The Implications of Outreach

Considering the semiotics and the semantics of our words

I’m a word guy. I think the words we choose to employ carry enormous weight and send messages beyond the formal definitions contained in dictionaries. I believe that if we consider the semiotics of language — in addition to the semantics — we can subliminally strengthen the relationships between us and the people with whom we are communicating.

Earlier today, during a session about 21st Century Digital Outreach at the Society for American Archivists conference, I tweeted this:

The discussion that followed was interesting, but sometimes it’s difficult to explore nuanced observations like this within the 144-character framework of Twitter. This post is an attempt to articulate my thoughts on this more clearly and solicit feedback from LAM (Library, Archives and Museum) professionals who may have an opinion on the topic.

The term outreach is loaded. Especially as we’re working to create more inclusive environments within our LAMs, the word sends out subtle undercurrents. Let’s think about the unspoken messages this term delivers to people on the receiving end:

  • Outreach implies that the entity extending the reach is in a position of power.
  • Outreach implies that the entity extending the reach will remain stationary in that fixed position of power.
  • Outreach implies a strange authority imbalance or hierarchy — like those being reached out to need to be elevated in some way to the level of the LAM.
  • Outreach places the onus of the relationship on the receiver — if a connection is not made, it’s their fault because we fulfilled our commitment to “reach out.”

Twitter user Juliet Ó Brien made an interesting observation:

I can feel that. Outreach seems like a leftover from an earlier time, when LAMs were cathedrals of privilege. We know that’s not the case anymore, or at least shouldn’t be. We must be intentional with respect to the language we use when talking about LAMs because our language — the way we communicate and connect with people — can greatly impact the level to which inclusivity is attained.

I’m curious to hear what my LAM colleagues think. Are terms like outreach dated and weighed? Do you think there’s legitimacy to considering the semiotics of language in addition to semantics?