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: