Beyond the Library Walls: Building Communities with Bookmobiles and Other Outreach Opportunities
March 1, 2021
Tana Petrov, Fountaindale Public Library District
I am often asked what library outreach is and how it is different from community engagement. For those of us who work in outreach, what we do seems apparent, yet it is not easy to give a clear-cut answer. So, I defer to replying that we, outreach folks, do everything, including community engagement. Library outreach exists in many forms: programming, representing the library at community events, serving senior facilities and home-bound patrons, collaborating with schools, day-care centers, and other community organizations, and last but not least, operating outreach vehicles such as bookmobiles, passenger vans, and book bikes to reach patrons who are unable to or don’t have convenient access to the library.
This article offers a review of the outreach efforts of several libraries in the ways they add value to their communities,
ensuring equitable library services to all people, including homeless patrons, ethnically diverse people, older adults, library non-users, people with disabilities, and rural communities. Even libraries that do not have enough staff or sufficient budgets to provide full-fledged outreach have made significant impacts in their communities. You know that old saying “if there is a will, there is a way?” It certainly applies to library outreach, as well.
OUTREACH THROUGH BOOK CLUBS AND READING PROGRAMS
Libraries have a long history of serving as places for hosting book clubs, strengthening the connection between libraries and individual lives. Outreach can expand book clubs beyond the library walls. For example, Glenview Public Library provides materials for five book clubs at retirement facilities. Addison Public Library provides a book club at the Park District for the Active Adults Senior Club. Oak Park Public Library has had a Books and Brews program, which is a book discussion that meets at local bars. And, in addition to library-supported book clubs, there are many independent ones. Libraries support these readers by assembling and circulating “book club kits” that include multiple copies of a title and discussion guide.
Book talks and read-alouds at schools are another way of libraries reaching out beyond their physical spaces, as is done at Joliet Public Library and the Fountaindale Public Library District in Bolingbrook. Oak Park Public Library has hosted book discussions in partnership with their school system. In December 2020, they finished a set of virtual book discussions in partnership with the middle school and other local organizations, based on the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, supporting an anti-racist curriculum.
The American Library Association’s initiative “One Book, One Community” is also a form of library outreach. An example is Bloomington Public Library’s “Bloomington Reads” programming series, where area residents are encouraged to read a title, discuss it with their peers and attend corresponding programs that focus on themes found in the book. Similarly, Glenview Public Library has a yearly “Glenview Reads Together” reading program. Oak Park Public Library has a “One Book” summer reading program for adults, often associated with book groups, sometimes conducted off-site. Whether you have an established community reading program or are just looking to get started, the ALA Public Programs Office has developed several resources for librarians that can be found at http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/ppo/programming/onebook.
SERVICE-BASED OUTREACH TO ENHANCE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
Examples of service-based outreach include technology instruction, reader’s advisory, reference assistance, workshops, creating library cards, check-in and check-out of materials, school and teacher services, and home delivery service—all of which can be provided at locations other than the library. Some of the surveyed libraries responded that before the COVID-19 pandemic they offered technology classes at senior centers, such as Fox River Valley Library District; and other off-site locations, such as McDonald’s, as Bloomington Public Library has done.
To supplement school curricula, Joliet Public Library offers educator library cards, classroom enrichment materials, library 101 classroom visits, research and database presentations, and summer reading promotion. Similarly, Oak Park Public Library provides classroom visits on request for teachers to discuss library services, intellectual freedom, banned books week, or general back-to-school or end-of-school-year visits, as well as the schools’ Multicultural Night and Curriculum Night. These programs are generally in classrooms or at afterschool programs and centered around teaching cultural knowledge about a specific group of people. Normal Public Library offers educators cards to anyone
working in an educational institution, child-care center, or adult daycare center, and liaises with community organizations to share information about library services.
In 2020, Fountaindale Public Library District, in collaboration with a neighboring library, White Oak Library District, issued library cards to each student in their school district. These “Student Success” library cards give students access to a treasure trove of eResources to get homework help, download or stream eBooks and movies, and to explore maker activities, using state-of-the-art technology. Between the two libraries, more than 15,000 Student Success library cards were issued and mailed to students during the period of remote learning.
OUTREACH PROGRAMS JUST FOR FUN
Sharing stories, books, and songs with children is an essential element of a preschool’s early-literacy curriculum. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, outreach staff at several surveyed libraries provided storytimes at community preschools, daycares, and area restaurants and stores (Panera Bread, Subway, IKEA), typically structured to fit the needs of teachers and children, accompanied by maker activities such as origami, bookmark creation, and button making. Other libraries partnered with local agencies in the summer and provide games and activities off-site at local parks (Addison Public Library, Fox River Valley Library District). In addition to storytimes, Fountaindale Public Library
District’s mobile puppeteers provide puppet shows—straight from the Bookmobile—that delight young and old alike.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joliet Public Library provided teen craft programs to schools during lunch periods. Fox River Valley Libraries used to do monthly concerts at the senior condo community next door to the library. A respondent from Highland Park Public Library shared, “Generally if we are invited to an event, depending on the event, we provide something fun. For Arbor Day festivities, youth services provided storytime; for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service we set up a table with a service project; often bags to color that get filled with books and then sent to a wellness clinic. All summer, we usually show up at the farmers market, Bitter Jester Music festival, and Food Truck Thursdays complete with a spinning wheel for trivia with prizes and lots of handouts. We tend to give away lots of books—discarded books, books donated to the Friends, heavy, unwieldy books. But people love them. And people love to see their library at all of those events.”
OUTREACH AND UNDERSERVED POPULATIONS
One of the main goals of library outreach is focusing on traditionally underserved populations, defined by ALA as “including poor and homeless people, ethnically diverse people,
older adults, adult new and non-readers, incarcerated people and
ex-offenders, people with disabilities, GLBTQ populations, and rural and geographically isolated communities.” Home delivery service, for example, is an outreach service that libraries provide to patrons confined to their residents due to disability, accident, or illness, by Fountaindale Public Library District, Bloomington Public Library, Oak Park Public Library, and River Valley District Library, among others. A survey respondent from Oak Park Public Library shared that the library offers a robust home delivery program that has been running for many years. Before COVID-19, they served an average of 33 patrons per week, delivering about 115 items/week, but that number has increased substantially since COVID-19 started.
Effingham Public Library is located in a rural community where many people face financial, transportation, technological, and communication barriers—so the library provides those bridges as much as they can. Their Book Box Vending machine, created with an initial grant from Better World Books and maintained by staff and volunteers, dispenses a curated selection of donated books, free of charge. Glenview Public Library has a Next Chapter Book Club which is a book club for adults with intellectual or cognitive disabilities. Through a grant, Oak Park Public Library has purchased books and sent them to other community organizations that need free books to give away to clients. Some of their clients include an organization that assists new mothers, a local organization that assists the homeless, as well as a children’s clinic. In the summer, Oak Park Public Library staff attend a free-lunch site through a partnership with Beyond Hunger, where children are dropped off by parents for two hours, given a free lunch and activities to keep them entertained. Library staff visit that site once a week, bringing free books to give away, as well as activities such as storytimes, multicultural artifact discussions, and small crafts.
Fox River Valley Library District offers free meals during the summer, paid for by the Summer Food Service Program and cold suppers during the school year, paid for by the Child Adult Care Food Program. Both programs, offered to children 18 and under, are managed by the USDA and operated by the Illinois State Board of Education. Highland Park Public Library has signed on the Dementia Friendly America efforts with organizations within the city. As memory care is an important element in the community, the adult services department wrote and won a grant to support the creation of memory kits that can be circulated. The library has hours where families with children with special needs can visit without distractions.
LIBRARY AWARENESS THROUGH COMMUNITY OUTREACH
Partnering with community organizations expands library outreach to non-library users. The benefits of such partnerships are endless: promoting each other’s services, providing space for outside groups to use within the library building, and creating library services specifically based on the needs of the organization. Library card sign-up, digital resources demos, children’s activities, tabling with library information, giving away books and library branded swag, and just talking to community members about all of the things libraries offer are some examples of community-focused outreach.
