Impromptu Outreach: Practical Tips

Impromptu Outreach: Practical Tips

One of the things I love about working for academia is that things never really get boring; there always seems to be an opportunity to push one’s self out of one’s comfort zone. I had two opportunities to do just that this past month.

Although I’m a long-time member of my institution’s curriculum committee, I’d never volunteered to serve as a representative for departmental self-study reviews. I signed up to be a rep for two full-day visits, and, despite being a little nervous about taking on the task, it turned out to be such an amazing experience.

While my primary role was to serve as a host for the external evaluators and answer questions about how the review process functioned on the curriculum committee, I also had the opportunity to represent the library and discuss the support we provide for students, faculty, and staff. I was tremendously impressed by how familiar each department was with our basic resources (study space, books, etc.), but I also realized these visits presented a tremendous informal outreach opportunity.

For example, in one visit, there was a discussion about tying learning objectives to assessments. In the fall of 2021, I created and presented a workshop on just this topic, and reached out to the chair after the visit to offer to customize the workshop specifically for that department. We’re now in the process of setting up a session this summer!

This experience has given me the opportunity to think a lot about library marketing. I think we tend to focus a lot on Outreach with a big “O” — that is, formal programs, messaging campaigns, and messaging platforms. Equally important, but less discussed, is outreach with a little “o” — those informal, small-scale, impromptu opportunities to promote our libraries’ resources and services.

Little “o” outreach is, I think, in many ways more difficult than big “o” outreach because scripted messaging just doesn’t apply. The librarian must be able to listen closely and attentively, identify in the conversation a need or problem of which the colleague may not even be aware, and respond by positioning the library as part of a solutions-focused approach or an enhancement-focused approach — all in the space of a few moments. It takes a long time to develop and deploy this skill with confidence, but, the important thing is that can be developed. Here’s my process for working on improving at impromptu outreach.

First, take inventory! You’ve probably already done this to some degree in the past. Think about conversations you’ve had with colleagues that lead to their incorporating the library into their scholarship, service, or teaching.

Maybe you were at a union meeting and a colleague mentioned she was having a difficult time identifying a suitable open access journal for her work. Maybe you mentioned that you use Cabell’s or Sources or SCImago to locate and evaluate OA journals. Maybe she made a consultation with you to learn how to use these tools and now tells her colleagues to make an appointment with you when they’re having a hard time identifying an appropriate OA journal for their work. That’s a great example of the library providing a solutions-focused approach: the faculty member was faced with the problem of not knowing which OA journal might be appropriate for her work, and you provided a solution in the form of demonstrating specific tools to locate publishing opportunities.

Or, maybe a colleague shared with you that they face particular difficulty in getting students to develop manageable research topics. And, maybe, in response, you created a very brief tutorial that walked students through exploratory research and topic development. This would be a great example of an enhancement-focused approach: by scaffolding a sticking point in the assignment, you added value to the activity for both students and the instructor.

Again, you’ve probably done this already; it’s just a matter of identifying relevant experiences and learning from them. So, ask yourself the following:

  • When did I recognize a problem or issue while in conversation/correspondence with a colleague?
  • If the problem or issue wasn’t explicit, what was it about the conversation that made me realize there was a problem or issue the library could address?
  • How did I raise the issue with my colleague and what was the outcome?
  • What, if anything, would I do the same or differently if a similar situation arose? Why?

Second, use your inventory to practice! Keep answering the above questions until you can’ think of any more examples.

Third, don’t feel like you’ve got to come up with a library-based solution or enhancement on the spot. Instead, give yourself time to process the issue and consider how your library can support your colleague. You can always follow up in a few days. In fact, you can even use this template:

Hi, ____: I was thinking about our conversation the other day when you mentioned [issue/problem] and it occurred to me that [library-based resource/service] could be helpful. If you think this might be of interest, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d be happy to discuss [library service/resource] further.

Fourth, this should go without saying, BUT always keep in mind the distinction between formal library services and occasional courtesy services when referring colleagues to others in your library.

Here’s a great example: my fellow librarians never have to check in with me first when referring colleagues to me for copyright questions, journal evaluation, OER consultations, and so on because that is a formal part of my job. It’s what I do. But, there are things that I do when time permits that are related to but not part of my formal job responsibilities, which includes proofreading and providing feedback on colleagues’ academic manuscripts and, sometimes, even a little editing. So, if a colleague were to mention to a fellow librarian that they needed this kind of assistance, the appropriate thing to do would be to check in with me first before referring the colleague to me.

If you’re not absolutely sure if something a fellow library worker has done in the past is part of their core job responsibilities or an occasional courtesy, just reach out before referring any other colleague to them. Again, here’s another email template you can do.

Hi, ____: I had a conversation with [colleague] the other day about [issue/problem]. I know you have [identify related activities or job responsibilities] in the past, so I was wondering if I could refer [colleague] to you about this? If not, no worries. I just thought I would check in with you first.

To wrap up, outreach with a little “o” isn’t easy, but you can work on your impromptu promotional skills by reflecting on on-the-fly outreach you’ve conducted in the past, taking time to connect needs with library-based resources and services, and, above all else, understanding and respecting the work done by your fellow library workers.

So, what do you think? Did you give these strategies a try? Have a few of your own to recommend? Share your thoughts and comments below.

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