You and your staff may already know what underserved groups or individuals you want to reach in a systematic way, but if not, here are a few tips and guidelines on identifying underserved groups in your community.
What kind of needs assessment will you do?
The first thing you must do is decide how much effort you want to put into your needs assessment effort. If you are new to the community or if there seem to have been significant changes in your service area, you may want to do quite a formal needs assessment.
If you and your staff have been active in the community and/or feel they know it well, it may require nothing more than a dedicated staff meeting to pool knowledge and decide where to focus your outreach. At Los Angeles Public Library, children’s and young adult librarians were asked to do just that. They met as a branch staff, pooled their knowledge, and talked about where their gaps in service were. They decided on the groups of children or teens most in need of the library’s summer reading program and talked about strategies for reaching them.
Whether your needs assessment is formal or more casual, here are some suggestions for going about it.
This is the needs assessment model advocated by Family Place and many city planning experts. Using key informants, focus groups, your own research and reference skills, and your pooled knowledge of the community, list the individuals, agencies, and organizations that belong in each of the following categories. We recommend that you do this for each age group you serve: children, teens, families, or adults.
- Educational programs, including public and independent schools, tutoring programs, preschools, and home schooling organizations.
- Local government: elected officials who represent your service area. Consider interviewing them (or their field agents) to see what they see as the priorities for youth.
- Health and human service agencies: WIC programs, halfway houses, homeless shelters, juvenile detention facilities, teen posts, gang diversion programs,
- Clubs: 4H, Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc.
- Child care – formal and informal.
- Religious organizations.
- Recreational services: playgrounds, day camps, etc.
- Cultural resources: museums, drama programs, mural programs, music, dance, or art classes, etc.
Sometimes you can learn a lot about the community just by walking or driving around. Take a different route to work each day for a week. Notice new business establishments – and boarded up establishments as well. Who is out on the streets when you arrive in the morning – and when you leave at night. Do people walk to school and the market, or do they drive? What languages do you see on the store fronts?
As you walk around the local business street, carry your library tote bag. Introduce yourself to proprietors and employees and invite them to visit you at the library. (Do they even know that there is a library nearby?) Tell them to ask for you if they don’t see you when they come to the library. Make these conversations as personal and friendly as possible.
Make a point of eating at the local restaurants and shopping at local stores. Leave book marks at the cash register.
Asking questions of your patrons or those individuals social scientists call “key informants” is a great way to know more about your community. Key informants are those people who have lived in the community for a long time or hold positions in which they have been able to make deep connections. Some people who may be key informants are school principals, local religious leaders, field representatives of elected officials, a Little League coach, or sometimes just a mother who has been active in her kids’ school. Be up front and say you want to interview them about the community in order to do a better job of reaching more children, teens, or families with your Summer Reading Program. Ask them what children are most vulnerable to summer learning loss. Or what teens need organized activities of some kind? Ask them what strategies would be most effective in reaching the groups or individuals that they identify.
Some social justice advocates urge you to think of your community in terms of its assets rather than its needs or deficits. This is a good framework for understanding what it’s like to actually live in a particular community. Try framing your questions of key informants or regular library patrons or community leaders positively. “What do you like about living here?” “What are the community resources you use most?” “What community groups do a lot for children or teens?” Then move to questions like, “What would you change if you could?” “Are there any groups of people in this community who could benefit from more services from the library?” “Who are the children or teens most at risk here?” “Who would I talk to if I wanted to partner with some of these groups?”
Which of the groups in your community should you target?
Even an informal needs assessment initiative using one of these approaches will yield a lot of information. It may be immediately obvious to your staff which group or groups you should target for your summer outreach effort. However, if you still need to think about your assessment findings, here are some questions to ask yourself and/or your staff:
- Did we identify an underserved group with whom we have had a prior relationship? Sometimes it is a good idea to build on earlier partnerships. A Sacramento branch library found that the Head Start they had served through their Family Place program during the school year was happy to cooperate with their family summer reading program.
- Is the library particularly well-positioned to serve one of these groups? This might be geographic proximity. The recreation center down the street or the church day camp around the corner might be easy to approach. Perhaps the library has a Spanish language collection that is underused; you could use this as the bait to reach out to a local Spanish-speaking church.
- Can the library piggy-back with another summer program? Pay attention to any initiatives being promoted by your city, county, or school district. Can you cooperate with a special summer school program for migrant children or low-performing teens?
- Are any of these groups identified in your library’s strategic plan? If so, those groups might be a priority for you.
- Were there any obvious participation gaps in last summer’s program? One LAPL YA librarian decided to go after older teens and she succeeded in attracting 15- to 18-year old boys by reframing summer reading as a volunteer or community service opportunity.
Some examples of underserved groups in California communities
In 2018, California libraries reached out to many different underserved groups. Here are just a few of them:
- Children in public housing
- Homeschool children and teens
- Adult literacy learners
- High school students
- Spanish-speaking children and families
- Homeless families
- Recipients of a summer food bank program
- Head Start families
- Expectant parents, new mothers and caregivers
- Students at particular schools who had not participated in previous summer reading programs.
- Children and Teens at local Boys and Girls Clubs