Meet Bryan Voell, Johnson County Libraries

It’s my pleasure to welcome Bryan Voell to the ELC today. I know Bryan from several years of working together (virtually) on the Library as Incubator Project–he is doing very interesting work at Johnson County Libraries in Kansas. Enjoy! ~Laura

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

My name is Bryan Voell and I’m the Local Arts Librarian for the Johnson County (KS) Library. I also answer to Reference Librarian, the public service responsibilities of which are the core of what I do. Before starting in this position about five and a half years ago, I was the Assistant Branch Manager for one of our busier branches. When I was hired for my current position, I was asked by my then-manager what I would choose as a focus area. (Each of our nine Librarians have a focus area: Civic Engagement, Careers and Personal Finance, Incarcerated Services, Local History, Reader’s Advisory and Makerspace.) We had never previously had a Local Arts as a reference focus, so this was new to both me and the organization.

What is your approach to community engagement, or outreach, or partnerships, in your work?

Two of my main roles as Local Arts Librarian are coordinator of our Exhibitions program, which brings visual art and artists to our nine branch art galleries; and Local Music (formerly called Listen Local), our online blog that spotlights Kansas City-area original composers and songwriters. Neither of these programs could exist without community engagement and partnerships.

For Exhibitions, we partnered with two community-based arts organizations to create official branch annexes. Those particular branch galleries were given physical upgrades, complete with signage that reflected the partnership. The partnerships essentially work like this: We provide the space, they curate the art, and work with the artist(s) to get the work installed and removed. We see our partners as the experts in their field, people with deep connections to the local arts communities. We are only happy to share our spaces with them.

Local Music - Bryan Voell

Our Local Music project exists in the same way as other local music projects (digital and otherwise) exist. Reaching out to these artists is absolutely essential. We can no longer “just” order music CDs through a vendor and shelve them in Local Music. We must engage with artists one-on-one. This to me is complete joy.

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

Our Local Music blog is updated weekly. This means a portion of every week is dedicated to corresponding with artists, usually via email, about an interview. Where outreach and partnerships really come into play is with programming. We don’t feel the need replicate what is already being done elsewhere. There are several high quality arts organizations just in the vicinity doing great work, offering creative and educational workshops for artists and other community members, studio space, artist talks, etc. It really doesn’t make sense for our library to offer the same programs these other organizations do; but it does make sense for us to collaborate and compliment each other.

Part of my job is meeting with other arts advocates and discovering ways we can work together. Another part of my job is more desk-focused: sending invitations to be interviewed or to perform, putting the blog together, coordinating with artists over email. Last but not least, another aspect of my work is public service-centered. This means working at one of our four public service stations, helping people use our library, helping people find answers, offering computer help, etc.

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

Libraries are all about collections and connections: connecting patrons to materials and experiences that may help inspire and educate. They are great hubs for community activity. People use them for all sorts of reasons. Most of the time we are oblivious to the ways the people we serve use our buildings and digital resources, making the opportunity for connections between seemingly disparate things enormous. As Local Arts Librarian, my role as library advocate intersects with the role of local arts advocate. The library is by its very nature a creative incubator. I’m lucky enough to work in a place where Local Arts Librarian is a real title, reflecting the larger values of the organization.

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

The goals are cyclical and always need to be tied to our Strategic Plan. For me, goals usually emanate from questions:  How can we make our local music project more accessible, marketable and scalable? How can we work more closely with our partners to enhance the library experience for our patrons? What is my capacity? How do I define what’s working and what’s not?

Links & more:

Filling in the gaps

This week, a resident and partner shared with me an article from Nonprofit Quarterly titled The Organic Role of Libraries as Centers of Inclusiveness and Support, about major metro library systems who employ social workers. It’s an especially pertinent topic right now as the Midwest, where Laura and I both live, is gripped by record-breaking temperature lows. It’s only (only!) -6°F here in Cleveland. It’s gotten as low as -28°F in Chicago, and wind chills across the region have reached the -50°s. (I grew up in Tennessee, y’all. I didn’t know temps this low were even possible.) The New York Times reported Wednesday that at least 4 people have already died in relation to the cold. This week, all of our vulnerable populations are especially vulnerable.


Source: Joshua Gunter,

But librarians are vigilant. My inbox is filled with coworkers sharing resources with one another, to ensure we all know how to help anyone in need. The good news is, agencies and citizens are stepping up to care for our own. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless maintains a street card that informs people where they can find essential services for housing and food. Greater Cleveland RTA is keeping several transit centers open 24/7, and shelters are not requiring their guests to leave during the day and have promised they will turn no one away. Area social workers are working round the clock to monitor the streets and ensure no one is left outside. As I was typing this just now, a kind-hearted patron brought me a bag of brand-new hats and gloves so that we may give them away to youth in the library under-dressed for the extreme weather.

