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Libraries Without Borders: Using Outreach to Build Community
Posted On May 1, 2024
This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Information Today.

Libraries have not been simply a collection of materials for a very long time. Physical media on shelves waiting for the next patron to stumble upon their wonder is merely the beginning of our work. The missions of most public libraries are centered around education and information. Gaining education and discovering information do not just take place between four walls. Learning is everywhere, and we must get out there to harness and help deliver it to those in need. Being of the community and not just in the community is critical for impactful service.

People in the library profession tend to be problem solvers. Whether the problem is literacy, access, service gaps, after-school engagement, or wider social issues, libraries can embrace their role as an anchor of their community to connect people to a broad spectrum of information.


Much has been said about the unfair expectation that libraries should be able to serve all needs. We can’t. However, what we can do is acknowledge unmet needs and be part of the conversation around how they can be addressed. Embracing the role of being the place people go when they aren’t sure where else to turn empowers us to serve our informational mission. I can’t provide you with a shower or a bed at my library; that’s not within the scope of my service. But what is in the scope of my service is knowing where to direct you when you need those things. Connection is key.

How do you get connected, you may ask? Expand the definition of library service and your role in it at your library. Sitting on the board of a local nonprofit, scheduling a standing meeting with your municipal leader, showing up to a council meeting and speaking to elected officials, attending your local business or organizational roundtable, being a part of your local or county government, and showing up and getting inside the rooms where decisions are being made will open doors you didn’t even know existed.

If you aren’t a director or working in a leadership position, ask your director where they might see a benefit in your service outside the library’s walls. Better yet, approach library leadership with some ideas for where you could make an impact in the community through expanding the library’s reach—if they’re a good director, they’ll love you for it!

One of the reasons I go to so many local events and am involved in multiple organizations is because it’s harder for decision makers to say no or be dismissive when they know your face, your name, and something about you as a human being. Does that mean I get everything I’ve ever asked for for my library? No! But it has gotten me a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t have known to ask for. Gleaning expertise and advice from your fellow community leaders stops you from reinventing the wheel every time a new puzzle arrives at your door. You might not have the key, but you’ll know whom to call.

State and national politics are flashy and get all of the attention. Local politics change the shape of your daily life. Big-picture opinions are certainly important, as are the policy decisions of our nation and states. But what your mayor or the director of a local foundation has at the top of their mind when making decisions will more quickly impact your future. When it comes to budget season, you want your decision makers to not even blink at the inclusion of the library. Convincing officials who need to get out of the red with opinionated taxpayers looming is a much taller task than consistently showing up over the course of time and sprinkling in positive impacts of the library.


The more commonly known part of outreach is holding programming outside the library. This can be conventional bookmobile stops or more variations on that theme, such as books on bicycles or other eco-friendly options like the Montclair (New Jersey) Public Library’s super cool eTuk.

Outreach programming doesn’t have to have a vehicle attached to be useful for current or potential library patrons out in their everyday life. Kids go crazy when they see an adult they know in their school giving a presentation. Unfortunately, there is an increase of school districts cutting libraries and school librarians. Giving a presentation at a school about the public library may be the only interaction local kids are getting with the idea of what libraries have for them, whether that is the next Dog Man book or an afterschool club where they can hang out before their parents get home.

A group of people who often fall into the background of building-based library service are those in nontraditional living situations. Temporary housing, shelters, communal living spaces, nursing and assisted living homes, and incarcerated people share a limited access to place-constrained library services. Before physically getting out into those spaces, consider library policy. Does your library have a card option for people without a permanent home address? What about a card option for people in communal living situations? Could you make a type of library card for a nursing home as an institution and check everything out to one card if the home agrees to help be responsible for the items? Tackling our myopia to expand the view of what people need to reduce barriers to access helps open the library to people in need and those who may be feeling left behind.

When your policies take into account the needs of the community, your library is positioned for maximum outreach impact. Beyond bringing book options for those who are unable to physically travel to your library, you can offer outreach programming that targets their specific needs. Talking to a nursing home’s activities director will give you a ton of insight into what local seniors would enjoy and what the home already offers. Maybe the nursing home already holds bingo but would welcome doing book bingo, or they have a crafty bunch who would attend a flower-arranging class for which you could partner with a local florist or gardener. Having the essence of the library come to those who can no longer visit it in person proves to them they are not forgotten.


Getting to the core of what outreach means in its many forms brings me to the overarching idea that outreach is connection. Creating connections with local leaders, groups, and organizations with people in the places where they live and being a listening ear so the library is part of the solution is why outreach is a critical part of the library’s mission. We don’t know what we don’t know, and it’s easy to think we know everything about a place without really knowing what’s going on out there. Checking our preconceived notions at the door and being truly willing to hear the needs of community members can turn a stranger into a patron.

Some groups of people who could benefit immensely from outreach could be the most resistant to your message. Use that opportunity to audit your methods. People experiencing homelessness or emerging from abuse and living in temporary or shelter housing may not be the most receptive to your passion for the ways libraries change lives. However, if you position yourself as welcoming, as a listener, and as someone who is a consistent community presence, that understandably guarded exterior may begin to naturally fall away. Trust among people who have been marginalized is not given, it’s earned.

Unsure where to start? Spearhead creating a community resources brochure. I know it sounds both potentially overwhelming (where do I find all of the information?!) and simple (is a brochure really going to change someone’s life?), but this work gets you interacting with community leaders and reaching out to people where they are. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a great road map of what to include. The foundational tier of needs is physiological: food, water, and shelter. You cannot become a self-actualized human being without having your basic needs met. Imagine having someone ask you to create a piece of art when you don’t know where you and your kids are going to sleep that night—it probably won’t go well.

Where in your community can people in need turn for food, water, and shelter? Do you have an area food bank? Is there a charity shop with basic necessities? Is there a local- or county-level government program that places people in emergency housing? I live in a rural area where many services are provided by private organizations. The name and phone number of the person in charge who can take the lead on getting a roof over a family’s head is someone you need to know.

Investigate the changemakers, ask questions, and compile that information into an easy-to-reference document for library staff. Making a patron-facing version of this brochure that staffers can hand out or have on display is also extremely useful. I suggest having them as two separate documents so personal information that organizations may be willing to give to library staff isn’t accidentally given out publicly without permission.

Other things for one or both of these documents to cover include internet access (a great place to plug your library and all it offers!); transportation options (buses, routes, rideshares, trains, etc.); services specifically for women, families, and men if separate in your community; emergency help in case of fire or natural disaster (does your area have a designated Red Cross person?); and elder services. The 211 services should also be prominently featured because the United Way’s 211 number is “the 24/7 go-to resource that helps people in 99% of the U.S. and all across Canada find the local resources they need.” Include anything in here that is of use to situations in your community. Keep those eyes and ears open, and update often!


Being deeply rooted in your community creates a local library without borders. The library building should be your home base—it has all of your gear and is the focal point of the services you provide. Building a reputation for being the go-to place for finding information regardless of need keeps the library top of mind for both decision makers and community members.

Acting as the cog in the wheel does not require the library to be everything to everyone; it can’t and shouldn’t. Being the cog builds trust so people can reach out for help when they’re in need and simultaneously shows library staff where outreach is needed in the community. Building the spokes on your wheel through partnership and conversation with community agencies keeps you from duplicating efforts and allows you to point patrons to the experts, whether that is you or someone else. The modern library is a place and an idea. Consistently engaging in the improvement of people’s lives through community outreach leads to strong libraries that are part of the solution.

Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Hilburn’s writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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