“Non-Traditional” Library Services: Expanding the Library’s Offerings While Increasing Community Engagement
November 29, 2018
Eric A. Edwards, State Library of Illinois
What do notarization, passports, and credit unions have in common? What about stamps, voter registration, and fishing and hunting licenses? They are all services that libraries offer. As surprising as this may sound to people who still view libraries as repositories of books and journals—and, starting more recently, as community spaces where groups can meet and patrons can explore new technologies—offering “non-traditional” services is a growing trend among libraries of all types, including in Illinois. Whether filling a gap in services that other community organizations normally provide, increasing the library’s visibility in the community and drawing people who might not otherwise use its services, or simply making the library a more “fun” place to visit, offering non-traditional services is the latest way in which many libraries are adapting to the demands of twenty-first-century librarianship.
WHY OFFER “NON-TRADITIONAL” SERVICES?
Why would libraries consider offering these services in the first place, however? Filling a gap in services that other community organizations provide is one reason. Since libraries are open beyond traditional business hours (especially in the evenings and on the weekends), they can provide government services, such as passport issuing, that are normally only available during the regular workday. Having services available locally is especially convenient for people in smaller communities who cannot easily travel to access a service elsewhere. In other instances, the library is stepping in to fill a need that other institutions used to fill, but no longer do. One example is notarization, as some banks and currency exchanges no longer provide the service.
Certain government services can also be a source of revenue. This is one reason the Helen Plum Library decided to offer passport services. Other services, such as selling stamps (which the Indian Prairie Public Library provides), are closer to breakeven, but they still have value because the services are highly popular with patrons. More important, if the library is the only location in the community that offers a service, this makes the library “unique” in people’s minds. The Gail Borden Public Library District was the first public library anywhere (to the best of anyone’s knowledge) to house a branch of a credit union, through KCT Credit Union.
COLLABORATING WITH OUTSIDE ORGANIZATIONS
For some services, in-house organizing and planning are sufficient. For others, however, bringing in outside assistance is necessary. The Loyola University Chicago Libraries, for instance, partnered with the League of Women Voters to undertake voter-registration efforts during this year’s primaries, and the Libraries are working with the University’s Office of Civic Engagement as part of a campus-wide drive for the general election. In the case of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the library is working with the Champaign County Clerk’s Office to promote voter registration. Similarly, the Fountaindale Public Library District has partnered with the Will County Clerk’s Office to offer early-voting services. Another example of a library that has worked with outside groups to offer a service is the Niles-Maine District Library, which has collaborated with organizations such as CJE SeniorLife Resource Counseling and SCORE Chicago, a nonprofit that offers free or low-cost business education workshops, to offer senior resource counseling and small business services, respectively.
In offering a government service, in particular, additional outside training might prove necessary. For example, to provide hunting and fishing licenses, staff at the Coal City Public Library District and the Six Mile Regional Library District received training from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The US Department of State provides training for passport issuing. For many public libraries that are part of municipal government, contacts in other city departments can help. Even if a service initially has just internal training, it might prove beneficial to include outside experts for a refresher course, or to train additional staff. Similarly, a library can seek training and advice from a professional regional or statewide organization; this is what a staff member at the Marseilles Public Library did for notarization, taking a class offered through the Reaching Across Illinois Library System.
PROMOTING THE SERVICES
A library has determined what “non-traditional” services it wants to offer and how to deliver them, but what about promoting the services? Word-of-mouth can prove effective, particularly in a small community. Posting flyers around the library and community, and signs within the building, is another “low-tech” approach. For academic libraries in particular, social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) can be the best way to reach people, particularly students. If a service is especially relevant to a certain group, it might work best to advertise the service in a class. For instance, the Berwyn Public Library advertises its voter-registration services to a citizenship class.
If the library has a website that it updates regularly, putting information about the service in a noticeable place (such as near the top of the homepage) can ensure that as many people as possible are aware of that service. Including an article or announcement in a library or community newsletter, or the local newspaper, can be another option, especially for alerting the broader community. If a library offers a government service, such as passports, a government website may list the library as a Passport Acceptance Facility. In the case of a unique service, such as a credit union, national publications advertise the partnership.
