Library Leadership

42. Serving Underserved Populations with Dr. Bobbie Bushman

Dr. Bobbie Bushman

So, here’s an interesting question. If a population is underserved, and possibly not even coming into the library in the first place, how do we serve them? Or, maybe they are coming in and we are not quite sure how to best meet their needs.

There are always opportunities to ask unique populations what is most important to them and then work to break down barriers in order to serve people well. On today’s show, I talk Dr. Bobbie Bushman, Assistant Professor at the Emporia State University School of Library and Information Management.

She has a strong background in serving populations such as the deaf community, incarcerated individuals, children with disabilities, homeschoolers, and homeless individuals. She shares the importance of serving underserved populations and provides ways that we all can initiate this focus, which ultimately benefits the whole community. 


  1. The referenced Emporia video:
  2. Lucky Ones Coffee: Link
  3. The Blackbelt Librarian: Link


This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.


This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

So here’s an interesting question, if a population is underserved and possibly not even coming into the library in the first place, how do we serve them? Or maybe they are coming in and we’re not quite sure how to best meet their needs. There are always opportunities to ask unique populations what is most important to them, and then work to break down barriers in order to serve people well. 

On today’s show I talk with Dr. Bobbie Bushman, Assistant Professor at the Emporia State University School of Library and Information Management. She has a strong background in serving populations, such as the deaf community, incarcerated individuals, children with disabilities, homeschoolers, and homeless individuals.

She shares the importance of serving underserved populations and provides ways that we all can initiate this focus, which ultimately benefits the whole community. You won’t want to miss this show. 

Welcome to the show, Bobbie.

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Hey, thanks for having me.


Question #1: It’s so great to have you here. We’re going to talk today about serving underserved populations. And I want to jump right in, because there’s a lot to cover. First of all, tell us about the importance of serving underserved populations, and how you got interested in this work.  01:54 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

I come from a social work background, and while I was a social worker they said, Who would like to take some deaf folks onto your caseload? They were going to pay for us to go through some ASL classes. So, I raised my hand. I did that. I became trained in ASL. 

Meanwhile, I started working on my master’s in library science. Once I made that switch and became a librarian, I was a children’s librarian. So, I know some ASL. I’m becoming trained in Every Child Ready to Read. Through that process, I’m getting trained in what every child does and I’m just thinking to myself with my social work background and my training in ASL—No, every child does not do these things. 

Just asking those questions really got me interested in this work. I learned really scary statistics, like the average deaf person reads at a fourth grade reading level. That just inspired me to do more research. Once I did more research, I really realized that there wasn’t a lot out there about this topic. So, I just dove right in and decided to go on and get my PhD and investigate this further.


Question #2: And so, what is important about serving underserved populations? 03:24 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

I think by the end of this conversation, hopefully, listeners will see how serving underserved populations really can help us to build our reputation in a community. It helps us to gain that population of people that we serve, build our tax base, all these kinds of things. There are some very practical reasons that we want to do it, aside from the fact that it’s part of our ALA code of ethics. It is our job. It diversifies our profession. It helps our image problem, you know how people think that we sit around and read all day. Getting out in the community can help fight those kinds of things.


Question #3: Yeah, I love the read all day image, don’t you all do that out there? [laughter] So, there are a lot of great reasons to really jump in on this work. And I know many people do it already, and want to do it more. So, let’s start. First of all, how do you define underserved populations? 04:27  

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

So broadly, almost everyone can be included here. So often, we as librarians hear people say, Well, I didn’t know the library did that. Most often, patrons are not really utilizing the library to its full potential. When I talk about this topic, when I think of underserved users, I think they fit into basically two categories: power users; and non-users. The term power users, I picked up at a conference. They were talking about users that spend all day in the library. Often these users are called problem patrons, right? …like teenagers, or kids who get dropped off at the library, homeless patrons. But, I love the word power users, because I think when we change the language we change how we perceive things. 

Then, non-users. Obviously the people that we know are out there, but they just don’t come into the library. When you look at your community makeup and you say, Well I know that we have a population that’s 40 percent Hispanic, but I don’t see that many Hispanic people in the library. Those are the people that I mean by underserved users. 

My research has focused on homeschoolers as underserved users, people who struggle with housing security, people with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities, the deaf community, people who are currently incarcerated, or previously incarcerated. I think the most important thing for librarians to realize is that it’s going to vary from community to community. 

One library, their underserved population is going to be completely different than someone else. My goal is to inspire librarians to identify and serve those underserved populations in their own community. It may be migrant workers, new immigrants, English language learners. It’s going to vary from community to community. 


Question #4: That sounds good. And, we can all learn more about who these people are in our own communities, in order to help. You talk about the importance of laying the foundations for this important work as a way of helping people. And, this includes being aware of service barriers. Can you tell us about that? 06:43 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Yeah, definitely. I think being aware of service barriers just comes from asking those questions. When you look at something like policies that your library has, or like I did with Every Child Ready to Read and you ask yourself, Well, who is going to have trouble accessing this? The example that I often give people is, I’ll say, Does your library have policies that inhibit use of the library? People always say, No, not my library. Then I say, Okay, well, at your library what does it take to get a library card?