Surveyed libraries shared that they have sponsored and/or partnered with local schools, church food pantries, Lions clubs, local coffee shops and restaurants, community festivals, parades, and large-scale events, health fairs, park districts, Rotary clubs, scout groups, and farmer markets. For example, Glenview Public Library attends as many community-focused events as possible and has partnerships with CJE SeniorLife, Village of Glenview, Department of Senior Services, AgeOptions, and Oakton Community College VITA program (for literacy classes). River Valley District Library has partnered with the local forest preserve district to do events at the local parks. They also work with the school to provide entertaining and education programs during the summer.
Oak Park Public Library attends community events such as the Farmer’s Market, Thursday Night Out (weekly summer
eating/shopping on a closed-off street), and A Day in Our Village. A respondent from Oak Park Library said, “Block parties are very important in our community. A block submits a request to close off their street for a day and everyone living on that street comes out to cook, play, and generally get to know one another better.” For many outreach staff members, attending community events is a favorite part of the job, not to mention a low-cost outreach initiative. All that is needed is a table, materials, informational fliers, and a staff member with a passion for people and libraries. A respondent from Highland Park Public Library shared, “We love it! Like turning a work shift into a party! Any event, any
time, we will be there—we bring a tent, we register for library cards, we demo downloadables, we usually have a spinning wheel. We answer questions. We give away books. And these events don’t necessarily require staff with special talents, just friendly, strong people to help out and be genuinely happy to see other people.”
BUILDING BETTER COMMUNITIES WITH BOOKMOBILES
Bookmobiles, and their variations such as passenger vans and book bikes, are an important and perhaps the truest form of library outreach, as their role is to bring the library to the people. From the outreach vehicles, staff can create library cards, circulate materials, do small crafts, distribute library and partner publications, give away free books and library swag, and many other engaging activities. Oak Park Public Library's Book Bike operates from April to October, going to school-sponsored events, community events, as well as local block parties. Effingham Public Library also owns a Book Bike, fueled by the same community engagement that brought their Book Box ending machine. Through donated books, cycling staff can pedal out into the community and deliver books to the areas that need them the most. Bloomington Public Library’s Bookmobile operates on a three-week schedule, visiting 48 locations. Highland Park Public Library’s READMobile, loaded with tents, tables, chairs, books, and other materials, goes to events and gets especially polished for the Fourth of July Parade, where staff hands out candy. Normal Public Library owns two outreach vehicles for attending events, delivering deposit collections, and home delivery service. Fountaindale’s Bookmobile is a full-service mobile branch of the library that provides programming and all types of materials for patrons of all ages. Fountaindale is getting ready to welcome a new Bookmobile equipped with a TV and display monitor that will allow patrons to enjoy programming and other media outside the vehicle.
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR LIBRARY OUTREACH
Libraries differ in many aspects: budget, staffing, and community needs. When it comes to outreach, while it is always a good idea to network and learn from fellow libraries, it is important to remember that what works in one library, might not work in another. But in whatever capacity your library provides outreach, it can be a powerful tool to improve and complement services offered inside the building. As you begin or expand your outreach efforts, consider the following tips to make the most of it:
• Determine the purpose of your outreach
Your main goal should be learning as much as possible about your community in order to provide efficient outreach. Talking to patrons inside the library building is certainly helpful but remember that these people are already library users. You want to focus on non-users and underserved populations. One way to do so is to meet with other community leaders. Schools, child-care centers, churches, health centers, shelters, local businesses, and local media are all great starting points. This will enable you to learn what type of services your community needs. Learn about other organizations and their services. Instead of competing with them, make them your partners.
• Expand your outreach slowly
Start with outreach efforts that you are the most comfortable with. Joint outreach activities with another organization are easy yet effective; all you have to do is bring library publications and some library swag. Next, move into offering an information session or a book talk to a local school. And, as you become more comfortable with getting out and about, move toward more challenging endeavors such as planning an outreach event or developing a new service. Home delivery is just one example.
