I Have to Ask: Expanding the Library’s Reach

Posted on August 12, 2019

Stephanie Chase

In this feature, a guest columnist responds to a question from ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Stephanie Chase, Director of Libraries, City of Hillsboro, OR, writes how libraries can expand their reach to parts of the community less familiar with library services. Learn more from Stephanie on the GovLove podcast episode – Rethinking the Library with Stephanie Chase & Hillary Ostlund.

It’s true; on average, just under half of people in the US have a library card, and certainly fewer visit than have a card. This raises an important question — how can we expand the reach of the library. It starts with asking whether getting people into the doors of our physical libraries is really the most important measure of engagement we are trying to achieve.

The answers I might give you to this question from my perspective in Hillsboro are going to be different than they might be if I were at another library. For us, we are in some ways at capacity with being able to serve more people in our physical locations. At our largest library, we’ve seen use level out at around 800,000 visitors annually, with changes in that number often directly tied to how many large trainings, meetings, or events we have had in our largest meeting room. There’s often nowhere to park (something we get complaints about), and all the seats are full. We’re not sure how many more people we could fit in! So, expanding our reach has to look different than increasing our visits. 

In fact, expanding the reach of the library is one of the four strategies in our new strategic plan, with the following goal areas:

  • Ensure the continued provision of neighborhood-based library services.
  • Facilitate community connections and partnerships.
  • Bring library access to our users, wherever they are.
  • Engage the community in unexpected ways.
  • Focus on innovative solutions and services to ensure and expand library access.
  • Explore new options for virtual services.

While the Library Board feels adding additional locations — located with easy access to neighborhoods — we have also highlighted other essential ways to expand the reach: 

  • through thoughtful partnerships, where services the library provides often provide an a-ha moment for our partners and we are mutually able to support one another; 
  • with a robust outreach program, emphasizing providing service not only at the point of need but at the point of interest, through pop-up programming, participating in community events, supporting summer lunch sites, deposit collections (including in the waiting area at the main police station), and in non-staffed access options, like our Book-O-Mat, a book vending machine;
  • by concentrating on our virtual patrons, or our community members who may only use us online. These users are often our heaviest users, even as they may never come in the physical library.

In general, all libraries can benefit from being targeted in how we share our wealth of services and resources. I often say it’s always worth starting at the library, because we probably have it and we can probably help you. Too often though, we’re sharing such a long menu of what we can provide, our communities have a hard time remembering what we have said or seeing themselves or their needs in our services. Be thoughtful and targeted; I think we can benefit from maybe doing a little carrot-and-stick.

Libraries are also often at the forefront of equity, diversity, and inclusion work through government in our communities, because public libraries are built on essential core values that emphasize the need for that work, including providing free and open access to all. Libraries can continue to expand their reach by tirelessly advocating for and amplifying the requests and needs of the underrepresented and marginalized in our communities.

Close window