A quick article search for the term "outreach" produces predictably varied results. In library literature, the term starts appearing quite frequently in the 70's in various contexts. It seemed to be en vogue in other disciplines a bit earlier on starting in the late 60's, or earlier depending on the discipline being investigated. Over time, the use of the term evolves and the frequency changes dramatically, as it does with most buzzwords.
I think one of the reasons "outreach" has stuck around for so long is because it is inherently a good idea. We should "reach out" to people - we are, after all, a public service. I am going to be very deliberate with my language in this post, because I do not want to give off the wrong impression. Much like my comments on publicity vs. promotion - I don't want my language to confuse anyone. Just because I do not like the word "outreach" does not mean I think we should stop all efforts to engage our populations, just like you shouldn't use the word "promotion" incorrectly but that doesn't mean we stop promoting the library.
I have three core problems with the term outreach:
- Qualifications of librarians to perform "outreach"
- Lack of meaningful definition
- Ability to communicate with library or non-library persons
Qualifications of an outreach professional
The sales and customer service roles are typically education (or more accurately, training) oriented. For example, a technology company may have an outreach coordinator position available that requires the employee to compile educational materials and take them to potential or newly acquired clients and help them learn about the product or service. This helps with client retention, referrals, and reviews.
Skipping ahead, the financial services positions are similar. Frequently, these positions are designed to help low income, at-risk, or otherwise disenfranchised peoples. It's designed to be a support service for those who cannot typically afford to hire a private person to conduct their financial business.
Health care and social services are also very common users of the term outreach. These services are similarly designed as the aforementioned financial services, because they are designed to help people that have a hard time helping themselves. Low income, disabled, homeless, children, domestic abuse victims, or other individuals that are incapable of seeking help from other sources for one reason or another are in desperate need of these services. Some major public libraries these days partner with the department of family services, or even hire full time social workers on staff and are actually qualified to fulfill these service needs. Librarians, however, are not qualified to provide most of the services that would fall into this category.
While the services librarians provide are beneficial to the community, they do not fit into the existing paradigm. I think librarians do offer services similar to the ones mentioned in the sales/customer services outreach job descriptions, but that would be considered a workshop or instruction - not the way librarians typically use the word outreach.
Lack of Meaningful Definition
Don't get me wrong - I think those activities are ALL important - if you can tell me why.
A better use of reporting would be to start with an annual (or biennial, or whatever frequency is appropriate) marketing plan that lists several objectives. Instead of having "outreach" as a strategic activity, try pointing out specific action items.
"This year our library is going to try and achieve the following goals. 1.) Increase student attendance at workshops and programs by 15%. 2.) Increase the mobile friendliness of our website. 3.) Ensure every full time faculty member has at least one item in the institutional repository.
We will accomplish goal one with the following strategy. Increasing the publicity of our workshops using social media will help get the attention of our followers. We are going to set a budget of $10 per week for Facebook advertising to promote ads about the workshops. We will have a hashtag for each of our workshops so we can have students live tweet the workshops, and use Twitter as a way to answer questions from student participants. This way we have a great record of what questions are being asked, and students that are not attending see this activity in their twitter feeds. (Continue listing strategies) This strategy should help us improve our program and workshop attendance by 15% because of our X-number of Facebook fans and the X-number of average tweets sent from within one mile of our campus daily. This should increase our weekly attendance from an average of 100 to an average of 115. We think we can reasonably achieve this goal within 6 months.
There should be a well-reasoned, achievable, and measurable goal with an associated strategy for each. At the end of the year, I would be much more interested in reading the following report than a "summary of outreach activities."
