Community Reference: Making Libraries Indispensable in a New Way

Embedded librarians showcase skills and resources in unique community partnerships

June 13, 2012

Libraries are constantly evolving to adapt to the needs and desires of our users. Most of these changes have occurred inside our buildings, from obtaining cutting-edge technology to providing self-service and redesigned spaces. While these changes have been vital, they have failed to increase our presence in the community. How can we truly demonstrate our value to our communities beyond our physical/virtual space, programming, outreach, and materials?

Jamie LaRue, library director for Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries (DCL), asked his librarians this question. LaRue envisions a future where the librarian and the library are a central hub of the community. Librarians have the power to change lives and build community—but to do this, we have to leave our desks, leave our buildings, and show the community what a powerful tool we are. LaRue firmly believes that the library’s most powerful asset is its professional staff. He wants librarians interacting with the community, answering their questions, informing their discussions, and helping them—as partners—achieve their goals. These opportunities will not find us; we have to seek them.

Traditional reference questions are not coming into the library as they have in the past, and yet those questions continue to be raised by participants in community group meetings. Community reference involves sending librarians out into the community to work closely with groups and conduct onsite reference interviews, as needed, to discover and answer their questions. This process helps our librarians stay informed on the needs, goals, and direction of the community, allowing us to showcase our skills and services in a new way. We know that librarians are passionate about reference and research and are well-suited to provide expert research assistance at little or no additional cost to the community. Now it is up to us to demonstrate that. Librarians are uniquely trained to inform the conversations that are happening all around us, just outside our doors. All we have to do is get involved.

As Douglas County Libraries grappled with this concept, a small group of staff was selected to address the most prevalent concerns: What does community reference look like? Can we make this into something that truly adds value to the community? We discovered that to create something strategic, impactful, relationship-centered, and part of our everyday duties we needed to follow three simple guidelines: Show up, pay attention, and stay in touch.

Show up: Embedding our librarians

Embedding librarians in local organizations is the cornerstone of community reference. Assignments for embedded librarians vary from branch to branch so as to strategically target organizations that will provide the greatest partnership opportunities. DCL staff are embedded throughout the county in local schools, city councils, metro districts, economic development councils, and even a local women’s crisis center. Not only can embedded librarians attend meetings, inform discussions, and answer community reference questions—asked during a meeting or by community leaders with whom embedded librarians meet—librarians often also assist with the leadership of the organization; report on the group’s activities, goals, and direction; and in general become an integrated part of the group. Participating in these organizations allows us to demonstrate our value, while also becoming deeply knowledgeable about the issues they are facing. With this information, we can then discover the issues that our entire county is facing.

Douglas County Libraries’ first experiment with embedded librarianship occurred in 2006 when LaRue was invited to attend the meetings of the Parker Downtown Development Council (DDC). A group of property and business owners who wanted to improve the downtown shopping district invited town staff, city council members, and other stakeholders to work with them. The Parker Library manager and librarians began attending their meetings and served as the DDC’s secretary and in-house researcher (doing everything from minutes to volunteering at events, hosting information on the library website, and researching local architecture and methods for economic development in small towns). When the DDC was asked to describe the value of the library’s service over several years, members mentioned the importance of the expert research the librarians provided, the communication we facilitated, and the credibility a partner like the library brought to a fledgling organization. The library built strong relationships with these motivated community leaders, amazed them with our research skills, and helped the group grow into a formal nonprofit that leads the community’s drive for economic growth.

This became our model of success—the story we told to illustrate what we wanted to accomplish and what we had to offer. It got us excited, got us in the door, and started the ball rolling. Then the question became, “I’m here, now what?”

Pay attention: I’m here, now what?

The trickiest part of this process is perhaps the most powerful: building relationships. There is no rule book, no class that can be taught or checklist that can be created. What we expect of our librarians is simply that they show up and pay attention. By becoming aware of the issues important to the community group they are embedded in, they can begin to find ways to become part of what that group is working on. Through community reference questions and community reference projects, the embedded librarians can begin to use their skill as researchers to inform the discussion and assist the group to achieve their goals and mission.

Answering community reference questions builds a partnership between the library and the community group by giving us an active role in the group’s work. A prime example: In early 2010, a local economic development council (EDC) was discussing the recent surge of medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado and they wondered how other cities in Colorado were regulating this new business and what kind of regulations would work best for their city. The embedded librarian offered to research their question and compile a report on medical marijuana dispensary regulations. She compiled the research into an easy-to-read three-page report containing common regulations from California and Colorado, as well as a table showing how each city and county in Colorado was regulating medical marijuana dispensaries.

The story doesn’t end there. The embedded librarian presented the report to the EDC, and members of that committee shared it with the local city council. DCL branch managers also passed it on to their local city councils. LaRue shared it with the library board and his contacts across the county. It went viral! One day a patron asked for information on medical marijuana dispensaries and how the city was handling them, and the librarian working the desk at another branch was able to get a copy of the report to help answer his question.

The library’s work with the Parker DDC produced several community reference questions, some asked by the group and others generated by the embedded librarians. Projects the library produced for the group ranged from a PowerPoint presentation about different architectural styles found in Douglas County to a report on the steps required to obtain nonprofit status and biographies and photos of local historical figures needed to create a historical walking tour of the downtown area. At the beginning of our relationship with the DDC, the Urban Libraries Council published the Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development report. Making Cities Stronger provided an ideal opportunity to educate an economic development group about the various ways libraries can benefit a community’s economy. The library created executive summaries that discussed the key findings of the report, adding local examples and supplemental information. The library’s presence at the Parker DDC meetings allowed us to inform the conversation, educate the group about little-known aspects of public libraries, and demonstrate our research prowess.