Social workers are specially trained to know how to tie all of these resources together, in a much deeper and more impactful way than librarians’ standard reference practices can achieve. Libraries like Denver Public Library and San Francisco Public Library, both in communities with high levels of need, are growing social work programs to help connect patrons with social resources. For many smaller libraries, however, adding a new staff member, let alone a team, just isn’t feasible. But by developing relationships with social work agencies in our area, we can work to fill in our gaps in service by sharing resources.

Bellefaire JCB is an agency local to us in Northeast Ohio that cares for youth in a myriad of ways–one of which is their Homeless and Missing Youth department, which administers the Safe Place program in Cuyahoga County (Greater Cleveland and many surrounding suburbs). Through this program, when a community space is designated as a Safe Place, we post an identifying sign so that any youth in trouble know they can come to any staff member and get help. In our area, we call Bellefaire, and they will come meet the youth and connect them with housing, counseling, or anything else to meet their needs. We can also just call their hotline to ask advice on how to handle a hard situation. It’s a service we at the library would struggle to meet on our own, but by partnering with Bellefaire, we’re able to help widen the safety net for at-risk youth in our area. There’s a whole network of Safe Places in Cuyahoga County; most libraries have earned the Safe Place designation, and every bus and train in RTA is a Safe Place as well. We at Shaker also partnered with our local schools and police department to ensure that students and police are aware of the program and the services Bellefaire provides.

What ways have you been able to fill in the gaps in your service through relationship building? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Meet Ray Lockman, Hennepin County Library

Welcome to a new week and a new interview! We are pleased to present Ray Lockman, librarian, teacher, and inclusion consultant. Enjoy! -Maggie

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

I’m Ray Lockman. They/them/their pronouns, please! Currently I’m a librarian at the Minneapolis Central branch of Hennepin County Library. I started as a substitute librarian at HCL soon after graduating from library school in 2011. It took me a few years of mostly jigsawing part-time gigs together before landing at HCL permanently as a Patron Experience Supervisor (HCL’s version of a branch manager) in 2017. After a year, I decided I missed patrons too much and was able to transfer to Central. I also teach graduate and continuing education courses for University of Wisconsin-Madison’s iSchool and consult on inclusion in libraries.

We have so much to learn from people who aren’t patrons, from those who don’t use the library or understand what we do. Leaving our buildings to engage folks helps us do that.

2. Tell us a bit about your approach to community engagement.

I think community engagement requires leaving the building sometimes. We as libraries need to ask questions–what do folks need and want from the library?–and truly let those answers steer our environments, online and in person. We have so much to learn from people who aren’t patrons, from those who don’t use the library or understand what we do. Leaving our buildings to engage folks helps us do that. But patrons are not libraries’ only community requiring engagement. I think the work we do within our staffs or between organizations, agencies, and municipalities is also engagement work.

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

I do a good bit of more traditional community engagement as coordinator of Central’s New American Center. Right now, we’re reenvisioning programming and collections, so I partnered with the Minnesota Literacy Council to do a comprehensive environmental scan: We surveyed patrons, tabled in the lobby, visited other programs, and met with knowledgeable leaders within HCL and from interested community organizations. So a lot of it is being willing to get outside the building and ask folks what they need.

I do maybe even more work engaging the staff community around issues of diversity and inclusion, especially trans inclusion. I am co-chair of a countywide employee resource group and we work on a lot of policy projects stemming from employees’ reported experiences in the workplace.

That work, conveniently, dovetails with HCL’s Transfabulous series of art workshops and exhibits centering trans and gender nonconforming folks. We instituted a new model this year: Three library project managers and three community curators. The library PMs’ job is to give logistical support to the community curators’ vision. It’s going well–they know what they want and need better than we ever could, and then we get to lend our resources to give artists exposure and paid work.

Basically, my weeks are full of meetings to nurture relationships and incubate ideas and check in with teams and partners.

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

There are some staff who have felt empowered to engage for a while, but the newish explicit expectation for librarians, especially, to do so has honestly created a decent amount of tension. Community engagement work is my passion, but it’s not everybody’s. I think libraries would do well to allow their staff to specialize. Yes, every library should be doing community engagement, but it’s okay for some staff to focus on collections or other areas if that’s their strength. If only we had a big enough staff to allow us to wear fewer hats!

We will continue to cause harm and hold unintentionally offensive programs and commit micro and macroaggressions until we truly transform who we are as a profession.

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

I see two major challenges: One is impatience. Relationships take a long time to develop. When we focus on a narrow definition of productivity, library staff can be pressured to roll out programs that aren’t well developed, or even harmful. If we had the staffing and philosophy that truly values coffee with the immigration lawyer next door as work–even if it takes 5 coffee dates to think of a program–we could be doing such more meaningful work. So maybe by impatience I truly mean funding. We need to have the funding to have the luxury of patience!

