Engaging the Whole Person in Library Outreach to Students

Students in the libraryWhile the fall season marks the end of summer reading for many public libraries, for academic libraries serving college students — and even public libraries with large student populations — it’s back-to-school time. This typically means making sure students have easy computer access, research materials, and other services, ranging from personal consultations to online tutorials ready and waiting to help them complete their upcoming assignments and tests. But while academic services are the “bread and butter” of what academic libraries do, it’s only a small fraction of what’s on students’ minds.

Many community colleges, for example, serve students from a variety of diverse backgrounds who have many different life experiences. Some students are working two jobs and raising kids while they return to school. Others have traveled from countries across the globe and may still be nervous speaking a new language. Many are teens that just graduated high school and some are the first in their families to go to college. From DACA students, to veterans making their way back to the workforce, to students just facing the stress of college life, many different types of students may be entering your library.

If you can ease their worries or concentrated fears through personal engagement, two things start to happen: their academic lives become easier because stress has at least been partially alleviated (they know someone cares), and the students recognize the library as a welcoming environment. This will encourage them to return to the library for their academic needs (to learn, apply and succeed).

There are many ways to engage students as a whole, but three distinct areas prove especially useful and easy to implement at little cost to the institution: sharing students’ stories, giving back, and caring about their issues and concerns.

1. Sharing Students’ Stories

One of the easiest ways to recognize someone’s value as a person is to listen to them. Often students, whether teenagers or grandparents, just want the opportunity to share a piece of who they are — and it’s even better if it earns them some recognition. Writing contests provide a great opportunity for students to share their stories in the library.

Contests designed to share student stories are a relatively low-cost marketing initiative as well. If only one winner is selected, only one purchased prize is needed, though the “reward” can just be name and photo recognition on the library website and social media.

Here are a couple of ideas:

  • A six-word story contest winner based on the theme “March Madness.”
    A six-word story contest winner based on the theme “March Madness.”
    Photo credit: Stephanie Espinoza

    An extreme story contest, such as a “6-word story” contest. (This idea is based on the urban legend that Ernest Hemingway said he could tell a story in just six words. He supposedly then proceeded to write: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”)

    The contest can be advertised on flyers in the library and posted on social media to encourage both in-person and online submissions. At the end of the contest period, librarians or students vote on their favorite story — it doesn’t take long to read submissions. These entries, though short, also reveal a lot about what is on students’ minds.

  • You can also sponsor longer creative writing contests or research-paper contests, with finalists sharing class papers and projects in a library-sponsored poster fair or on your institution’s blog.The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) lists its framework for higher education information literacy, including “Information Creation as a Process.” According to the ACRL website, “The information creation process could result in a range of information formats and modes of delivery.” It’s about more than just peer-reviewed articles written by scholars to which students feel no connection. Having students participate in their own information creation also ties to the frame “Scholarship as Conversation.” When students enter the conversations, they share their unique voices and perspectives.

2. Giving Back

While giving away physical items or food does require more cost, when done strategically, it can fill a void you might not realize your students carry with them. And sometimes all you need to give a student is an experience that makes them happy, reduces stress, or allows them to give a piece of themselves back to their own communities.

  • It’s not always easy to tell when a student in your library is hungry — especially when they are hungry because they can’t afford a meal. Some colleges have partnered with local food banks or started their own to assist students in need privately. Even if you don’t have the resources to provide food yourself, you can create a page on your website linking to social services such as how to apply for SNAP in your state or where local food pantries can be found in your neighborhood.
  • The increasingly common “Stress Free” events that academic libraries host during final exam week are the perfect opportunity to provide simple snacks to help students survive a day of testing. Libraries that might not have a budget for outside food may consider soliciting donations from the staff — even just a box or two of cookies from each employee can go a long way, or partner with a local grocery store or other business to allow for a larger-scale donation.
  • Activities are popular among students during finals week (and all year!). A $20 box of LEGOs stationed on a table near the reference desk lets students take a break from classes and exercise their creative muscles. Adult coloring has also become popular — providing coloring materials, such as Upstart’s Color Craze products, gets creative juices flowing and results in calmer, happier students.
  • A no-cost activity that generates large-scale participation and large-scale goodwill is a visit from trained therapy dogs! Studies continue to show the benefits of petting a dog — from lowering blood pressure, to releasing endorphins that help ease stress and pain, to facilitating social interactions. Partnering with a therapy animal organization like Pet Partners is a great first step toward bringing animal ambassadors to your library.

One student took the time to build an entire house!
Photo credit: Stephanie Espinoza

George loves to visit students! He’s an Old English Sheepdog and certified therapy animal through Love Dog Adventures.
Photo credit: Stephanie Espinoza

3. Caring About Issues and Concerns

There are many ways to show you care in the library, but caring about students’ specific social issues shows you care about them as more than just customers. Diversity groups on campus or in your town can offer insight into what issues different student populations may be concerned about. Here are a few ways you can facilitate student feedback on what you can do to address those concerns.

  • Use a whiteboard or bulletin board in the library to pose questions to students as an anonymous way to find out everything from what your students are reading to how they feel about what’s happening in the government. And they will definitely share their thoughts about the price of textbooks. It’s a good way to collect qualitative data and show you recognize that their feelings are important.
  • If your library or college has a news blog, occasionally featuring guest posts from students or interviews of students by library staff allows your audience to share their thoughts on a topic that affects your student population. If you control your own blog platform, you can even collect statistics on which blog posts get read the most to determine what your audience cares about most.
  • Forming partnerships with community organizations or campus committees benefits everyone involved — you learn more about populations outside the library and they learn more about what the library can offer. For example, many colleges have an Office of Diversity Initiatives or college diversity committees for student and staff engagement. An African American Heritage Committee or Genders and Sexualities Alliance group may be interested in partnering with the library on their events. For example, the library could provide literature and resources while the organization could provide the marketing and activities. Some groups may even have a budget for food or guest speakers, which may be of interest to your library’s frequent visitors. Outside the institution, community groups may have local chapters you can contact for ideas and possible cosponsorships too.
  • Creating book displays that highlight diverse authors or current event topics is an easy, no-cost initiative that still sends the same message and helps start new conversations. If you have expert contacts on one of those subjects, invite them to the library to speak, or find out from community groups if they have guest speakers you could possibly invite to your library too.

This kind of “marketing from the heart” isn’t about forgetting the mind. We all want students to succeed in their assignments and utilize our resources. But focusing on the person as a whole incorporates more than just traditional services. You’re uniting real individuals, taking a moment to understand, and inviting the whole person back to the library by showing it’s not just a place for “students” — it’s a place for them.


Stephanie Espinoza

Stephanie Espinoza

eLearning Librarian at College of Southern Nevada (CSN)
Stephanie is an eLearning Librarian at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) in Las Vegas, NV. She received her Masters of Library and Information Science from San Jose State University in 2011 and was hired at CSN in January of 2012. As the leader of the library’s Communications, Outreach, and Marketing team, Stephanie designs promotional materials for the library, organizes events and posts to the library’s news blog and social media accounts. She is passionate about outreach to students, both in person and online, and most recently presented “Your Library Loves You: Marketing from the Heart” at the ALA Annual Conference in June 2017. As eLearning Librarian, Stephanie also assists online students directly in their courses and utilizes virtual reference services. Outside of the library, Stephanie is active on several college-wide committees and community organizations. Her interests range from diversity and education to children’s literature and video games. Connect with Stephanie on Twitter, or check out CSN on Instagram.