Community reference projects are essentially community reference questions on steroids. These projects deal with questions and timely, large-scale issues affecting more than one city or organization in Douglas County. In November 2010, DCL approved a project on higher education in the county. They assigned a team of five librarians—including an intern and two associate directors—who would look at this issue in depth and create a report on several aspects related to higher education. The team dove into the research, which included interviewing local leaders and institutions, completing a literature review, and sending an email survey to over 150 community members. The reaction of those we interviewed and surveyed was impressive. Many felt the library is an ideal institution to do this research, since we are impartial. Others were impressed to learn that DCL is aware of the community’s goals in this area. The information was presented to the Castle Rock Economic Development Council, and frequent requests for the full report have been coming in from developers, local college presidents, and city officials. The completed report is available for download from the library’s website.

The most exciting result of working with community groups on answers to their questions and larger-scale research projects affecting the county is that our librarians know what is happening in our communities—and our communities know that we do. Recently, a librarian connected information she learned at a community meeting to a question our library leadership was discussing. LaRue simply smiled and said, “I love that our librarians know this!” and we, in turn, love that our communities have come to that realization as well.

Stay in touch

Beyond showing up as embedded librarians in strategically targeted organizations and building relationships by paying attention to the community’s needs and goals, we also need to stay in touch. To create the kind of impact we want, we needed an easy process to track the data from discussions and projects and share it with other embedded staff. With this in mind, we created the private Community Reference blog. 

We created and launched the blog in WordPress for Douglas County Library professional staff to post information and updates from their communities. This central tool helps us organize and share information gathered by embedded librarians and school liaisons across the library district. Since time is valuable and in-person meetings can take a lot of coordination, the blog provides a virtual meeting ground for librarians. It also contains information on all aspects of the Community Reference Project, including documents to assist with project proposals as well as evaluative tools for completed projects.

On the blog, librarians post interviews with community leaders; current issues in the county; community leader biographies; and meeting minutes from various community groups, including city councils, economic development committees, metro districts, and cultural and community associations. While it is possible to identify large themes without a tool like the blog, the Community Reference Project blog helps all librarians in the district discover common ground and hyperlocal issues. General concerns about the economy, funding, and growth affect many communities, but our blog helps us discover specific issues that Douglas County is facing. Data collection on the blog allows librarians to search for emerging communitywide issues or problems throughout our county. When an emerging community issue is identified, a team of librarians can research, analyze, and provide recommendations on how to work through the problem or issue.

The blog is extremely helpful for staying in touch, but LaRue wanted more. He sought a systematic approach to uncovering common issues in the county. A more structured approach would enable the library to begin e-publishing information for the community, about the community. His new idea: Have trustees and librarians interview key community members annually to identify the issues and concerns their constituents face.

In early 2011, over 20 community interviews were conducted and posted to the Community Reference blog. The entries were tagged CIP11 so they could be easily identified via internal tag searching. This allowed the group to become familiar with all the interviews that were conducted and narrow the major issues and concerns to a few key areas. Those issues were then discussed in a wrap-up meeting with those from the community who participated to make sure we got it right. From these interviews, the library has developed a series of programs on new and hot topics, created a new position to respond to a need of the community, and gathered valuable data about what our community is going through and what they care about. We also made valuable connections with leaders and influencers in Douglas County. When we duplicate this process in 2013, the archive of the 2011 interviews will be able to show us a progression.

The Community Reference blog has truly helped tie our efforts into a coordinated, self-directed part of our daily duties.

Unique outreach benefits both partners

Community reference is a way to integrate ourselves into the community that highlights the skills and services we have to offer. This unique outreach creates a valuable partnership for the library, communities, and the library profession at a time when we need our communities to support the existence and funding of their local library. It is outreach with a hyperlocal emphasis, something the library can do better than any other community organization. As libraries all over the country face steep budget cuts, the library needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant and create a library culture. We rely on our community’s support, and community reference in turn allows us to be strategically placed for our community to rely on our skills and services.

The value of the library’s involvement with a community organization includes both the tangible and the intangible. The embedded librarian generates reports, minutes, executive summaries, bibliographies, and many other deliverables that represent hours of research and analysis performed in response to an organization’s information needs. The cost of having an independent information professional perform the same research would be prohibitive for most community groups or nonprofits.

But the value of the library’s partnership is not limited to concrete pieces of information. The library stands with the local organization as a noncompetitive partner who has a deep and broad knowledge of the community, connections with other groups that might assist or inform the organization’s mission, and a desire to see the organization succeed. At times, the library’s connection can go beyond our greatest hopes—for example, when the Parker DDC publicly acknowledged that the library lent credibility to their fledgling organization. The idea that the library can validate a group’s worth was not something that we ever considered. But it makes perfect sense: Everything that the library offers to individuals to help them succeed—resources, guidance, expertise—is also available to organizations as a whole. This makes us just as essential to these groups as we are to our patrons.

What innovations in community involvement and outreach is your library pursuing? We would love to hear from you and include your story in our upcoming ebook on this topic.

At Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries, COLBE GALSTON is business librarian, ELIZABETH KELSEN HUBER is head of the adult services department, and KATHERINE JOHNSON is adult services librarian at the Highlands Ranch Library, and AMY LONG is patron services department head at the Castle Pines Library.



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