The other is the whiteness of librarianship. We are not mirrors of our community, so we can never gain true trust and integration with the people we say we want to serve. And we will continue to cause harm and hold unintentionally offensive programs and commit micro and macroaggressions until we truly transform who we are as a profession.

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

I don’t know that it’s all librarians, and I don’t think librarians alone are suited–some of our best community engagement staff don’t have the MLIS. What they do have–the good ones–is real care for people and an unapologetic eye to social justice.

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

St. Paul Public Library is doing awesome work with their Wash and Learn program in laundromats–and it’s catching on!

A whole team at Hennepin County Library is doing community-embedded librarianship in the Latinx, Indigenous, and Somali communities. I’m excited to see how that continues to develop.

To learn more about Ray’s Transfabulous program, read Southwest Journal’s write-up of the Beyond the Binary exhibit.

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.


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.


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.

Give & Take

Give & Take is a simple participatory or social practice art experience that we use with some regularity at Madison Public Library in Madison, WI. The project originated in Minneapolis, by social practice group Works Progress.

Give & Take is a set of activities based around two easy to answer questions:

What do you know?

What do you want to know?

Participants are asked these questions right off the bat as they fill out their name tags at a Give & Take event, and the answers to these questions offer the basis for much of the connections formed during the Give & Take activities.

What I love about Give & Take is that the activities are designed to bring out “every day” knowledge that anyone in the room might have, or know who to ask. It’s not limited to the work that people do professionally, or skill sets that require access to a particular educational or academic framework. The skills and know-how that people share can be anything from “how to fold a fitted sheet” to “how to dress for a funeral” to “how bowl a strike.” Neighbors, co-workers, cross-agency colleagues, classmates; everyone has something to share, something to learn, and connections to make.

The Give & Take activities are written up on a collection of cards and can be shuffled, re-ordered, and trimmed to fit with pretty much any given timeframe, from fifteen minutes to an hour.

Community Engagement Librarians Laura Damon-Moore and Mary Fahndrich facilitate Give & Take for library staff in 2017. Photo by Trent Miller.

Whiteboard results of a Give & Take collaborative activity. 2017. Photo by Trent Miller.

How have we used Give & Take?

  • As a social practice art experience at the library, geared mostly to art-makers and people who are interested in the Bubbler (MPL’s hands-on creativity platform).
  • As an activity to facilitate for organizations and groups looking for professional development or team-building activities. Give & Take is usually part of a morning of activities that also include a library tour and visual or digital art-making workshops.
  • As an experience to share with community partners, for example, as a way to demonstrate know-how connections across a very large group during a sustainability and social change conference.

Interested in learning more? I’d love to connect and hear from you. Please check in via the Contact page and let me know you’d like to try out Give & Take in your community.

Relevant links:

Meet the CE Librarians of UT Health

Today we welcome a whole team of community engagement library folk to the ELC! Enjoy! ~Laura

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

I am Karen Barton, Liaison to the School of Health Professions and Community Engagement Librarian at UT Health San Antonio’s Dolph Briscoe, Jr. Library. I worked as a youth services librarian in public libraries for two and a half years before coming to UT Health. In my new role as a medical academic librarian, I have used my community outreach experience and skills to create and implement outreach projects for youth and adults that promote health literacy and health information literacy. These projects have included a health fair for local kinship care families and health information resources in the form of calendars and recipe booklets for kids and teens.

My name is Peg Seger and I am Head of Outreach and Community Engagement at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas (UT Health) where I have worked for 8 years. When I first came to UT Health, I was the Outreach and ILL Librarian. Over the years my role has expanded and I now lead both community and campus outreach and engagement efforts as well as manage a branch library at the UT Health Laredo Regional Campus.

My name is Kirsten Lorenzen. I’m an Outreach and Community Engagement Library at UT Health San Antonio. I’ve been in this position for about a year and half; previously I worked as a children’s librarian for the San Antonio Public Library. Before I became a librarian, I worked in marketing for about 3 years in Los Angeles. I love that in my current position I’m able to combine my role as a librarian with my previous experience in marketing to better promote the library’s services and engage our community.

Tell us a bit about your approach to community engagement.

We have two audiences: the campus community and the broader San Antonio community. In working with both, community engagement starts with understanding the community. We work to create a two-way street of communication by recognizing their wants and needs and approach each of our target audiences in a way that really speaks to them individually. We may find campus and community partners who work directly with and know the target audience and always work to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships. They are beneficial to us in that we achieve the mission of the library and our institution as a whole.

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

We survey the campus community quite a bit at Briscoe Library for things such as library renovations and acquisitions for our collection. We also host activities in the library that demonstrate our commitment to engagement. Two examples of activities include “building” a Before I Die wall in our library entry foyer and creating a Student Appreciation Week. Also, we often have tables at health fairs and other community events where we can have conversations with members of the broader San Antonio community.

