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.

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!