Community-Led Service Philosophy Toolkit by Edmonton Public Library

Engage, Cultivate, Provide, Assess: An Outreach Model for Serving All Children and Families White Paper


Have you engaged in community-led library work? What are the challenges you anticipate? How does this relate to our work with children and teens? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

8 thoughts on “The Heart of Our Work

  1. Thanks Lindsey for another thought provoking start to my day! At my library we have been struggling with this also, but with persistent reminders about engaging with people and not talking at people, we have seen progress. It’s truly rewarding to connect with someone and be able to help them through an organic conversation. It is certainly a learning process.

    1. I’ve found that having those internal staff conversations about the different between engaging WITH and not talking AT is really helpful for me, so I am sure your staff appreciate it too. Sometimes it can feel awkward and it’s nice to have a space to practice. Thank you for keeping the conversation going with me 🙂

  2. I recently moved out of state and am building new youth services programs/outreach from the ground up. I’ve been thinking about this A LOT lately! I’m frustrated because it feels like my director wants me to make a bunch of changes and start doing new things right away, without taking the time to build those community relationships and find out what our community wants/needs. I’m partnering with the local school district to send a survey to teens and families in January, but she doesn’t want to wait for that feedback to come back. Maybe I can use some of these resources to convince her to slow down!

    This blog post (and what you said in the comment above about engaging WITH) makes me think about how lucky I’ve been to learn about co-creation and collective, community care from Janet Damon. During a CLEL conference keynote with Janet featuring fathers from Black Dads Storytime, Janet asked, “Why do you think it’s important for Black fathers to host storytime?” One father replied, “My love is a resource. My words are resources, my presence is a resource. So I think it’s important for Black dads to read because we are a resource, and we are healing and we are love.”

    This response had a profound impact on me. I thought a lot about my intentions for storytime and how I could implement those intentions. When families enter the storytime room, I want to honor their experiences and expertise. I want to connect families with each other and build community. One way I work towards co-creation in baby storytime is by having caregivers introduce themselves and their child, and then share something. This could be a tip for traveling with young children (transportation storytime); the title of their baby’s favorite tune (which I then play during playtime); a question that they have right now… the opportunities for conversation and connection are endless! When we have a large group, I ask caregivers to pair-share instead of sharing with the whole group.

    …and I see I have an unfinished draft blog post about this topic, too! Maybe this post will inspire me to finally polish and publish it!


    1. It’s so hard when there is pressure from above to ‘produce results.’ Relationship building is slow work. Have you read much about Slow Librarianship, or the Slow Movement in general? I really like it and think it compliments community-led work well. Another way I think about my interactions is the energy I bring. Is it extractive (I need something from you) or supportive (I’d love to learn what you are all about)?
      Has Janet Damon written anything publicly available? I’d love to take a read! And I would especially love to read that blog post!

  3. Lindsey, thank you so much for this thought-provoking post. I feel as though in my role as School Outreach Coordinator, I did start with relationship building first with the public school librarians, but with the early childhood educators, I started from the place of storytime, so that’s where I still am, all these years later! I’ve adapted and offered new things (STEM outreach programs in lieu of traditional storytime, inservices for teachers, parent workshops, etc.), but the foundation is still “here I am for storytime” rather than “here I am, what do you need?” I recently had a director ask me if I could film shorter in-services that she could show on an as-needed basis, and I loved being able to say “Yes! That’s a great idea. I will do that for you.” However, I feel that there’s a great chance to survey the early childhood directors and ask them for other needs that haven’t occurred to me. Thanks for this post!

    1. Hi Kary! I love the way you reframed that approach to working with the community. I’m super curious what you will learn from your ECE community when you ask that question.

  4. This helped me to think about outreach in a new light! Thanks Lindsey!

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