When There Is No Frigate But a Book

Effective outreach services permit readers to voyage beyond their limitations

December 22, 2010


“I am writing this letter to tell you that I am personally very, very satisfied with your services at the Adult Corrections Facility. I am also grateful that I could get books ordered for me to help me take my medical board certification even while I am serving my time. I cannot stop thanking every one of you for this immense help toward my goal in life,” said one Adult C0rrections Facility resident.

“At Home service is a lifeline,” said a homebound nonagenarian patron of the At Home by Mail program. “I was 5 years old when my mother first took me to get a library card. Over all of my years, my enjoyment of libraries continued to expand. Then, at 86 years of age, my eyesight no longer was good enough to renew my driver’s license. Not driving cut me off—or so I thought—from my ‘second home,’ the library. Then, to my joy, I learned of At Home service! I am now 90 years of age, and I live alone. Your knowledgeable librarians find many materials within any area of interest and send them to me.”

The ALA Code of Ethics specifies that libraries are responsible for delivering “the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”

In the spirit of that code, Outreach Services staff at Hennepin County (Minn.) Library eagerly deploy beyond its walls to meet the needs of customers who can’t make it to the library on their own. Outreach librarians find and serve a diverse clientele, from a young man awaiting trial at the Juvenile Detention Center to an elderly woman in assisted living. The librarians practice the same skills as all librarians—listening to customers and providing reference services—but the results they see, the positive impact on the day-to-day lives of customers, are far from routine. That’s why they love their job.

A connection to life on the outside

Every Tuesday, librarian Dan Marcou leaves the library’s Outreach workroom for the world most people only get a glimpse of in movies like The Shawshank Redemption. Passing through double sets of security doors, he enters the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (ACF), a decades-old building of barred cells bisected by a huge, echoing corridor. Striding down that corridor, he smiles and greets staff and inmates, and it’s not unusual to hear a joyful “Hey, library man!” in return. Library Services Specialist Renee Hasse soon joins him at ACF’s men’s library, where Hennepin County Library has sent 50 boxes whose contents will offer residents a rare experience of choice and freedom.

The boxes are filled with browsable magazines, fiction, and nonfiction, some of which are then distributed to the library in the women’s facility as well. Almost all of the residents, though, are focused on picking up their individual requests. “Most of the inmates say they were able to read several books that ordinarily or at home they wouldn’t,” one ACF customer commented. “It sharpens their brain and redirects their thoughts toward more positive things.” The residents arrive by the dozens in shifts throughout the day, and Marcou has mastered the art of high-speed reference, with all requests submitted on paper because inmates aren’t allowed computer access. In addition to locating books and magazines, Marcou will look up reference questions and song lyrics. “One nice feature of this system is that you can take time to find the answers to questions,” said Marcou. “Since we can’t look up everything on the spot, I have time to do some in-depth reference work and deliver the answers the next week.” One happy resident thanked the staff for “their seeming joy and obvious dedication in bringing as much of the sanity outside into the asylum as they can. And I greatly appreciate all they do. They have been my ‘self educational’ mentors.”

Additional services help connect residents to the outside world. The “Read to Me” program encourages early literacy by audio recording a resident parent reading a children’s book. A CD of that recording and the book are mailed for free to the inmate’s child or grandchild. One father who participated in the program said, “It kept me alive when I was unable to be there to read to [my daughter]. I feel that we were able to still make a connection.” Another father discovered a new way to spend time with his children: “I thought about how we can go to the libraries, so I sent my kids a note to let them know that when I get out, I want to go to the library with them.” To help customers like him, Marcou created the Freedom Ticket newsletter, which connects inmates and their families to library materials and education that can assist with the transition back to life “on the outside.”

Outreach also provides library service to two juvenile corrections facilities, the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) and the County Home School (CHS). The service at CHS is more program-focused, because of residents’ longer stays. Programs have included a teen version of Read to Me, author visits (Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Draper, and Will Weaver), monthly booktalks, information literacy instruction, and publication of a literary magazine, Diverse City.

Keeping the mind active and entertained

While Patrick Jones is at the JDC, Lin Maki and Barb Holden—all Outreach librarians—may be visiting an assisted living facility, accompanied by an enthusiastic library volunteer. As they set up their display table and prepare for a booktalk, the recreation room fills with seniors and people with various disabilities. At the end of the session, the residents are thrilled to receive door prizes of bookmarks and book lights along with the library materials they will take back to their rooms. One customer recently commented, “Not only did you choose interesting excerpts to feature, but you read them so well. The background information and descriptions of the characters also piqued our desire to learn more.”

Booktalks are one way to promote Hennepin County Library materials, available at 60 deposit collections in assisted living facilities, independent living sites for seniors, and nursing homes. The collections consist of a standard assortment of books and audios, which rotate every three months. Librarians may visit each site a few times a year, but the collections are maintained by dedicated site staff or volunteers, who also pass along customer requests to Outreach staff.

County residents who are unable to use a library due to illness, disability, or visual impairment and do not live in a facility with a deposit collection can apply for At Home Service. Some customers choose to receive their library materials by mail, while others prefer volunteer delivery. The service has a tremendous positive impact on their lives. “I appreciate this service so much,” said one. “Even though I am limited in body, I can keep my mind active and entertained! I am learning, I am having adventures, and I am inspired.” Another customer said, “For all of my life, wherever I have lived, the public library was a source of pleasure, information, and delight. When I could no longer drive my car, I was desolate! Then I learned of At Home Service. Your thoughtful librarians seem like personal friends, although I have never met any of them. Thank you!”

At Home customers can call the At Home line during business hours and reach a librarian who provides readers’ advisory and reference help. To help homebound readers “browse” new library materials, Outreach librarians created the At Home Reader, a newsletter that is mailed bi-monthly and also made available online as an audio file for visually impaired customers. It features book reviews by customers and staff, news of interest to those in the At Home program, a customer profile, and new releases tailored to the special needs of this group of customers; all recommendations are available in large-print format, as audiobooks on CD, or both.

For the librarians who work in Outreach Services, the effort to reach customers is exceptionally rewarding, whether they work with inmates or customers on the At Home line. Maki, for example, has worked in both settings and says understanding and listening skills are needed to work effectively with both groups, though their interests may be so different. These librarians feel they are fortunate to see, every day, how library services can improve the lives of customers. “Our services are really about quality of life,” Maki says, “and we have the best job in the library.”

SARA ZETTERVALL is a candidate in the master’s of library and information science program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was the Summer 2010 intern with Hennepin County Library Outreach Services.