The Community of Community Engagement

When you are an academic, it is easy to stick with the field of study that you already know. You typically have your discipline and that is the community where you usually share your ideas. I am no different. As a librarian, I have attended (and usually presented) at the American Library Association Conference for the last 10 years. It can be a little unnerving to step outside your usual community, especially if you want to challenge them to take a new perspective. But that is exactly what I did when I presented a lightning talk about librarians as community engagement partners at the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU) 2019 Annual Conference in Philadelphia in October.

The author, Joyce Garczynski, assistant university librarian for development and communication at Towson University, presents a lightning talk at the CUMU 2019 Annual Conference.

To say I was a bit nervous was an understatement. I had presented at conferences outside librarianship before and you could say that I received less than a warm welcome. I worried that this conference would be similar or perhaps even worse, no one would be interested in what I had to say. I checked the conference app about a half hour for my session and only two other people indicated they would attend. I really didn’t know what to expect as I turned the corner to enter the hotel conference room where I would present.

Much to my surprise, the room was full. In fact, it was overflowing with people sitting outside in the hallway to listen. Because I was giving a lightning talk, I only had five minutes to present. I really wanted to make sure that I made those five minutes engaging and impactful. I wanted to convince the faculty, staff, and other university administrators in attendance that they should make librarians their community engagement partners.

What comes to mind when you think of librarians?

I started the presentation with a question: What comes to mind when you think of librarians? To my delight, the audience played along. They jumped right in and gave the stereotypical answers. Librarians like books, they like quiet, and they especially they like to shush people. I then sought to dispel these stereotypes by talking about how librarians actually want to help you make some noise when it comes to your community engagement.

The next three minutes of my talk were devoted to describing three ways that librarians can help with community engagement work in three ways:

  1. Academic librarians can help you get started with community engagement. I briefly demonstrated a guide to community engagement that I created for faculty at Towson University. This guide contains locations to publish scholarship as well as a listing, by college, of how the different professional associations have incorporated community engagement into their work.
  2. Academic librarians can help make your scholarship publicly available. Many academic libraries have online institutional repositories (IRs) where faculty can legally make a copy of scholarship, such as journal articles, freely available. Placing a copy of your scholarship in your university’s IR is a good idea for two reasons. First, because IRs get your scholarship out from behind a paywall, more people will have access to it. Second, it is the equitable thing to do. Our community partners should have access the scholarship that they helped to create through their partnership with you. They can’t do that if the scholarship only lives in a journal article that is stuck behind a paywall. I’m sure that librarians would be delighted to help you add your scholarship to your university’s IR.
  3. Academic librarians can connect you with your public library. At the heart of most communities is a public library. These are the institutions where many people in a community go to get the help they need. My academic library often partners with our local public library on resource sharing and programming, which has enabled us to connect with that community. I know that I would be happy to connect any faculty or staff member at my university with our local public library and I’d bet that your academic librarian would be willing to do the same.

After all the lightning talks were done, I stuck around in case anyone had additional questions. I have to admit that I was humbled by how many attendees came up to me and genuinely wanted to know more. Some told me that they were definitely going to connect with their librarian back at their home institutions. Others told me that they shared my passion for placing materials in IRs. Still others shared their love for their local public library. I think these conversations reflect just how welcoming the community engagement community is. I am glad that I stepped outside my comfort zone and was able to share how librarians are eager to engage in this important work.