This past year we experimented with new strategies to encourage participation in our workshops & to increase attendance by 15%. We used a budget of $10 a week to promote Facebook posts about workshops, and did not pay for advertisements while class was not in session. We spent a total of $450 on Facebook advertising last year. When surveyed, 30% of all program attendees said they saw our workshops because of a paid Facebook advertisement, which was confirmed by our increased "reach and engagement statistics" provided by our Facebook account. We consider this program a success, and will continue it next year. Our second strategy was to encourage live tweeting and using of library hashtags as a viral campaign to generate interest in programs. Attendees reported being distracted by frequent tweeting, and that their overall experience was lowered by this strategy. We will not continue this in the future. Very few students reported seeing the hashtag or any library tweets in their feeds. (Continue report) Due to the success of the Facebook advertising, we wish to continue this advertising strategy and may experiment with increasing paid advertisements in the next fiscal year. Overall, our efforts were successful as we saw a total average increase in program attendance of 18% after six months.
This has a much greater impact than the previously mentioned "outreach activities." It also has a coordinated effort that should help the library's strategic plan. This alleviates the standard library plague of, "this sounds like a great idea, so let's focus all of our time and attention on it" that happens weekly at the library and helps prioritize objectives, outcomes, budget, and staff time. Rather than simply "being somewhere" we are now accomplishing something very deliberate with these activities.
Ability to communicate with library and non-library persons
There is no standard definition for what is expected of "outreach" - which is beneficial for each individual library. Each library can customize what their priorities are and produce results that maximize their desired outcomes. Inside your organization, there may be a very detailed organizational chart, job description and allocated responsibilities that are very clear about each persons' roles and obligations; this can be true for a job entitled Outreach. At your institution, you may know exactly what is expected of you or your position. However, it does not clearly communicate to other librarians or non-librarians.
I participated in one of the ACRL ULS Academic Outreach Committee virtual round table sessions recently and we were discussing how to assess outreach efforts. Our discussion was rather fruitless, as we all considered different activities to be "outreach" (the realization of this, however, was very enlightening and the conversation was great!). All of us had different employment structures, different job descriptions, and much different expectations for what is essentially ROI for outreach. However, if I told you that I was responsible for "Long-Distance Alumni Engagement," "Classroom Services for Faculty," "Institutional Repository Improvement" you would know exactly what I was being asked to do because of the clarity of the language. We may go about each of these tasks very differently and have a great conversation about best practices, but we know we're talking about the same general activities.
Every library has a different staffing structure; some libraries may have committees responsible for the above mentioned activities, while some may have a "task force" or individual librarian - the org chart should not matter much in this case; it's the activities that have the value - how you handle it would be determined by the size and structure of your library.
Similarly, this term does not communicate well with outside parties. Many people may be confused by that title because of other experiences with "outreach specialists" as mentioned above. Even worse, some people may not have any idea why you're contacting them. Imagine being asked to contact the Provost of your institution to ask for additional funding and administrative support for your Institutional Repository. Which do you think would be better received by a non-librarian:
- "Hello, I am the Outreach Librarian at your library and I am calling to ask about increasing our funding for the institutional repository."
- "Hello, I am the chair of the Faculty Tenure and Publishing Relations Committee at the Library; we're focused on lowering the cost of purchasing classroom materials by providing open access editions of faculty works, and offer workshops on predatory publishing to help authors retain their rights. I'd like to talk to you about the financial obligations required to maintain this program."
Could you include all of those other details after introducing yourself as an Outreach Librarian? Absolutely. But if you're sending an email to establish first communication with a stakeholder and all you have to get someone's attention is the subject line, "From the Chair of the Faculty Tenure and Publishing Relations Committee" will be far prioritized over "From the Outreach Librarian." Additionally, you would get far more faculty members requesting assistance from the Chair if they knew that is an employee equipped to handle those types of issues.
At the end of the day, the difference between using the word "outreach" and not using the term is fairly semantic. However, there are far more strengths associated with communicating services with clarity and precision. More often than not, these services get lumped together, and an Outreach position is created to tackle all of them. If nothing else, this exercise in semantic language forces us to define our own efforts and to determine if they are actually as effective as they appear.