Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Ideas at Work // 2IAW1

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Don't Overlook Libraries


Francis W. Holmes
Professor and Director of Shade Tree Laboratories
University of Massachusetts-Amherst


Extension works in two modes: (1) we answer questions at the public's initiative-clientele "pull" information out of us and (2) we take the initiativewe "push" out to clientele new things they hadn't thought to ask.

The first process is the easier. Those who ask questions tend to listen to the answers. But there's an intermediate position-put information they'll want in places where they'll look.

Our audience now is far more sophisticated than it was 70 years ago. People today are sure all the answers they want must be available somewhere. We know today's clientele pound on doors, demanding answers to the problems they see. On whose doors? People freely make demands of all their town (or city) agencies and officials, newspapers, tree wardens, police, selectmen, legislators, high school teachers, town clerk, public works employees, and public libraries.

Yet people tend to think only of local agencies. Few know about county offices-Extension or otherwise. Often, their best source of current-hence useful-information is Cooperative Extension. And Extension, alas, mistakenly thinks it has no town representatives. Yet, we do have outlets in every town. Town officials often get help from us. We should include town institutions in our plans to distribute whatever we publish on subjects that their clientele later will ask them about!

I saw this operate in a 1982-84 outbreak of Gypsy Moth that defoliated more than half our state. Fortunately, our Gypsy Moth Information Coordinating "Committee of Nine" included seven Extension specialists (counties, 3; university, 4). That spring, we mailed 2,000 copies of each of 23 items written by committee members to:

  1. All local tree wardens (a mandatory office in all Massachusetts towns).
  2. All local superintendents of insect pest control (again mandatory).
  3. All local public libraries.
  4. All local high schools (public or private), to "reference librarian."
  5. All local high schools, again, to "biology teacher/science department."
  6. State district insect pest control supervisors.
  7. State district service foresters.
  8. State district roadside maintenance engineers/ highway landscape supervisors.
  9. Offices of many commodity groups and civic environmental societies (who announced the circulars to their memberships).
  10. County Cooperative Extension offices (for duplication).

Some mailings included letters telling who in each town got the mailings and urging intercooperation plus contact with county Extension offices.

One of all these routes turned out to open a new doorway-the public libraries.

From the libraries (both public and high school), we received letters of thanks at about 60 times the usual frequency. Often the latest Gypsy Moth information they had was in books written as long ago as 1900 or 1920. They kept our circulars "on reserve" (to use only in the library). One librarian wrote that, on average, five photocopies a week of items in our Gypsy Moth News series were made on coin-operated machines (and paid for) by their clientele.

It was clear that ourclientele (100% of the population) was the same as their clientele (also 100% of the population). Obviously, we'd serve them best if we worked together. Clearly, too, the public and high school librarians wanted to work with Extension as much as they could.

With initiative, we can improve this relationship. We in Extension should routinely send each of our publications to each public and high school library in our state, region, or county. As these librarians grow more aware of Extension, they'll refer inquiries to us.

Libraries also customarily mount displays on issues of current interest. They'll include our publications. And libraries often have just the facilities we need for our meetings. With our meetings in their program series, we benefit from their mailing lists, sponsorship, press access, and postage.

Extension should be represented in state meetings of public librarians, high school librarians, biology teachers. Town libraries may be second only to neighbors and friends as places where people turn for information. Extension should be there waiting for them.

It's important that Extension look at this positively. We don't compete with libraries! They're our partners, not our opponents.

Public and high school libraries, by nature of their origins, provide important personnel cooperation and physical resources. Their buildings are in every town, they have trained staff, and rejoice that their (our) clientele are accustomed to go there for information. And, all this costs us nothing-except the cost of the printed materials we send them.

For Extension, there are reduced costs and great resources, a rich field to cultivate-one which up to now was too often ignored.