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Engaging Your Community in a Virtual Space

January 12, 2021
picture of markers and glue bottles

Image: “Craft Supplies” by Lester Public Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On the afternoon of my second or third day on the job, I was shown a metal cabinet full of wonderful things: markers and colorful paper, an old-fashioned typewriter, and even a button maker! It was the first week of March 2020, and my mind was spinning, planning de-stress events and library research workshops to fill in the 2nd half of the spring semester… but by the next week the library was closed, and classes were moved online. What is it they say about best laid plans?

Outreach and engagement can be difficult in the best of circumstances, but one of the things we have going for us in the “before times” is that the library is a welcoming space. Students come in to work on projects or kill some time before class, and we can often coax them into a workshop or activity. Free food doesn’t hurt either when we offer a workshop for faculty or staff. But all of our tried and true methods went out the window when physical meetings became off limits. Over the past 10 months or so, our library has tried different ways to reach our community, some more successful than others.

Social Media

The library has been using Facebook as our primary social media during the pandemic for… reasons. Even before the pandemic, we did not have a lot of followers or interactions and this has continued. However, it is a quick and easy way to get information out to our campus community. Hours and policies are still changing so quickly it can make your head swim! Our most popular posts consistently are those about policy. The many updates to hours, and information about the new curbside pickup service were popular. We also used social media to encourage attendance and participation in our other outreach events. With other posts we shared interesting articles/videos and other “study break” content that may be of interest. These posts received lower interaction numbers, thought surprisingly a “just because” posts on two-legged ancient crocodiles received a good bit of interest – https://www.futurity.org/ancient-crocodiles-species-walking-two-feet-2384062/?fbclid=IwAR2z2eEcMq3qOswkr5hiDY1PNOSr7yZUfLYs2SFS4Bm9ylcD88V-2s2-Opk. Perhaps they were worried it was the next murder hornet?

The library has resurrected an email newsletter to provide an alternate way to share information with the community and bring back a library presence. Email is still an important part of our community’s daily life, maybe even more so during the pandemic. Hopefully, an occasional newsletter will reach them where they are without overwhelming them with more messages. Though only a couple have been sent out, the numbers seem promising.

Collaborations with others

A silver lining of sorts with the pandemic environment was that hosting virtual events and activities allowed me to meet and collaborate with others (remember, I still have only be on the job for less than a year). This shared the workload and widened our potential pool of attendees. One successful event was a Dungeons and Dragon’s campaign hosted by another librarian at my campus. He was able to make connections with the eSports and gaming groups on campus, so hopefully this is a connection the library can continue in the future. Another successful program was a Penn State History presentation. This was originally offered to just one campus, with little attendance, but when offered a second time and expanded to more campuses the attendance increased.

The most successful event hosted so far was the Online Escape Room that was a collaboration between two campuses. We developed the content using LibWizard by Springshare, so the event was asynchronous (though there was a deadline). Since this was offered in the beginning of November, we also were able to offer prizes for completing the Escape Room, which could be picked up at the library’s front desk with minimal interaction.

Collaborations with others did not guarantee success: A banned books bingo event hosted on Zoom only received one student participant and an end of semester De-Stress Fest and summer virtual book club websites received little traffic.

Conclusions/Insights

In the best of times, grabbing the attention of our community members can be difficult. There are many other events and responsibilities that can capture someone’s attention at a given time. Virtual outreach and engagement seem especially hard though. Maybe because any event or activity can just seem like work and is not the “break” that our communities need. Zoom bingo or other synchronous events still require sitting in front of a device and remembering where and when to attend. Instead of being a fun event, they may just add to the Zoom and screen fatigue our patrons are already experiencing. We have lost the “serendipitous attendance” that can really help foster a connection and community.

Why did some events and activities succeed more than others? This is all strictly anecdotal, but perhaps because they were activities the attendees were already interested in (D&D) or the event had such a wide appeal that the pool of potential attendees was greater (Penn State History presentation and Escape Room event). Plus, they didn’t require as much of a time or energy commitment as other offerings (virtual book club). I cannot say for sure, but I am hoping that others will explore and share their conclusions.

So, how does this reflection effect the outreach plans for Spring semester and beyond? It will soon be a year since I was shown the cabinet full of wonderful crafts, and we are no closer to a time when they can come out of storage. If there is a way to play to the strengths of the virtual environment, it is to look for ways to collaborate and combine forces with others. Look for events that can be hosted by multiple libraries or departments to share the load and widen the audience. Also, look for those events that could appeal to more than just students. Is there a way to grab the interest of faculty and staff as well as students? Or, pull in alumni or even the larger community? While combining efforts might lighten your load, be aware of the load on your community. Zoom and screen fatigue is a thing, and there are still many things vying for their attention and energy. Offering a smaller number of events, or a more variety of events, might appeal more to everyone.

I would love to hear how you all have attempted engagement and outreach during the past months? What has been your experience? What has gone well, and what hasn’t? Is there anything you’d recommend we try, or a tale of caution on what we should avoid? Please add your thoughts to the comments below.

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