Then people say to me, A photo ID and a piece of mail, an address. Then I say, Okay, does everyone have those things? No, they don’t. All libraries have these kinds of issues. It may be that your reference desk is very high, so people aren’t able to access it if they’re shorter, or in a wheelchair. There’s all kinds of obstacles and barriers to service. Some may be necessary. We really may need to know where people live if we’re going to lend them some books. I’m not saying that we have to have no barriers, but we have to be aware of the service barriers, that’s an important piece.


Question #5: Very good. So, what should we focus on as we begin? 08:01  

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

I think the first thing we want to do is to ask those questions. I think the second thing that we want to do is we want to start looking at our community, asking who’s not coming in, and how can we make connections with those communities? We may need to partner with some like, the Vietnamese Church, or the employer of migrant workers, or the probation and parole, or the woman shelter in town. Making those connections. 

I think the next thing that we can do is we can empower our staff and our patrons. So, we all have staff that have personal convictions to serve groups. I think as librarians we do a good job where we say, Okay, I’m a reference librarian, or I’m a technical services librarian. But, I would advocate that we can add a layer of social services onto that. And we can say, I might be this kind of librarian, but I also have a heart for the homeless community. So, I’m going to be responsible at my library for creating an information sheet that lets people know, where can you get a bed for the night? Where can you take a pay shower? What are some of the resources in my community for these groups of people?

My opinion is the basics of librarianship is building rapport with patrons. So, getting to know your patrons—getting to know the passions that they have, the connections that they have in the library. Then also, I think, we have to really get outside the library. We have to go out and find these people. We’ve already said that these people are not coming into the library. So we can’t just sit there and wait for them to come into the library, we have to go get them and show them what the library can offer them.


So, take initiative. 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Take initiative, definitely. That was one of the major findings in the research that I did. Taking initiative. Often people would say things like, I didn’t ask my manager. I just went out and did it. 

Being warm and welcoming was one of the findings. Attitude of librarians, in my research, was one-third of the findings. This is great news because attitude is completely free. Attitude is contagious. So, we know that we need to greet people by name, build rapport with people and then promote our services with people.


Question #6: That’s great. And then once we’ve done that we will identify unmet needs. How do we focus on those, and then also bring others into it? You mentioned maybe people who had just gone out and done this on their own because they have an interest in it. But, we also need to bring others along with us, right? 10:36 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Definitely. In my research I looked at meeting unmet needs as a way often that would be an impetus for providing a certain service. Through librarians getting to know their patrons, they would see a need that particular patron had. What the research showed is that oftentimes, whenever you would build a program for that person, that particular need, you would end up serving a lot of other people within different communities. 

Take for example, if I say, Okay well, let’s have an ASL storytime. Well, you know, hearing parents of deaf kids are not going to be the only people to come to ASL storytime. All kinds of kids are going to come, people who want their child to communicate early, people who have a child who has some other communication issue, parents who want their kids to be bilingual. So, we can know that if we meet an unmet need, likely other people that we’re not thinking of when we create that program are going to use it. 

I also say needs are like rats. What I mean by that is by every need you hear of, there’s 100 other needs that you don’t. So, you can know that there are more people out there who are going to use that service.

Meeting unmet needs also really builds our reputation for being accommodating. In the research that I found, the communities would often say about the library, Go to the library, they can help you with that. They would say, If you go there, they helped me with this. I know they can help you with that. Building that reputation is really important.

We can partner with near-by agencies. If we’re wanting to serve a certain population and there’s another agency in our community that serves that population—if we partner with them we can get things like staff training for our staff to learn how to better interact with this community. They may be a volunteer source for us. 

For example if we’re trying to reach a bilingual community, maybe we can get somebody to come in and read some bilingual stories. This could also be a great patron source for us. If we’re partnering with those nearby agencies, and we’re going out to serve them, then oftentimes that draws the people into the community. I’ve seen that in my own time as a librarian where I would go out and serve different groups and then low and behold those groups would then come into the library. Because I had officially, and personally invited them to come in, right? 

The other thing that the findings found is employing diverse staff is so important. So often what people would say is, You know the way we started serving this population is we hired someone who had a certain disability. Then people who had that same disability started coming into the library. So, patrons want help from people who look like them. Research shows that. So, our staff should represent all kinds of diversity. All kinds of racial diversity, abilities, all kinds of hair colors and tattoos. We need librarians who look like the patrons we serve. 

I often hear from librarians, and they say, Well, we tried to hire diverse staff, but no one applied. And I understand you can only hire who applies, but we have to be proactive. We have to get out in front of this image problem that we have that we’re these little, old, white ladies who sit around and read all day.

Part of that is diversifying our profession, which has impact on serving underserved populations. It also has a really positive impact on our profession. The way that we do that is we catch people early. We invite volunteers to come in and help us with programs. By doing that we can lead people into the career of librarianship. I’ve seen this work. I had a young African American boy who came into my teen center. He started helping me run programs. He became the librarian. So, I know that this works. 

