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“When you stick your neck out, sometimes you get your head chopped off.”

Or something like that. (It’s a possible mis-quote of my department head. He was trying to make me feel better with this statement, and it was surprisingly effective.)

This is the story of Librarians Build Communities (LBC) in Alaska. To jog your memory: LBC is an advocacy program, where librarians do a few hours of volunteering, using library skills outside of libraries, to showcase how valuable our skillsets can be to our communities. I was on last year’s ALA Emerging Leaders group, working on the LBC project, and one of the to-do items on our project was “Host LBC in each group member’s home state.” So I pitched the idea to the Alaska Library Association Executive Council, with the aim of running LBC at our state conference in Valdez this March. (I also pitched the idea to the Pacific Northwest Library Association, but I’m happy to say that Kristi Brumley agreed to take that over. Look for it in Boise, this summer!) They thought it was a great idea. Three people signed up to help me run the program. We secured a time slot during the preconference day, and the conference bus from Anchorage to Valdez was scheduled to arrive early enough that we would be guaranteed a ton of librarians in town. Things were looking good.

As time went on, we lost committee members—one never ever responded to email (I hope she’s OK), and the other is having a baby, like, next week—so it was just two of us running the program. My partner in this enterprise, Jonas Lamb, was super great, though, so at least that worked out well! A good two-person committee can do a lot!

We found out that our conference happens during Valdez’s spring break (pretty much ruling out work with schools or kids) and that, with a total population of 4,000 people, there’s not a ton of need for volunteers. The United Way was stumped for project ideas. Luckily, the Senior Center was pretty happy to work with us, so we offered to bring some laptops and help teach the senior citizens how to use Facebook, or email, or whatever they wanted to know. It was a project that really appealed to me, since I love teaching people to use computers. We were warned that not all of the seniors embrace technology, so we offered to also do a book-themed craft and maybe a reader’s theater.

The Senior Center put information about it into their newsletter, which went out a couple of weeks before conference. Jonas got on a local radio show and talked about the program, a few days before conference. I secured the State Library’s laptops for the project and arranged for the conference bus to shuttle volunteers back and forth. We both brought a bunch of craft supplies, to do something like this. 20-some librarians signed up—enough that we split into two groups, so as not to overwhelm the seniors. We scrambled and planned and just generally did our best to make the project awesome.

And we showed up.

And there were no seniors there.

We sat around, tried to do the craft on our own, and waited over an hour, but no seniors ever showed up.

So that was a pretty massive failure, in terms of community outreach. We probably got glitter in their common room, but other than that, we didn’t make any kind of difference or teach anyone anything.

I hope I don’t sound too dejected. I ran several programs for this conference, and the others were much further along the success spectrum (falling somewhere between “not what I was going for, but people seem happy” and “everyone’s delighted, and some of them are doing what we’d hoped”—and this was my department head’s point, in the quote that titles this post: you win some, you lose some). I think I’m just a little mad because Jonas and I put a ton of time into it, which makes it sadder that it flopped. I’m not really sure either of us is willing to run it again next year, even though it will be in Anchorage, where there’s a lot more opportunity to volunteer. (Speaking for myself, I’d be on the committee. I’m just not willing to lead or co-lead it.)

I can’t put my finger on any way that Jonas and I could have made this project more likely to succeed, other than maybe putting out a press release in the local paper or something. It was a small community, somewhat inopportune timing, and maybe just too pretty a day for the seniors to show up. It’s nobody’s fault. I’m a tiny bit grumpy about it, but not particularly guilty. Not really beating myself up. And, in its own way, it was still pretty fun. I joked, to everyone who asked how it went, “Well, we built community within libraries, anyway.”

In case you’re interested, here are some photos of the preparation and the event itself:

It’s been a tough month for Librarians Build Communities, even outside of Alaska; due to some kind of misunderstanding (or something, I’m not sure), the project lost its domain name at the beginning of the month. I backed up all of the files beforehand, so not all of last year’s work has been lost, but there’s currently not much to show for it. I’m not sure what the plan for LBC is, moving forward. I’m super burned out on it, but I still hope it succeeds; it’s a really worthwhile program, particularly considering OCLC’s findings that library funding depends more on people’s opinions of librarians than their opinions about libraries. If you want to run it in your state or region, contact Ingrid Abrams or Gina Persichini, who can get you in touch with this year’s Emerging Leaders group. It can’t really go worse than Alaska’s, right? :)

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  1. Ellen Thomas

    I’d be more aggravated by committee members leaving you hanging than by seniors not showing up. Having a baby person is off the hook BTW.
    Speaking as a senior, yes, I’d like to learn MUCH more about the technology of computers, laptops, those THINGS, but they are frightfully intimidating to me. I don’t even have a cell phone! The crafts were a nice idea and I’m surprised that it didn’t bring a few people in. I know how much planning goes into projects, not knowing how many (or few) will be there and it is distressing for the planners. The “loss” is for the ones that chose not to attend, for whatever varied reasons they may have had. You stuck your neck out….it’s intact. :)

    • Some public libraries run computer classes. I doubt the one right by you does, but I bet Harrisonburg or Winchester might! If you want, I’ll go looking for that, for you.

      Anyway, thanks. :)

  2. Carol

    Where did you hold the workshop? At the senior center? At the conference site? At the United Way? At a library?

    I’ve had some limited experience with programs for seniors (at an environmental education center). What we found (and what seems to backed up by a lot of what others have to say on the subject as well), is that seniors tend to be both more transportation limited and more set in their routines than the population at large. On the whole, they tend not to go to programs unless either (1) the program is scheduled at the same time and place as an event they already regularly attend (such as a social hour they frequent at the senior center) or (2) transportation is provided for them to go to the program, and that transportation leaves from a location they frequent at a time they’re usually already there.

    Obviously there are seniors who don’t fit that mold, but overall it seems to be what is most likely to bring seniors in to a program.

    Chin up – I know how hard it is to put so much time and effort into a program no one shows up to (I’ve so been there). Know that seniors are about the hardest age group to attract to a program (with the exception of high school students, who are darn near impossible to get to come to anything!), and you did the best you could.

    • We held it at the Senior Center, which is partially residential. I think seniors who don’t live there also show up, sometimes, too, though.

      And it really was a pretty day. I bet the ones who are mobile enough to be out and about took advantage of the sunshine.

      Thanks! :)

  3. I’m sorry that the event didn’t go as you had planned, but hey, building community among libraries is not nothing. I fondly remember my time in Anchorage, and in particular how welcoming Alaskan librarians are.

    • Thanks, Galen! It really is a good community, up here.

  4. Sue Sherif

    Hats off to you, Coral, for trying. I’ve participated in a couple of these at the ALA national conference and found it very rewarding. (Both happened to be in New Orleans but separated by a good number of years. I think in a larger city it might be easier to find projects that need volunteers on a short-term basis.) I think the key is having people at the local level who can prepare the agency or group for the volunteering visitors. There were so many Valdez locals working hard on conference that perhaps this just wasn’t possible there.
    Schools, childcare centers and senior residential centers where there is more or less a captive audience might make better venues for a one-day volunteer blitz. (The second time in New Orleans we were cleaning up after Katrina, so we didn’t need to have other people show up, we were able to work on gutted branch library that needed to be rehabbed. But we don’t want to have a natural disaster for another AkLA effort. )
    Sorry that you are discouraged, but maybe AkLA-A folks would be interested in working on this for next year. It’s a good idea even if this one didn’t turn out the way you hoped. Thanks for pioneering it for us.

    • Thank you for your comment, Sue!

      I’m hoping someone wants to champion this next year. LBC is a great program!

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