Interview of the Month: Afton Hallauer on Library Outreach

Hello and welcome back from a long break from interview of the month! I’ve been a little distracted having a wonderful holiday with my family and friends. 🙂

Back to business! For our next interview of the month, I talked to a fun, cool librarian who not only knows how to knit a mean scarf, but also can make the best shortbread cookies I’ve ever tasted. Her name is Afton Hallauer and I’m so happy I met her one day at the Champaign Public Library as we whiled away the hours, withdrawing old cheesy romance novels from the catalog. A little about Afton:

Afton graduated from the University of Illinois’ Library and Information Sciences program in May and currently works as the Youth Services Librarian at the Fairfield Public Library in Iowa. She originally planned to work in public radio, but decided to switch to public libraries. She is now a super-talkative librarian. Her favorite children’s book is The Phantom Tollbooth, and her favorite adult book is Shades of Grey (not THAT Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde’s distopian comedy Shades of Grey — and thank you so much E.L. James, for making this distinction necessary).

In our talk, we focused on programming in libraries but covered everything from the heartbreak that readers advisory can cause to accidentally finding your dream job.

MG: What surprised you most about life as a professional librarian?

AH: Actually, when I got home today I realized that I didn’t have anything to do. By and large, I have nothing hanging over my head after work, which is very different than when I was a student. When I started out going into public libraries it was beaten into me that I would have to work nights and I would have to work weekends, but I feel so spoiled because in my current position I can come home at fairly reasonable hours and I don’t have to work weekends. At the same time, time off is more precious. I actually spend more time at work, unlike when I was a student and I could spend most of the day studying or whatever. That’s been a big adjustment for me. Until now I never had a real job, so it’s been a big change.

MG: What do you find most challenging about your current job? Most rewarding?

AH: What’s challenging is in some ways also the most rewarding. Because my library is so small I get to do so many things and it’s fun because you never get bored. I’m not bogged down with limitations. At the same time, it’s been challenging to learn everything as a new person—there’s been a huge learning curve.

Reader’s advisory is another one that has been both challenging and rewarding. Sometimes I’ll have a patron come up and say “I’m looking for a book like this,” and you look everywhere and do everything right and you pick the perfect book for that person. And then when you come back later, all the books you picked out are back on the shelving cart. So readers’ advisory can be really great or really challenging. It’s a great feeling when you connect a kid with a book but it’s heartbreaking when you can’t or when they’re not interested.

I was lucky in a way because my library has had a lot of turnover, so when I arrived they already had a set of tasks for me to do on a weekly or monthly basis. I also had a really good trainer. Filling an old position that has been vacated made it easier too, although it can be hard because they all loved the previous person.

MG: What outreach efforts have you made so far? Are there any programs or events that you plan on trying in the future?

AH: We have a lot of in-house programs, so that could be considered outreach. We have a program called “When the Lights Go Out” and for that program we collaborate with local Broadway theater actors and that was really great. Outreach can be hard, but it has been really effective here because this community values its library.

We also do some programs off-site. I visit daycares to get the kids connected to books and more familiar with the librarian. I also take books there and leave them for a while for the kids to read (which boosts my circ stats!).

Another good way to do outreach is to connect with other organizations. Collaboration is really valuable—it allows you to do things as an organization that you couldn’t do on your own. Our community has something called “Art Walk,” and they set up on the square in town once a month to showcase local artists’ work. So during that time we have story time a little later so people can stop by and warm up (now that it’s cold), and when it’s nicer we’ll set up story time on the square during the event. Events like that can raise the visibility of the library and provide you with people you can go to for collaboration ideas. We also work with KRUU radio station in town. A librarian will go to read bedtime stories on the air during their kids program, so that’s been another way for the library to be out in the community. It is time away from the desk to do these programs, so it’s good to have the administration on my side allowing me to do this.

MG: Where do you get outreach ideas?

AH: I’ve been fortunate because a lot of outreach was set up for me. I added a couple of programs, but mostly it was already set up before I came. It was great because I could use the structure already in place and tap into it for ideas. The librarian who previously had my position kept records of everything she did, which is good because now we have a resource to go back to. So if we want to rehash something we did a few years ago we have a stockpile of old ideas to use.

As far as new ideas, I would recommend that you plan well in advance. If you start planning several months out, you can wait for inspiration to strike instead of sitting there the day before hoping to think of an idea. I would also recommend talking to other librarians—people you’ve worked with in the past, libraries you admire. This field seems really open to sharing and some libraries actually put up their programs on their website, so that’s a good way to find ideas. It helps keeping in touch with other librarians to get ideas and feedback too. Of course, I’m spoiled because youth programming has lots of programming resources—it might be harder for librarians in other kinds of libraries.

MG: How do you market your outreach efforts to patrons?

AH: Well I’m working in a small town community, so the local media and information sources are extremely valuable. Even so, you can put signs everywhere, make announcements on the Facebook page, the newspaper, the radio, announce it at another library program, and you’ll still have a parent that says “I didn’t know about that event!” So there’s no way to reach everybody. Still, the more ways you can tell people, the more they’ll remember it. It could be helpful too to reach out to people who have talent like a graphic design student or someone in marketing to help you advertise.

Word of mouth is really important for raising awareness. Just talking to people about the event can make a big difference. The sad part is you can put in all that time and effort and people still won’t come sometimes. And sometimes it’s out of your control! I had a program that wasn’t well attended because it was so cold out, but there’s nothing you can do about that. Also, make sure that another group isn’t having an event at the same time. You don’t want to have competition with your event—you don’t want there to be a lot of other things for people to choose to do instead.

MG: Do you have any advice for new librarians or library students preparing to enter the profession?

I don’t feel like I can be too sanctimonious here—I just started a few months ago! For students I would say to take as many classes as you can because you never know what direction you’ll end up taking. Look at me—I took a Youth Services class as a joke and now that’s what I’m doing! So try to get experience in a wide variety of areas and that’ll make it a lot easier for you when you’re applying for jobs. When you start applying, don’t pigeon-hole yourself to a certain kind of position. Don’t not apply for something because you don’t think it’s for you. Look outside your comfort zone. Now that I’m in the position I’m in, I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else.

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