Lastly we can use gatekeepers. If we have people who serve the same communities that we’re looking to serve, or are part of the same communities that we’re looking to serve  – if we make a connection with that one person we can…it has a big impact. We can include them in the programming, include them in the facilitation, include them in the evaluation of programs. Then what we see is they will bring their friends to the program, they will make sure that we are offering programs that are actually needed by that community. There’s some great research about that as well, about gatekeepers.


Question #7: I really love these examples, Bobbie. I just want to share that in my own library I have seen this in action. We have a coffee shop called Lucky Ones, in my building. They are a mission-driven organization that employs people with disabilities and does all kinds of job training, and positive outsourcing in the community. The way people have come around that and gotten so excited about it—we’re seeing a whole new diverse population of people coming through the door. It’s amazing. So, what you’re talking about really works. 15:55

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Right. And I think too, sometimes people from small libraries can get overwhelmed because they think, Well we have to serve this, and this, and this, and I can think of several underserved populations. But what I have found is you don’t have to find one population and then focus, focus, focus on them. You can find one population, pull them in, then focus your efforts elsewhere. So, its’ really just going out and letting those people know, The library is for you, and I want you to come and I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that you feel welcome here. And that we’re serving you and the needs that you have.


Question #8: Fantastic. And, you talk about important aspects of inclusion and community building which surrounds this work. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? 17:04 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Definitely, so what is so important is we have to include the target audience that we’re going to serve. There’s a good slogan for disability inclusion and they say, Nothing about us without us, right? If we can just remember that. We have to include people in all stages of the program, planning, promoting, facilitating, and evaluating. Now here’s the good news—if you do that, you ensure an audience. So, you never again have to be a librarian who says, Man, I’ve put all this time into planning this program and no one came. 

Now, if you include the target audience in all stages, then those people will come. My example earlier with the young African American male who later became a librarian – he was running programs for me about things like creating hiphop music on the computer. I don’t know anything about doing that, right? First of all I couldn’t personally run that program, but he ran it for me. And, he was happy to do it. He also told all his friends about it, so they all came. I didn’t know all those people and they probably wouldn’t have come if I had run the program myself, because they don’t perceive that I have any expertise in that area. This makes our job a lot easier if we reach out and we include someone from the target audience. We’ll have better results, and we do less work, and it has a greater impact.


Question #9: Great results for everyone. I like it. Anything else you would like to add? 18:41 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

I do want to say, I don’t want people to be afraid to serve a minority group. In my research I found that it really educates the majority culture and has good positive impact. With the people who were bringing their kids to the ASL storytimes they would say things like, This is such a good learning opportunity for my kids. They really learned there are different ways to communicate.

The other thing that I will say is this kind of work builds community. You want to be a connector and you want to empower your staff and empower your patrons, especially the patrons. This is their library and they need to know if they have an idea for a program they can come to you and you’ll help them set that up. If they want to run it, even better. You’ll empower them as much as they need to be successful and to pull in those underserved populations.

We want to look for these opportunities to build relationships, because it may be that we can well serve more than one community at a time. I’ve seen some good programs about teens teaching older adults how to use social media. I think that’s a great example because teens are often seen as problem patrons. They’re often seen as problem patrons by the older adults who visit the library. At least that was my experience when I was a teen librarian. If you can have these kinds of programs that even meet more than one need at the same time, and pull groups together to be a community connector, I think that can be so powerful.

So, I just want to say to people, you can do it. All the things I’ve shared with you are low-cost and they have huge impacts for your community, for the library and for our profession. Don’t be overwhelmed, you’re aren’t going to do everything yourself. Start by sharing information. Share this podcast with your fellow staff. You can share a longer video version of this talk that I give, if you go to Emporia is spelled, EMPORIA. 

So, just share this with your staff and help get them fired up, and help get them onboard. Then just plan to implement one thing at a time, and once you’ve mastered that you can add something else. What you’ll see is that this is going to create a snowball effect, where things get easier, and you make more, and more connections as you build your library’s reputation for being accommodating.


Question #10: We can do this and we want it to snowball because it’s so important for our communities. Do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 21:16 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Graham writes on how to deal with safety and security issues in the library in an authoritative, but a compassionate way. It’s only eighty pages long. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a library manager. Because it’s great to serve all these people, but there’s a lot of security and safety issues that come up with the library. So, I think that’s an important piece of library leadership.


Question #11: In closing what do libraries, and being a library professional mean to you, personally? 21:49 

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Librarianship for me, is this radical force for positive change. This is summed up by my favorite quote, which is by Michael Moore. He says, I really didn’t realize that librarians were such a dangerous group. They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them. 


Very good, Bobbie. Thank you so much. It’s been great having you on the show today. And, I think we’ve learned a lot. I think this is very empowering in terms of really getting started serving unserved populations. So, thank you.

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Well, good. I would say again, this typically is an hour lecture that I give. Please do share this podcast with people, but also you can go to to hear the full hour where you get a lot more details. You also get a resource list that backs up some of these research claims that I’ve made today.


A great thing to share, and I hope people will tune into that. So, thank you so much, it’s been great having you on the show.

Dr. Bobbie Bushman:

Thank you very much for having me.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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