In creating the UT Healthier Youth Recipe and Resource Booklet, we solicited feedback from teens on the content. Our library has expanded its reach to our youth audience by partnering with a local school district, a public library system, students in a Community Service Learning program, a campus youth group, a teen clinic, and others. As part of the San Antonio Health Literacy Initiative and Bexar Translational Advisory Board (TAB), we are able to learn from medical and other professionals about the needs of the community and build and maintain partnerships with various stakeholders.

Over the past couple of years our library has established a messaging campaign primarily for our campus audiences to promote our new 24/7 hours, renovations, and more. Through this campaign, we have expanded our reach through social media and also applied lessons learned to work we do with community groups. One area of outreach that Kirsten has really focused on since she’s been at Briscoe Library is expanding our social media presence. She’s used her philosophy of understanding the community to really target our audience with various social media posts. Every time she posts something on one of our accounts, she thinks about who she’s trying to reach, the message she’s trying to get across, and how our followers will interact with the post.

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

Actually, it has been the other way around in some respects. Our library has traditionally had a strong external focus through community outreach programming since the late 1980s. As a part of a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, the UT Health San Antonio Libraries have been providing health information outreach services to South Texas as a Resource Library of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) in the South Central Region. Due to this designation, we are open to the public and promote National Library of Medicine and other health-related resources. Our program has been considered to be historically significant. While there has always been an emphasis on serving our (internal) student populations as well, much of the greater unfolding of that focus has come through our annual messaging campaign over the past couple of years.

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

There are a few to be sure! We probably have many of the same ones that everyone else has. Funding has not always been readily available for community engagement activities. In addition to coming up with sufficient money and time to devote to the work, internal staff adaptation for engagement for the campus community can take a while. The outward turning efforts are not always seen as important or necessary to all staff. Due to this, we have made sure to openly communicate about what we are doing and why, to involve all library staff in some way, and to make it fun. Although the library itself is very supportive of our overall community engagement efforts, some of the challenges have come from getting external stakeholders to understand or recognize the importance of the library’s involvement with this type of action.

Kirsten Lorenzen, Karen Barton, and Peg Seger, of UT Health

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

Librarians are service-oriented and we are constantly building awareness, providing those we service with information and tools that could benefit them in some way. We believe that should be the end goal of meaningful community engagement.

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

Our long-term goals include relationship building and making an impact on student success and community health. In regards to community health, the NNLM has provided grant funding for many of our community outreach projects and we would like to continue to take advantage of this funding to create and sustain projects that could have great and long-lasting impact.

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

Other institutional groups with which we work and who are important to our engagement efforts include: Area Health Education Centers, Bexar TABS (Translational Advisory Boards), CTSA Community Engagement, Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics Community Service Learning. The San Antonio Food Bank and the Witte Museum also have a variety of community outreach programs.

Links & more:

Meaningful Relationships and Building Community

“Community Engagement” has become a significant buzzword not just in library circles, but across all kinds of social service-oriented entities. Here in our little town of Shaker Heights (pop. <30,000), I work with no less than 5 folks from other agencies with “Community Engagement” in their job titles–at our schools, the recreation department, churches, and early childhood centers. As the digital environment grows and encompasses us all, service organizations are learning that in order to remain essential to our communities, we must go meet our residents where they are, and we must engage our neighbors more deeply in order to meet their needs.

From my perspective, the most important element and driving force of CE is simply the practice of building relationships. Whether the relationship you are developing is with another organization, with leaders in your community, or with a resident of your service district, every relationship matters. Local organizations might be potential partners, with whom you can share resources in order to provide stronger and more accessible services to your community. Local leaders set the tone for the issues your neighborhood will focus on and care about, and they can help you access new resources or lend you much-needed support for a new project. Your residents are the beating heart of your community, wherever you are, and strong relationships with residents will help you achieve deeper engagement within your neighborhoods. Taking the time to nurture relationships on all levels yields significant opportunities to work together to improve the lives of everyone we serve.

A lot of the goal-setting we do in our CE work at SHPL is based on research we are borrowing from social science literature on social capital and asset-based community development. Ultimately, we see ourselves as community builders who seek to facilitate connections among our community in order to strengthen it and grow the social capital our residents have available to them. These connections don’t have to just be between the library and community members–if we know two of our contacts at different orgs share similar goals, and we facilitate a connection so they can work together, we know we’ve done our part to help our community grow.

There’s so much more to explore in how libraries fit into this puzzle as unique community assets. Over time at the ELC, we’ll be discussing how relationships have led to wonderful collaborations in our own communities. How has a connection or relationship enriched your life lately? Tell us in the comments!