Public Library Outreach Makes Magic

Zola Maddison /

I have a theory that there is a little bit of magic involved in public library community outreach programs. I don’t believe that the magic is a component of making a good community outreach program. Rather, I believe the magic comes after. It is what happens when our community engages with our program, our staff, and our library. We spend weeks and often months planning and preparing, writing vision statements and proposed impact statements. But we are rarely prepared for true impact we make on individual lives. Those moments—albeit made by hard work and commitment—create magical moments for our communities. If you watch our recent webinar, Outreach Programs in Rural Communities: Simple Steps for Surprising Results presented by Barbara Blake, Outreach Coordinator for the PEARL Project, and Louise W. Greene, Association for Rural and Small Libraries Board Member and PEARL Mentor, you might begin to believe in my theory, too.

The PEARL (Promoting and Enhancing the Advancement of Rural Libraries) Project began when the University of North Texas (UNT) received funding for a 3-year rural library initiative from the Robert & Rudy Priddy Charitable Trust. Their mission was to strengthen the public library as an essential part of community life in rural Texas. They wanted the library to become a community resource, a gathering place for people, and a facilitator for community partnerships. In order to do so, they set seven goals for themselves:
1.    Enhance community cooperation
2.    Create community outreach plans
3.    Develop peer support groups
4.    Provide specialized educational opportunities
5.    Present $1,000 milestone award to recognize their outreach efforts
6.    Create web-based resources
7.    Create a model that can be duplicated by others

By supporting library staff in rural communities through the process of creating community outreach programs, PEARL has accomplished all of their goals, and more. These public libraries reached many of their anticipated goals. They were able to engage more patrons through more programs, they saw their circulation statistics and online interactions increase, and they heard that their patrons were happier and getting the programs and services they needed.

But participating in PEARL yielded just as many unanticipated results for both the library staff and their communities.  And here’s where I see magic:

New funding & new library advocates: The Chamber of Commerce in Crockett County raised $7,725 for their library, and the library won the 2011 Business of the Year award. At Gilbreath Memorial Library, a group of middle school students approached the library with a plan to do fundraising and donations on behalf of the library.
New perceptions of library & library staff as potential partners: Dyan Dunegan from Muleshoe Area Library reported that, “The Youth Services Coordinator from Communities in Schools had heard I was great at working with people in our community to enhance programs for all ages. She had received a grant that would enable her to work this summer on literacy. She wanted to help with our Summer Reading Program!!! This would have NEVER happened before PEARL.”
New skills & professional development opportunities: Staff at Pittsburg Camp County Public Library used their new survey development skills to reach out to new populations and provide new services on their behalf. The Friends of the Deaf Smith County Public Library approved of a 3-day library closure so that library staff could attend the Texas Library Association conference. And at Cochran County Love Memorial Library, library staff have found the outreach plan process so easy to duplicate, that they were able to complete a new outreach program within two weeks of completing their PEARL project.
Renewed energy & enthusiasm for new programming: “We had the first of our GED program participants complete her tests. She’s a young lady who moved here from Dallas…attended six weeks of our GED program and took her test…her scores…were all in the 90’s. She’s so happy—she will now be able to join the Air Force—which has been a life-long dream! She says it’s all because we gave her the chance and helped her when she needed it. If that doesn’t make what we are doing here seem worth it—I don’t know what will!!! Though it may be slow and successes far between, we will continue to offer this program as long as there is a need.” –Pattie Mayfield, PEARL participant

“Whether it’s helping one person get a GED, or a 100 people get information on health care, the things that the rural libraries are doing—in my opinion—are just fantastic,” states Blake.

There are a total of 93 community outreach plans available for anyone to access on the PEARL UNT website. Each plan follows consistent formatting, creating a model that anyone can easily duplicate. When we commit to the work of reaching out to our communities, we strive to reach immediate and measurable outcomes. But in doing so, we also set something into motion that we can’t plan for or expect: the way one person’s life might forever be changed because of something YOU created that wasn’t there before. And as one webinar participant noted, “That’s why I do what I do.”

To get more resources on the PEARL project, mentoring tips, and ‘down and dirty’ survey techniques, watch a recording of the webinar and view the related resources.

[Images: Barbara Blake and Louise W. Greene, 2011 and 2012 PEARL cohorts with mentors.]