• Determine staffing needs
Not all libraries have established outreach departments. If yours doesn’t, you might need to pull staff from different departments to conduct outreach. Look at staff strengths and interests. Staff who live in the community they serve already know about community needs and are well equipped to advocate for the community and the library. Your goal is to have a dedicated and well-trained outreach staff, and if that is not an option, invest time in recruiting and training volunteers. Many home delivery programs are completely run by volunteers. Also, reach out to your Friends of the Library group. Share your ideas and goals with them; if not with a time, they could help with sponsoring an outreach initiative.
COVID-19: WHAT DID OUTREACH LEARN?
Just like every other library service, and perhaps even more than the others, outreach was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly the primary concept of outreach—bringing people together—became a threat to public health. Outreach staff had to step out of their comfort zone and out of their bookmobiles, literally. All of a sudden, patrons were not allowed to board bookmobiles, to touch books, to connect socially—all of it completely the opposite of what library outreach stands for.
Patrons were not allowed on the Bloomington Public Library's Bookmobile as there is no space to socially distance. Services to senior facilities were put on hold because of positive COVID-19 cases. Library and community events were canceled. And a respondent from Oak Park Public Library added, “COVID-19 has changed our outreach services immensely. There was no Book Bike Season, there were no school visits, there were no senior center visits—nearly all outreach services have been put on pause.”
Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, outreach persisted, and outreach staff still accomplished a few things, learned a few lessons along the way, and came up with new ideas and new ways of connecting with people while maintaining social distance. “COVID-19 has made everything harder! But it has helped me to make a couple of contacts with senior apartments in the area that are new and were not really interested in partnering with us before,” said a respondent from Fox River Valley Library District.
Oak Park Public Library opened its home delivery services to more people, getting several new parents with small children who wanted to stay home and protect their children from COVID-19, while still getting library materials. “This changed how our program has operated, and until we closed again, we had 60 or so people getting more than 200 items per week.” Oak Park's Read-While-You-Wait program at barbershops and laundromats was terminated; instead, they sent free books to other nonprofits in a need of free reading materials to hand out, mostly to children who did not have access to books at home due to socio-economic restrictions.
“All outreach was put on hold unless done virtually,” said a respondent from McHenry Public Library District. Instead
of visiting schools for book talks and storytimes, Addison Public Library staff handed out craft kits at meal distributions. A respondent from Joliet Public Library shared, “My entire job has been impacted by remote learning. I am finally starting to push into Zoom classes, but still not anywhere near what I used to do.”
FINAL THOUGHTS AND THE QUESTIONS THAT REMAIN
As I am writing this article, COVID-19 is far from being gone. The world is still amid a pandemic. A vaccine has just been developed and the first doses have been allocated to healthcare personnel. Next in line will be grocery store employees, teachers, emergency workers, and other people on the front lines of America’s workforce, but there is no mention of library workers in Illinois’ state-level plan. Are we prepared for potentially shutting down outreach if we are unable to physically serve schools, senior facilities, and attend community events? Does this mean another virtual year for outreach? Many questions remain unanswered. Many plans remain unmade. But, for outreach, if there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic taught us in terms of future plans, it’s this: It’s okay to say “We don’t know yet.”
More examples, resources, and discussions on the topic of library outreach are available on the following websites:
The American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services at http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/diversity
The Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services at https://www.abos-outreach.com/
Little Free Library at https://littlefreelibrary.org/
The author would like to thank the staff from the libraries mentioned in this article who took the time to share their experience, knowledge, and passion for all things “outreach.”
Addison Public Library, Bloomington Public Library, Effingham Public Library, Fountaindale Public Library District, Fox River Valley Library District, Glenview Public Library, Highland Park Public Library, Joliet Public Library, McHenry Public Library District, Normal Public Library, Oak Park Public Library, River Valley District Library, and White Oak Library District.