Reference on the Road

Most traditional library reference work and services are conducted within library walls. Community librarianship, also called embedded librarianship, has another goal: to get librarians into the surrounding neighborhood where they can help the local population wherever they need information.

For some public libraries, that means staff members attending local government and chamber of commerce meetings and serving as researchers for special projects. In other situations, librarians visit schools, senior centers, and nonprofit organizations to provide books or volunteer in other ways.

LJ spoke to staff at several libraries that have embraced this roving-service model. The methods they use depend on what works best for their area and their new patrons, but the library managers and librarians interviewed agree this important endeavor helps libraries to form stronger local connections and improve the lives of others.

Douglas County Libraries | CO

Embedded librarianship work at Douglas County Libraries (DCL), Castle Rock, CO, started in 2006 with a roadwork project.

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS Douglas County Libraries’ Aspen Walker talks to business professionals at a library-hosted breakfast networking event. Photo courtesy of Douglas County Libraries

The Parker Downtown Development Council was ripping up and repaving Main Street, and library director Jamie LaRue and other staff members noticed that there were many questions being raised, such as how to replace Parker’s sewer lines and whether it would be better to put in angled or parallel parking spots in the town. A reference librarian was assigned to research those issues, ultimately resulting in an entire economic development study.

LaRue explains that the study led to “a paradigm [that changed] from waiting behind a desk [to] actively seeking community problems and finding solutions.” The library—which serves about 300,000 people through seven physical branches and one digital branch—sent librarians to meet and interview community leaders, elected officials, and representatives from local schools and not-for-profit and religious organizations. The librarians asked what their constituents needed from them, as well as what the leaders needed to know to make informed decisions.

As a result of the interviews, LaRue says the library system was able to create a comprehensive survey on what matters to the community and followed up with a debriefing session to see if their conclusions were correct. Subsequent communitywide studies created by DCL in 2010 and 2011 focused on the history of Colorado’s medical marijuana law, local regulations on marijuana dispensaries, and the proposed economic impact a college would have on the area.

Promoting civic engagement

The library’s latest survey looks for ways to promote local civic engagement—especially among senior citizens—and the library, along with other partners, is working to build an online portal that would match volunteers with opportunities in every municipality and school in the county, LaRue says.

Mark Stevens, the town manager for Castle Rock, praised DCL for its leadership on many community projects that “add immense value to the community.” The supplementary research and development the library provides the town, he says, “has been outstanding and invaluable.”

Other local activities include helping Douglas County businesses with workshops and research; librarians volunteering with leadership groups and municipal government; and embedding children’s librarians in elementary, middle, and high schools, says Colbe Galston, DCL business librarian, whose colleagues Amy Long, Parker Library branch manager, and Elizabeth Kelsen Hubert, head of adult services for the Highlands Ranch ­Library, agree.

The Women’s Crisis and Family Outreach Center has a librarian visit families in the shelter weekly to provide library cards, books, movies, and donations of needed items such as cleaning supplies, gift cards, and grocery store cards, as well as computer and résumé-writing workshops for the adults. Jody Curl, the shelter director, says the partnership with the library has been going on for three years and the center and all of its clients “truly appreciate” the assistance. “We rely on support from community partnerships,” Curl says. “The library is one of them, and we couldn’t do it without them. They’ve been very helpful to us.”

Douglas County librarians are expected to spend four hours a week in their local communities. In preparation, several workshops on public speaking were held for staff members, and paraprofessionals were trained to answer lower-level reference questions to compensate for the decreased in-house availability of librarians. Senior staff contribute as well, according to LaRue, by teaming up with their counterparts, such as town managers and school superintendents, to craft “a community agenda.”

Funding for nearly all community librarianship activity has been within the budget, LaRue says. He notes that the library switched most of its circulation processes to automation and self-checkout services a few years ago, allowing former circulation clerks to become paraprofessionals.

LaRue emphasizes that community librarianship is just an extension of the library’s current work of helping others—the reference interview is now conducted in a new venue with an updated goal. “It’s not just fixing the problem, it’s the strategic improvement of our community,” says LaRue, “and I don’t think libraries have been at the table at enough of these ­discussions.”

Deschutes Public Library | OR

At the Deschutes Public Library (DPL) in Central Oregon, community librarianship started in 2010 after a marketing study showed that many locals were not using the library but thought they should, according to Todd Dunkelberg, the ­library director.

“It was an eye-opener—we needed to get the word out to the community about the great services we have, and for us it meant getting out into the community,” he says about the library, which serves roughly 156,000 people in five cities and towns.

SPREADING THE WORD Deschutes librarians connect by joining key community groups. Glenna Rhodes (l.) and Liisa Sjoblom (r.) work the library booth at the Bend Chamber of Commerce Business Showcase. Photo courtesy of Deschutes Public Library

The library analyzed every municipality and assessed the needs of businesses, not-for-profits, and other organizations, Dunkelberg says. Goals were set regarding how the librarians could get connected with prospective patrons, such as by joining key committees and groups.

