Despite the fact that both outreach and Community Development-based librarianship happen in the community, there is a fundamental difference between the two: outreach is a service or program delivered by the library to the community whereas community development is a process of working with the community.


Outreach is a long-standing public library service. At its core, outreach involves delivering a message that the library believes to be important : e.g., that reading to your pre-schoolers is important for early literacy development; that the library has important online resources that will help high-school students do their homework; that the library offers a wide-array of services with broad appeal, etc.

As staff, we then decide on a format that these messages will take - perhaps a storytime visit to a new mother’s drop-in, a books-for-babies campaign, an online research program at the local high school, or a library talk at the local neighbourhood house - and, if we haven’t a location in mind already by request or by our needs assessment, we find places that will allow us to come and deliver the program, message, or service. Our hope is that people begin to understand that the library is an important community resource.

In all cases, the purpose is the same: we have a message that we need to convey so we create a service, program, or presentation that allows us to convey the message and we take it out (i.e., reach out) into the community to ensure people understand the important services we offer.

Outreach happens in the community, the librarian is the authority, and the focus is on “information out” or service delivery.

Community-Development-Based Librarianship

Community Development in a library context - on the other hand - is a service planning process. It involves relationship-building in the community in order to have discussions about community library needs. These relationships and the information gained from people should then inform a collaborative service (e.g., collection, policy, program, etc.) planning process in which the library and the community are equal partners.

More information about this in a library context can be found by reading the article Community Development in a Library Context.

The Difference

It is really important to understand that this is more than a semantic difference. At their core, these two activities are very different. While both outreach and community development happen in the community, the latter requires us to go out into the community not as experts or authorities, delivering service or information, but as learners and partners, trying to develop relationships that will evolve into collaborative service partnerships. This means more than simply being “user-focussed”, it means being “user (or non-user) driven” - i.e., the user is sitting beside us, steering the car.