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Veteran Outreach in an Academic Library
by JJ Pionke

Abstract: Outreach to veterans in an academic library can seem like a difficult proposition in the face of the learning and research pressures that students and faculty alike face. One method of engagement is to listen to and highlight the narratives that veterans tell about their time in service.


Generally speaking, the core mission of an academic library is to support the research and learning needs of students and faculty in addition to collecting materials. The patron population of an academic library come with all their assorted worries, anxieties, histories, concerns, crises, and backgrounds. One of these backgrounds is military service. According to an unpublished study, veterans generally do not want special treatment or to be singled out (Pionke 2018). However, that does not mean that they do not want to share their stories about their time in service with others. It does mean that they will not necessarily want a big deal made out of it. This article talks about reaching out to veterans to hear their stories and how to do so effectively and with compassion.

Developing Your Project
Be clear about why you want to interview veterans before you even begin. Veterans are less likely to participate in an interview if they feel like their stories are going to be used for some kind of project that is focused on overinflated patriotism. Instead, think about how their stories will enhance what your library is doing by focusing on a theme or idea. Is there a special anniversary coming up, a national discussion happening around a particular topic, or some other event that would lend itself to listening to the narratives of veterans? If so, then continue with your project but if not, spend time thinking about why you want to do the project. In my own project, I had multiple reasons to move forward, including but not limited to: I had an exhibit space in November that I wanted to fill with something related to veterans, I wanted to highlight veteran voices rather than secondhand accounts, I wanted to ask veterans about their library usage, and I was also building relationships with the veteran community on and off campus.

To prepare for conducting the interviews, develop your question set or use a question set that has already been created. The Library of Congress Veteran History Project ( has an excellent set of questions that you can use outright or add on to and modify. I chose to use their questions as a base and then added a secondary question set in order to explore veteran attitudes towards libraries. Before conducting the interviews, I decided to offer any veterans that I interviewed the option of having their stories deposited in the Library of Congress so I made it a point to familiarize myself with all of the forms, the process, and what the needs of the program are. Whether you decide to deposit or not, when you are ready to conduct interviews, be sure that you have all the paperwork and equipment ready to go and that you have practiced using recording devices. I also highly recommend doing a test run on a friend so you can practice your interview technique. Having a note taker present to run the recording equipment and to take notes is also invaluable as it allows the interviewer to solely focus on the veteran being interviewed.

Recruiting and Conducting Interviews
Military training emphasizes the group over the individual and the mission over everything else so to be singled out can cause consternation and discomfort. Playing on group think and that there is a specific goal involved in interviewing the veteran will go pretty far in reassuring them that talking to you is a good idea. Veterans in general are often happy to talk about their service when there is a goal in mind. If you conduct interviews well and are respectful of their experiences, word of your project will spread like wildfire in the community and you will have veterans volunteering to be interviewed left and right. The first person I interviewed was the co-leader of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost and because his interview went well, he spread the word to other veterans that I was respectful and a good person to work with. Initially, my pie in the sky number of interviews was 20, and in all honestly, I was hoping for 10. I ultimately interviewed 24 people.

When conducting the interviews, use active listening skills and don’t be afraid to go off script. A 30 minute interview is the minimum for deposit into the Library of Congress and sometimes, veterans will answer questions with a minimum of verbiage. As the interviewer, use your skills to draw them out with gentle nudges like “tell me more about that” and “can you give me an example?” Also, do not be afraid to ask them to explain things. They may use jargon that you are unfamiliar with and asking them to help you understand gives them the opportunity to educate. Be prepared for the interview to go long on time. While I aimed for at least 30 minutes, the longest interview clocked in at close to 2 hours. Provide water and Kleenex and let them choose wherever they want to sit in the room. Also be prepared to hear things that may be emotionally disturbing. There are some interviews that still make me sad or upset when I think about what the veteran went through. Absolutely do NOT ask about how many people they killed, what killing people was like, etc. Do not press for those kinds of details. Let the veteran control how much they do and do not tell you. The last interview I did was with an interrogator who worked at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. They were not a part of the unit that committed atrocities and the veteran was very clear in not wanting to talk about their time at Abu Ghraib and so we did not. We talked about their training, what being in Iraq was like for them, in broad terms what their job generally was (no specifics), what coming home was like, etcetera. A condition of the interview was that they were allowed to delete it if they didn’t like how it had gone (they did not ask to delete it). They asked for this condition in large part because they were afraid of the questions I was going to ask and if I was going to pressure them to reveal things that either they were not supposed to reveal or they were not ready to talk about emotionally. Being sensitive to the veterans needs goes a long way in building trust.

Interviewing veterans can be immensely rewarding. The more you interview, the more you see trends in their stories as well as the differences between soldiers that were in active service in different decades and different wars. Their stories paint a picture of not only who they are but also who we are as a nation. Their stories enrich our communities and bring into focus an aspect of student’s lives that not many people realize is there.

Pionke, J. (2018). Library Impact on Veterans. Unpublished research.

Copyright 2017 by JJ Pionke.

About the author:
JJ Pionke is the Applied Health Sciences Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on disability in the library.