Not so rare any more: Reaching new special collections audiences through unlikely collaborations

I just finished giving a presentation for NFAIS on building expanding audiences and empowering community members through unlikely collaborations. The audience, as well as Marcie who was the moderator/cat wrangler/problem solver, were all fantastic and I had a great time chatting with them. I wanted to offer a few highlights from the talk for folks who weren’t able to attend but who are thinking about their own outreach programs.

NB: I focused on rare books since that’s the area I work in, BUT these guidelines could be used for outreach with all sorts of artifacts across many cultural heritage institutions.

Why talk about this? Because outreach is critical for increased access and community empowerment

  • Special collections historically very exclusive
    • Often limited to those doing research or in academic/special library settings
    • Historically excludes those without access to education and other resources
    • Often we do not reach beyond these walls, meaning most potential visitors are not aware of what we have to offer.
  • Physical access is also an issue (e.g. can someone get to campus? Do they need a certain ID or enrollment/employment status to use your services?)
  • Even for those who have access, perceived access may be a totally different matter. Special collections often feel intimidating for the uninitiated, and concerns about whether one has access or what expectations are in a special collections environment can overshadow the desire to engage with collections and programs.  

I tend to classify outreach activities in two ways:

  • Access: Removes access barriers for communities outside those historically served. This doesn’t always mean underserved communities in the commonly used sense (although it definitely includes and even emphasizes that), but can include new kinds of programming using subjects or approaches not previously conisdered.
    • Providing access and empowerment sometimes can mean thinking creatively about how to get new people in the door (or at least aware of your institution). For me, many of my subject-specific and activity-specific programs fall into this category, because it offers a new perspective on our collections and their relevance
  • Empowerment: This is the point that is dearest to my heart. Our materials tell our collective history, and helping people find relevance in those materials can help situate them as active participants in the history they’re learning about.
    • By framing programs to include community members’ stories alongside those in our materials, we’re situating their stories as being equally as important as those being preserved in collections. Even if they aren’t represented in collections right now, this can help them imagine a world where they could be (and motivate us to start building those collections).

A few things I’ve learned

  • Working with new communities is a learning process for everyone: Have a clear pitch to share before you approach a partner, particularly one who maybe has not worked with rare books before.
    • What can you offer? Why should they care? What will they get out of it?
  • Be flexible and responsive! Really listening to the people who help organize or who attend your events is critical
  • You can’t assume to come in and to know what someone else needs or wants, or what value they find in your materials. Do the best you can, but be prepared to adjust or to go in totally new directions based on what you learn.
  • Casual programming (rather than lectures with strict timelines), clear guidelines for how to interact with materials, and establishing dialogue rather than authority helps.
  • The best community partnerships come out of surprising connections—don’t assume something isn’t relevant or won’t work. Let yourself be creative and you might be surprised!
Two facsimile manuscripts I made for our current exhibition. Facsimiles (or even just touchable plain pieces of parchment or other materials) are a great option for letting people engage with an object when touching the original isn’t possible.

How do I build an outreach program?

This is a very simple, but useful, process I use when brainstorming:

  1. Start thinking about ideals: If you could work with anyone, using any materials, what would you do? Who do you most want to work with and why? Are they a popular place, somewhere you like personally, somewhere whose mission you really respect? etc. Think about the strengths of your collection along with your personal interests/expertise.
    • Don’t worry about what’s practical right now, just let your imagination go
  2. Then, think practically: Who in your community could you partner with? Of those options, who do you most want to work with and what excites you about them? Start listing out collaborators with the highest priority ones first.
    • Think of specific ways you can work together before reaching out: What program would you want to do? What item(s) do you have that would pique their interest? Why should they be interested in working with you?
  3. Finally, focus on the gaps: Look at your ideal list and your practical list, then look at your community. Who in your community who isn’t represented (not just current patrons, but the community as a whole)?
    • Think about how you might reach those new audiences (if you aren’t sure, research and asking colleagues is helpful).
    • Will the programs you’ve designed draw communities you aren’t serving in? If not, why not? (access, lack of interests/awareness, intimidation factor, etc.)
    • Finally, what can you do to serve your whole community? This is a great time to find social services and nonprofit partners who can help you brainstorm.

Major take-aways

Skip straight to the end? Here are the biggest things to remember:

  • Go out in to the community: Don’t expect people to come to you.
  • Design programs that speak to community interests (and actively listen to what those interests are!)
  • Keep programs fun, interactive, and casual.
  • Think about collections as empowering for the community, rather than only being useful for a select few.
  • Be creative and flexible: Everyone has collections that can be part of a powerful outreach program, and it’s a lot of fun to see how that program can grow!


Questions? Ask away!



4 Replies to “Not so rare any more: Reaching new special collections audiences through unlikely collaborations”

  1. This is very encouraging to read, as someone who is working on the skeleton of a new outreach program for my institution (which has a strong collection re: local history). We especially hope to reach underserved classrooms, student clubs, etc., but also schools in general – the membership benefits of our library already handle adult outreach fairly well.. How did you go about getting the word out that you were willing to collab/present?

    1. My main approach to getting the word out was to craft some ideas for programs, as well as some language about why our collections were such a good fit for whatever community we were trying to work with. The key for me was identifying specific places and being explicit in why they in particular were folks I wanted to work with, and then connecting that to the value of our collections and how collections-based programming would be a benefit to them. Usually the response is positive (occasionally I don’t hear back though!) I haven’t worked as much with K-12, but the few times we have the schools and students have been very eager to work with us.

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