UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT
by Marylaine Block
A recent story from BBC News [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3897583.stm] says "a group of robotics researchers at University Jaume I in Spain is working on a robot librarian." And what would this robot librarian do? It would fetch desired books from the shelves. The article neglected to say whether it would also say, "Arf, arf."
The author, Jo Twist, part of the "BBC News Online science and technology staff," apparently is unaware librarians serve some higher functions. As a reporter with some science background she might reasonably be expected to know better, but she doesn't. And she is hardly the only reporter, or for that matter, taxpayer, who exhibits that kind of unawareness.
Whose fault is that?
I would argue that to a large extent, the fault is ours. We haven't told the library's story; worse, many of us haven't even realized we HAVE to tell our story. Too many librarians still seem to believe they have done their jobs if they have simply served their traditional users well.
If that was ever an effective strategy, it isn't now, for several reasons:
- community demographics are changing. As more and more new Americans move to our towns, our traditional user groups may become a shrinking percentage of the population. Sadly, some libraries have responded to budget cuts by reducing their outreach services to these potential new users.
- our traditional user groups can just as easily go to the internet and bookstores to meet the needs we have been filling for them
- a growing anti-tax sentiment means that if we fail to explain our services adequately to taxpayers who will never use the library, we risk losing public support and funding.
In my column last week [http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib219.html] I talked about identifying our competitive strengths, the things we do better than any of our competitors. This week I'd like to talk about ways to let people know what those are, and how very good we are at them.
How do you promote your reference service, for example? For that matter, DO you promote your reference service? Let me tell you a story. I virtually grew up in libraries, checking out a stack of books every week from both the main library and my local branch. I went on to get a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, using the library throughout. And it wasn't until I got to library school that I realized that libraries answer questions for people. How could that be possible if all those libraries I used for all those years were promoting their information service?
OK, so how might you promote your reference service, other than, for starters, calling it "information service" or better yet "answer service"? The best way I can think of is to tell true stories about our adventures in reference -- the mysteries we've solved, the ancestors we've helped to trace, the cherished childhood books we've helped our users rediscover, the fascinating who, what, how, and how-come questions we answer everyday.
Look at it this way. Everybody loves a good puzzle, and the reason reference work is so much fun is that we solve puzzles for a living. Why not write a regular column for a local newspaper or shopper about our most interesting puzzles? How about taping regular two-minute features for a local radio station or community cable station? You could also post them on the front page of your web site, changing the question and answer every day. If you're part of a large organization, you could get it into the organization's newsletter. You could put those questions and answers on bookmarks you stick inside the books people check out.
There is a market for regular features like this. Unfortunately, it hasn't been filled by librarians very often. It's been filled by Cecil Adams, in his column, The Straight Dope [http://www.straightdope.com/], and Slate Magazine's The Explainer [http://www.slate.com/, click on Explainer]. It's filled everyday by Ask Yahoo! [http://ask.yahoo.com/ask/]. They are all interesting, well-written features.
That market is also filled by the wonderful PBS program, History Detectives [http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/], which starts each episode with real people's historical questions: Was this bayonet used at Little Big Horn? Were these old photos part of a 19th century mail order bride scam? Was this house designed by Thomas Edison? Then we get to see the researchers at work. We see the questions they ask, the libraries and archives and experts they consult, their deductions, false starts, and changes of course to find the answers through a differemt avenue. The program makes historical research fascinating through great storytelling.
Unfortunately, none of the history detectives are librarians either. How come? Why didn't WE do that? [Though you can see how Multnomah County Library used a similar tack on its web site to show people how to track their family history at http://www.multcolib.org/train/jumpstart/family/index.html.]
Where else might we promote our information service? Wherever we can. Librarians' business cards should give the reference desk phone number and say something like, "we answer questions" or "professional finder." We need to put our promotional stuff wherever people are likely to ask questions; how many of you have posted flyers about our "ask a librarian" service in bars, for instance, or social service agencies where people may be waiting for hours at a time for assistance? Offer to speak to any and every local organization about how the library can benefit their causes (and while you're at it, enlist them to present programs or exhibits at the library).
Another proven technique advertisers use is testimonials from satisfied customers. Have you collected yours in any organized way, made sure librarians routinely tell the director about rewarding encounters with their most grateful users? Such a file could be the starting point for a library success story feature, in a newspaper article or your web site.
Reference isn't all we do, of course. Libraries are also the best free place on earth for children and young adults, and for their parents, but not enough parents know that, especially those from from countries where libraries are not free to everybody. The children's librarian could write a regular newspaper column and/or radio feature about wonderful children's books or poems or CDs or videos or even web sites. These could be posted on the library web site, or printed and distributed at grocery stores, laundromats, beauty parlors, and child care centers, the Y (in multiple languages if you serve immigrant populations). Young adult librarians could write or speak about cool new graphic novels, CDs, and movies, or answer homework stumpers. They could even do what the New York Public Library does: sponsor a magazine by teens for teens, and let them promote it, along with the library, to each other.
These are just a few tricks you could use with just about any of the things your library does well, like local history, genealogy, unique collections or services, training of all sorts, in computer use, job hunting, babysitting, GED prep, English as a second language. If you're partnering with local agencies or businesses or museums, you can work together and cross-promote each other's work.
While you're at it, don't forget to speak the hardheaded dollars and cents language of the business community. Always explain the economic value of what libraries do. OCLC Canada's report, Libraries: How They Stack Up [http://www.oclc.org/ca/en/index/compare/default.htm, is a great model for doing that with compelling data and visuals.
When you're the only game in town, it may be enough to be good at what you do. Once you've got competition, you have no choice but to get even better at it.
But that still won't be enough unless you go out and spread the news. If we want people to be clear on the concept of what librarians do, and why public funds should support our work, it's up to us to explain that.
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After all, libraries are a critical component in the quality-of-life equation. Vibrant libraries make for vibrant communities, and, in turn, help to attract and retain upwardly mobile families and the businesses that rely on them. If the state’s local libraries are allowed to close or crumble, that will be one more strike against a state already beleaguered by a brain-drain problem.
"Vibrant libraries make for vibrant communities." editorial, The Daily Item [Susquehanna Valley, PA], July 20, 2004. http://www.dailyitem.com/archive/2004/0720/edit/edit.htm
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