Public service specialists (paraprofessionals) received training to answer basic reference and technical questions, Dunkelberg explains. Community librarians were encouraged to spend one-quarter to one-third of their time in their communities. DPL also switched to more generalized staffing at the smaller libraries so that “the librarian is truly a community librarian providing services to children, teens, and adults, which helps solidify [that person’s role] in the community,” Dunkelberg says.

Embedded librarianship led to stronger business connections, such as a program in which librarians meet with business developers one on one to show them databases and other business-related resources, Dunkelberg says. The library developed résumé building and job hunting workshops with Worksource Oregon, a statewide network of public and private agencies that focuses on business and job assistance. The library also connected job seekers with career resources at community colleges.

The new venture helped DPL gain new insights into local demographics and develop programs and services tailored to the various communities. For example, in the more rural La Pine, the library developed book talks and school outreach programs to meet children’s needs.

The public got on board: use of the library has grown from 35 percent of the population in 2007 to 60 percent in 2012, and Dunkelberg attributes the rise to the library’s outreach efforts. Reference transactions are also up from 65,000 to 100,000 over the past four years. “It’s a huge jump, and we’re pretty excited about that,” he says.

Dunkelberg explains that the library succeeded in the community librarianship work without extra funding and amid declining budgets by shifting and the library’s management structure and reducing the number of managers. The organization would like to do more community librarianship, Dunkelberg says, “and, as the economy improves, we have a model for what we’d like to do.”

Multnomah County Library | OR

Multnomah County Library (MCL), Portland, OR, has always performed outreach services, explains Terrilyn Chun, the public programming and community outreach manager. Over the past three years, staffers have increased their presence at the literary Wordstock Festival and at Bud Clark Commons, a Portland apartment complex for people who have been ­homeless.

MYSTICAL RA Library assistant Susanne Lohkamp (r.) predicts an attendee’s “reading future” at Wordstock 2013 in Portland, OR, at which Multnomah County Library reference staff provided title recommendations to close to 275 readers. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library

At the Wordstock Festival, librarians have been present to answer reference questions from hundreds of people; at this year’s event on October 3–6, the library had a booth for readers’ advisory, book holds, and ebook downloads, Chun explains. At Bud Clark Commons, the library partnered with the center to develop adult literacy classes, basic computer classes, and “Ask a Librarian” drop-in hours, during which clients could ask anything or talk about sensitive topics.

The essentials of doing community librarianship include defining the scope of what the library wants to do, conducting research/community analysis or an environmental scan, and then ensuring that the library has institutional support and the resources to follow through, Chun says.

“Focus your efforts on well-defined activities that align with your other priorities and that will give you the most bang for your buck,” she advises.

More advice

The trend of community librarianship operated by public libraries has been growing over the past decade in the United States, and there is now a whole movement of community librarianship in Canada and the UK, explains David Shumaker, an associate professor of library and information science at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

It is key for community librarians to go into the neighborhood and build relationships and partnerships that work like “a two-way street,” Shumaker says. While libraries can be “so service-oriented and focused on what we can do to help someone else, we need to be aware we need certain things to provide those services,” he continues. He suggests that libraries look into partnerships for fund sharing, mentorship, and additional opportunities for combined support or services.

Libraries must be clear on what community librarianship entails and provide concrete examples to staff members, says Glenna Rhodes, the Deschutes library community services manager. Managers should be aware, emphasizes Rhodes, that staff members might be working outside of their comfort zone. It would be helpful to provide assistance in brainstorming services the libraries might offer and tips for networking. Librarians, for their part, should recognize their significant reference and research abilities and make sure the community knows about them, says Douglas County’s LaRue. Furthermore, he urges librarians to set an “honest and achievable goal” for the amount of time spent on community librarianship each week and be selective in working on local projects or programs that require outside assistance. “Not everybody has something going on all the time, and we need to move our resources wisely and move on to somebody who needs us.”

Assessments should be built into every project as well. After the project or program is complete, LaRue explains, the library staff should go back to the people who were assisted and ask if the library’s contribution was valuable.

Long, the Parker Library branch manager, has a more succinct summary for successful community librarianship. “Show up. Make a connection. Keep in touch,” she says. “Those are our three magic steps.”

Further Reading

Hamilton, Buffy J., “Embedded Librarianship: Tools and Practice.” (Library Technology Reports, Feb./Mar. 2012). ALA TechSource. 2012. 34p. ISBN 9780838958575. pap. $43.

OCLC WebJunction, “Leaving Fort Ref: Frontiers of Embedded Librarianship,”

Pateman, John & Ken Williment. Developing Community-led Public Libraries: Evidence from the UK and Canada. Ashgate. 2013. 242p. ISBN 9781409442066. $79.95.

Shumaker, David.

Shumaker, David. The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed. Information Today. 2012. 232p. ISBN 9781573874526. pap. $49.50.

Michelle Lee is studying library science at Pratt Institute, New York. She previously worked as a newspaper and online journalist for ­, the Bergen Record, Press of Atlantic City, and Providence Journal