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:
- 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.”
- Develop services (in the broadest sense) collaboratively with community members based on the information you gather. Planning together can only happen if relationships exist.
- 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.
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!