Ask a Librarian: How to engage a community with limited volunteer hours?

cover image from linked document saying "Principles of Community Engagement, second edition"

From the email box: One of my book followers is doing something very brave for her, volunteering at her branch library. It’s a little branch with a lady running it, who is something out of the 1950’s  —  and not in a good way. It’s quiet. It’s serious. And it’s falling apart without any new visitors at all. So, this lady is asking her new one-day-a-week volunteer to “do something” to get new people to come into the library.

I’ve been giving my friend lots of ideas, based on what I see at my own very vibrant branch library – including mothers’ clubs, reading hours and clubs, tech training, etc. But I wonder if you are aware of some source of inspiration to help library workers that are very low on the ladder, yet eager to invite new energy to a branch? Maybe you have a clever list of the easiest and most successful types of library programs? What seeds can they plant and how often should they be watered?

I think that is a good idea. First off: Five Minute Librarian is made for your friend

Lots of ideas and a lot of “turnkey” ideas out there. But some of this will depend on what the library community needs. I went to a really excellent program at the VT Library Association conference this year about community engagement (coincidentally, something I teach at University of Hawai’i’s LIS school) and she talked about similarly underutilized and underloved library and some stuff they did. A lot of it boiled down to “Help the community solve its own problems and don’t just focus on “library” stuff” Here’s the whole talk from EricaFreudenberger (zip file)

So some of it may be things your friend can do on her own, or some of it may be getting the current librarian on board with some stuff. Speaking of boards, it might be useful to see what is UP with the board to see if something could be addressed that way, maybe new blood there (your friend or a friend of hers) could help nudge things along in that direction.

What I often think about is the idea of multipliers. Like, what thing that the library has could be serving lots of people (at once, in a row, whatever) and it could be something as simple as AC in the summer, heat in the winter, a place for the Ham Radio club to meet, lego night, movie night, community quiltmaking, whatever. How can the library multiply energy that already exists in the community? Here’s a completely lateral way of looking at it but a look at what Community engagement means to a totally different field, in this case the agency for toxic substances and disease registry. Some ideas sometimes can be better if they don’t come from a library, per se, but some other field. See what you think. Here’s the list of links for things we looked at as part of my community engagement class, maybe something will spark your interest…

Engagement Toolkit  – Links

Central link repository. Dictionary definition of community.

Class Reading


Culture & Inclusion

Equity & Justice



Design – Access and UX

Design – Infographics