A Report from the Trenches

The university library where I currently work is embedded in a neighborhood with a significant Somali immigrant population–the same neighborhood, in fact, where Mary and I held the book club last year. This neighborhood, Cedar-Riverside, is fairly close to two public libraries, but there isn’t one within safe walking distance, so there has been a history of negotiation as local teens come to use the university library after school. I can’t speak to that whole history or even really how it stands right now except to say that I’ve stepped into the middle of something and am learning how complicated community outreach can be when not everyone agrees on how it should be done. Coming from something of a public library background, my unchecked attitude is that of course we should reach out to the local community. But that’s not the mission, generally speaking, of an academic library. Nevertheless, as a public, land-grant university, we have a special obligation to be open to the citizens of the state of Minnesota, regardless of whether they are students. How can we be good neighbors while maintaining the boundaries of what we can and can’t offer? This is what I’m trying to figure out.

One of our neighbors on campus is the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and some of their work overlaps with the concerns of macro social workers in shaping policy for social justice. Last year, students from one of their programs completed a service learning project in Cedar-Riverside that focused on the community’s desire for a library space, but neither the university nor the public library seems to have been directly involved. Meanwhile, I have been working on bringing the public library’s Somali community outreach liaison to the university to train our staff on Somali culture, and a librarian who works in the same library as I do received a Muslim Journeys grant and is hosting an event in collaboration with the local Somali community. And if that sounds confusing from our end, imagine how it must seem to the people in the community, who have no way of understanding the inner workings of the university and how/whether we are communicating with each other before we communicate with them.

One thing that social workers take very seriously, and that I have been keeping at the forefront of my mind as I try to sort through the many strands of our community connections, is the primacy of the perspective of the client. However good our intentions, if we’re not clearly meeting the needs of the people we serve, we need to adjust our approach. For me, the people I serve are the librarians who work at the university, moreso than the local community. As interested as I am in making sure our neighbors feel welcome in our library, a major part of that is convincing, or at least reaching a detente with, skeptical staff members who may have been burned out by previous interactions, or who simply take the approach that the community outside the university is none of their concern.

What I find myself coming back to is the great service librarians can do in organizing information. For the librarians and front-line staff, a set of local resources to which they can refer community members might be valuable. Similarly, community members in the library could at least be pointed towards where they can find assistance, if not with us. That particular effort may not be mine to complete–I’m learning the boundaries of my own job as well–but what I hope I can facilitate is a growing awareness of and communication about how the our local community engagement efforts fit together.

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