Reaching Out to Washington County’s Outreach Librarian

by West Bend Library on 2019-07-19 12:00:00

It’s not often that you meet someone who’s truly passionate about their job. Nancy Larson, the outreach librarian at the West Bend Community Memorial Library, is one of these rare individuals. The sole coordinator of Washington County’s book delivery service, Nancy makes library accessible to seniors and the homebound. Despite the stress caused by her formidable workload, her love for it is evident; she can barely contain a smile as she discusses the ins and outs of her job.

Although Nancy says that her position as outreach librarian is perfect for her, she wasn’t always aware of her aptitude for the field. In fact, she started off with a totally different career-social services. Though she enjoyed this job as well, her coworkers began to notice that most of her interests lay outside their line of work. Because of this, Nancy decided to take a career exploration test, which revealed her potential for library science. As she learned more about what the work entailed, she realized it fit her interests perfectly. Thus, she decided to leave her job and go back to school, soon graduating from UW-Madison with a degree in library science.

During her subsequent job search, Nancy found a listing for outreach librarian at the West Bend Library. This, too, was “the perfect opportunity” for her. After all, she had loved helping seniors while she was working in social services, and this new job would let her continue that. Moreover, she had family in West Bend, so she was already familiar with the area. After applying for the job, she was enthusiastically accepted-just over fifteen years ago. 

Since then, the book delivery program has flourished under Nancy’s direction. Once a month, she visits senior facilities such as nursing homes, assisted living communities, and apartment complexes with large elderly populations. Though the program mainly caters to seniors, it works with other community organizations as well, such as Threshold rehabilitation center.

Once she arrives at the facility, Nancy picks a spot to set up shop. There, she unloads ‘browsing boxes,’ large bins filled with books, magazines, audiobooks, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, and special Bi-Folkal kits, which contain nostalgic audiovisual materials specifically designed for seniors. When patrons find the materials they want, they can check them out with Nancy’s help.

Though the program itself the same at every facility, Nancy says that each patron has different needs. For example, some come with lists of specific books they want; others ask for suggestions; still others are just there to socialize. Nancy is there to meet each person’s unique needs. She returns to each facility at the same time every month, so that the patrons can return and renew books on a regular basis. According to her, this part of the program makes the library’s resources much more accessible for elderly patrons. After all, she says, “a lot of seniors aren’t able to get back and forth, so they won’t come to the library” if it weren’t for the outreach program.  

Nancy’s monthly visits “have become kind of a social gathering” at the facilities. Oftentimes, the patrons will congregate around the browsing bins to chat about books, ask for suggestions, and meet new people. During these sessions, Nancy has found herself making friends too. “Some patrons, I really have bonded with,” she notes fondly. “Some of these people, I’ve known for fifteen years. We see each other more than we see our families.” These personal relationships make for an engaging, rewarding environment for both Nancy and her patrons. 

In addition to these facility visits, patrons can get books delivered to their own homes. For some patrons, especially those with physical disabilities or special needs, these visits are scheduled monthly. For others, especially those with short-term illnesses or injuries, a more temporary delivery service will be arranged. Unfortunately, Nancy says that most people are unaware of this part of the program; because of this, she currently delivers to only fourteen people.

Though the outreach program is simple for the patrons to use, it’s far more complex for Nancy to orchestrate behind the scenes. As mentioned before, she works by herself, and she visits “pretty much every senior facility in Washington County once a month.” To further complicate the job, the area’s senior population has been growing steadily in recent years, making for more patrons at more facilities.

Even Nancy will admit­ that her job a lot of work for one person. She recently counted out the number of deliveries she makes in a month, and found that she visits thirty-seven facilities, as well as fourteen individuals. “It made me realize why I’m so tired,” she jokes.

To face her overwhelming workload, Nancy splits her time into ‘outdoor days’ and ‘indoor days.’ On outdoor days, she’s on the road, visiting facilities and making home deliveries. When she’s especially busy, she might visit five facilities and one individual. Needless to say, the outdoor days are the most exhausting, because “it’s a lot of running around.” The job is made even more difficult in the winter-or currently, in the stifling heat (luckily, the delivery van has air conditioning.)

Conversely, on indoor days, Nancy stays at the library, requesting, gathering, and organizing materials for the program. Her sizable workload doesn’t leave her with too much free time, but when she has a moment to herself, she loves to read. After all, her job exposes her to “a lot of books and authors [she’s] never heard of before.”

Despite her hectic schedule, Nancy still loves her work. She enjoys the challenges of finding books, organizing her visits, and meeting with facility staff, but her favorite part of her job is working with the patrons. “You don’t even think about the work part of it,” says Nancy. Instead, she focuses more on the personal bonds she forms throughout her job. According to her, it’s a relationship of mutual respect and gratitude. The patrons give Nancy a sense of purpose in her job, and their continual appreciation makes it easy for her to go to work every day. “I could do without the hauling books around,” she admits, chuckling.

The outreach program has perhaps an even stronger effect on the patrons themselves. After all, the deliveries take away much of the anxiety that seniors might have about getting to the library, returning books on time, and so on. By alleviating these worries, the program makes reading more accessible and enjoyable.

On a deeper level, Nancy’s visits give the patrons a sense of stability, which is often hard to come by in a senior facility. “For them, I think it’s about being reliable,” says Nancy. “I’ll show up each month, no matter what.”

As the outreach program continues to grow and flourish, Nancy’s goal for the service remains the same. With a proud smile on her face, she says, “I hope that it makes reading possible for people.” Clearly, the program has done just that, and with Nancy’s help, it will continue to do so for years to come. 

Could you or a loved one benefit from this outreach program? To find more information, or to schedule home deliveries, email Nancy at nlarson@westbendlibrary.org, or call her at (262) 335-5151, extension 5241. Learn more about the library's outreach program here.

References:
Watson, Samantha, and Nancy Larson. “Interview with Outreach Librarian about Book Delivery Services.” 12 July 2019.