In promoting “non-traditional” services, libraries should clearly convey how offering the service meets the needs of the community and fits the mission of the library. Having services such as voter registration or passport issuing, for instance, promotes the goal of encouraging civic engagement. A credit union improves financial literacy, which can be part of a library’s overall mission of promoting literacy in general. If the library is part of a larger organization, connecting the services to the educational mission of a college or university, such as promoting literacy or lifelong learning, can be particularly effective. Or, if a library requires a more generic approach, simply emphasizing that adding the services is part of the library’s ongoing efforts to improve the user experience will work.
BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES
The most obvious benefit to offering “non-traditional” services, beyond improving the patron experience, can be increased foot traffic. For those users who are new to the library or may have visited in the past but are not familiar with some of the library’s services, drawing them via the “non-traditional” services can lead to increased use in more “traditional” services, such as signing up for library cards. Similarly, people who may have viewed the library as primarily a place to check out books and study now understand that it offers additional services. Some libraries have learned that offering the services can draw “hard-to-reach” populations, including recent immigrants; this is what the Ela Area Public Library District discovered when it started offering passport processing. In some instances, even a service that is not usually held in the library itself can lead to increased library use. This is what Blackburn College has found with its peer tutoring services, which sometimes refer students to the Lumpkin Learning Commons and its resources, especially for class research.
Even with extensive planning, however, libraries will inevitably encounter obstacles. Staff support is crucial; the people providing the service need to be enthusiastic and willing, and they should view it as an extension of their duties, and not a “burden.” As important as the service might be for making a library stand out, offering it should not interfere with the library’s day-to-day operations. If a library has the option, it can train additional staff to assist, or rotate staff to ensure adequate coverage across all departments. If libraries cannot make the service available at certain times or on particular days, they should clearly convey this to patrons.
An alternative that avoids some of these problems is to host a service, rather than actually having library staff members provide it themselves. This is what the Bloomington Public Library has done for tax preparation, recruiting the volunteers from AARP Tax-Aide. If appropriate, a library may have to reduce a service if certain aspects of it fall outside the scope of what the library can realistically provide. The Antioch Public Library District found this approach helpful with its notarization services due to concerns over liability, and it does not notarize certain types of documents, such as wills or other real-estate papers.
ADVICE FOR LIBRARIES CONSIDERING LAUNCHING “NON-TRADITIONAL” SERVICES
Starting a “non-traditional” service, as adventurous as it might sound, does require some advance planning, particularly if outside training or other assistance is necessary. If a library is considering offering voter registration, for example, it should account for the logistical challenges, including recruiting volunteers. A library should make certain to follow any rules or regulations, especially for using library spaces for events that one could construe as politically related. Having the support of all involved parties, including a library’s board or administration, is important for ensuring the continuity
of the service, particularly if funding is required.
In terms of which services to offer, a library should consider what its community already has. Even if the service might seem worthwhile to library staff, it might not meet the needs of the community, so it is vital to obtain feedback from library users. Focusing on one or two services that staff can provide particularly well is often more productive than trying to offer a wide range of services. Studying community demographics can be especially helpful for launching social services, such as immigration-related ones. This is what the Addison Public Library discovered when, based on U.S. census estimates, it determined that more than a third of community members were foreign-born.
Most importantly, librarians should be willing to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and should try to make this a “fun” experience for everyone involved—staff, regular library users, and new users attracted by the services. Despite the challenges involved, patrons are likely to be grateful for the opportunity to use the service. This helps increase the value of the library in the eyes of the community.
The author would like to thank the following individuals for sharing their insights: Lily De La Cruz, Elizabeth Lynch, Kelly MacGregor, and Mary Medjo Me Zengue, Addison Public Library; Amy Blue and Jennifer Drinka, Antioch Public Library District; Hannah Rapp, Berwyn Public Library; Brian Hickam, Blackburn College; Carol Torrens, Bloomington Public Library; Cindy Starks, Coal City Public Library District; Anne Belden, Erica Christianson, and Christen Wiser, Ela Area Public Library District; Peggy Danhof and Paul Mills, Fountaindale Public Library District; Melissa Bernasek and Carole Medal, Gail Borden Public Library District; Sue Wilsey, Helen Plum Library; Debbie Sheehan, Indian Prairie Public Library; Katherine Paterson, Loyola University, Chicago; Jan Ambrose, Marseilles Public Library; Sasha Vasilic, Niles-Maine District Library; Tina Hubert, Six Mile Regional Library District; and Sarah Christensen, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.