Meet Emily Jack, UNC Chapel Hill

Today we welcome Emily Jack from UNC Chapel Hill! Enjoy ~Laura

Please introduce yourself! Tell us your name, title, and how you got to your current position.

I’m Emily Jack, the Community Engagement Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I took a winding path to get here, with previous positions at a K-12 outreach program (that is sadly now defunct), and in a small museum of North Carolina history in the UNC special collections library. One consistent element of my previous work has been my passion for and commitment to outreach. I’m thrilled to finally have “community engagement” in my title, because it is, in my opinion, the most exciting and important work cultural heritage institutions do.

Tell us a bit about your approach to community engagement.

I’m inspired by the work of Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance. The latter book emphasizes that outreach has to be more than opening the door wider and inviting everyone to come in. We need to think more critically about the trade-offs people make when they choose to come to our institutions in terms of their time and attention. If we’re not offering them relevant experiences, why would people bother? I try to view all of my community engagement work through the lens of relevance.

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How does that philosophy play out in your day-to-day work?

For every program or service we consider, I examine it in light of two questions: 1) Who is the audience for this? 2) Why would they care? If we don’t have good answers to those two questions, it’s usually time to go back to the drawing board.

How has the transition from an internal focus to an external one unfolded at your library?

I wouldn’t say this has been a transition at my library. As service organizations, libraries have always been externally focused (at least in their modern incarnations). The library may not have always used the words “community engagement” to describe this work, but it’s always been happening to some degree.

What’s a challenge or speed bump you’ve encountered in this work?

I want everyone to love the library and to have meaningful experiences there. But given staffing and budget constraints, that’s an impossible goal. As a result, I tend to take on far more projects than I reasonably have time for and end up overloaded with work.

What do you think makes librarians in particular suited to this work?

Most of the librarians I know chose this field because they’re passionate about the service aspect of librarianship. Community engagement work provides a very direct experience of that element of librarianship, which makes it very fulfilling.

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What are your long-term goals for the work that you do?

First, to give everyone a reason to love the library.

Second, to find better work-life balance.

Those two goals are in constant tension with each other.

Who else is doing interesting work in this area (not necessarily in libraries)? Can be an individual or an institution.

Melody Kramer at the Wikimedia Foundation. She’s brilliant at thinking strategically about attracting new audiences.

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