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Librarians Everywhere: The Volunteer Library Brigade

by on July 8, 2013

Here, there, and everywhere—that’s where the librarians are. We aren’t hiding in the stacks, shushing people who want to invade our precious collections (although I’m sure there are a few stalwarts who fit the mold). Information is growing at an exponential rate, and librarians are needed more than ever to help people navigate the information landscape, critically and thoughtfully. And so we’re bringing our services to where they’re needed: outside the library. This is happening in a number of forms. I’m not just referring to the people on your local bookmobile, or the Little Free Libraries popping up on street corners. I’m talking about information services delivered by people in unexpected places, in unique and surprising ways.

What is the Volunteer Library Brigade?

We keep hearing that we need to be proactive and bring the library to the people instead of waiting for the people to come to us, right? Well, the Volunteer Library Brigade (VLB) is doing just that. They’ve developed a service in which teams made up of both librarians and non-librarians “set up tiny mobile library carts in public spaces around the city and do on site volunteer library work.

And just who are the VLB? The project was developed by Urban Librarians Unite (ULU), a New York City-based advocacy group “created to promote and support libraries, library staff, and librarianship in urban settings.” One of ULU’s founders, Christian Zabriskie, was kind enough to discuss the project with me for this article: The Volunteer Library Brigade is something that Urban Librarians Unite has been wanting to do for some time. We always had great library worker membership but we wanted to give non-librarians a chance to get a feel for the work of the profession. We thought that by giving our volunteers some ownership over the work they would be much more active advocates for the library in their community.

The idea has really developed since we started planning it about a year ago. It has changed from an advocacy effort to an effort to position the library in the community both in an advocacy role, driving people to the library or libraries nearby, and as a ready reference station and ephemeral micro library. We have been influenced by the great work that they did at the Occupy Wall Street Library and by lessons we learned in our own Mini Library response to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. We love little libraries but often people need a librarian much more than a library. Eventually we hope to have situations where we can combine these two projects and have informal lending libraries with guerrilla reference services all with support [from] and in support of the local library systems.”

The VLB are bringing their information services to the community using book carts sponsored by DEMCO. The head of the company loved the idea of the VLB and graciously donated four brightly colored book carts to support the endeavour. Says Zabriskie, “We have made some small modifications to them to secure technology and make them a little more street ready. […] We are quite proud that [DEMCO] saw what we were trying to do and helped out a tiny little organization like us.”

From Non-Librarians to Information Providers

Volunteer LIbrary Brigade Training Session

A Volunteer Library Brigade Training Session

The VLB is redefining outreach by providing dynamic information services on the streets of New York using trained volunteers. The inaugural training session took place prior to their participation at the Brooklyn Zine Fest in late April, and the VLB is planning to hold future training sessions on a monthly basis. Volunteers learn how to conduct a successful reference interview, some storytime basics, and are trained on safety, customer service, and the use of various technologies. Trained VLB members are encouraged to participate as mentors to new volunteers so that the number of active volunteers will continue to grow.

Zabriskie notes that “the goal is to give a 3-4 hour training [session] that will allow a person with no library experience to provide some kind of reference and information services on the streets of New York City, with the provision that every team has one library professional assigned to it as well. While we are encouraging people who are not librarians to come out—indeed it is one of the core purposes of the program—[the volunteers] are always under the guidance of a trained librarian.”

The first event, held during the Brooklyn Zine Fest, was a success and Zabriskie is quick to highlight the efforts of all the many volunteers, particularly those who are used to working in administration, archives, or special libraries, who aren’t used to serving the public on a day-to-day basis: “[They’ve] embraced the rough and ready street librarian model. […] These are some pretty gutsy volunteers […] It is a pretty big jump for a working librarian to just set up shop on a street corner with a tiny little shelf of ready [reference materials], a couple dozen storybooks, a Library Box, and a tablet, and just get out and serve the public. We commend each and all of our volunteers.”

You can participate, too!

Want to help? Contact Urban Librarians Unite and get involved! Not in New York? Set up your own guerrilla library. Find a creative way to deliver the information services your community needs.

Start small. For example, I both live and work in the same community, so I’m forever running into people that know me from the library when I’m out walking in the neighborhood. I’m often answering reference questions and promoting library services during these interactions! As information professionals, we are tasked with serving our communities; what better way than to establish strong connections with community members who will then join us in advocating for libraries? Once you’ve made those connections, you can start developing innovative services—like the VLB or maybe something completely different—that will maintain and strengthen those relationships. The possibilities are limitless.