by Marylaine Block
It's discouraging that after all our efforts at marketing libraries, the public still understands so little about them. What do most people know about libraries? According to OCLC's study of "Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources <http://www.oclc.org/reports/2005perceptions.htm>, the library's "brand" is books - no other aspect of our services even comes close enough to be called "second," the report says. ALA's annual survey indicates that a fair amount of people are also aware that we offer space for groups to meet, and many parents are aware of library story hours.
What ranks way down on the public understanding of libraries is that they offer librarians - or that what makes a library more than just a warehouse of books is its librarians.
The problem is that most people have no idea how much librarians know, and how helpful what we know could be to them in their everyday lives. Think about it. We know how to get grants, how to track our ancestors, how to digitize precious historical and family photos, and how to entice children to read. We know how to find trustworthy factual information on political candidates and important public issues. We've done the research and can tell anxious parents about the capabilities and limitations of various internet filters; we can also suggest other ways to keep kids safe as they explore the net.
So, why don't people seem to know that? I wonder if it's because so many librarians wait for the public to come to us, rather than going out to where our potential customers already are. Yes, of course the library director is going out and speaking to the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club and the PTA, but how about the rest of the library staff?
That's why I like the idea of maintaining, and promoting, a library speakers' Bureau. The Fresno County Public Library's Speaker's Bureau, for instance, <http://www.fresnolibrary.org/serv/speakers.html> offers staff members who will speak on Homework Help on the Internet, Tracing Your Genealogy Roots, Fresno County and Central Valley History, Services for the Disabled, Services to Non-English Speakers, and several other topics.
Librarians from the Calgary Public Library <http://calgarypubliclibrary.com/library/cpl_presents.htm> are available to speak on a variety of topics, including how to start a book club, safe surfing for kids, library resources for the entrepreneur, and "Readers are Leaders: tips for parents and other caregivers on reading for children." Understanding that this is a valuable opportunity to explain the library to its community, it also offers speakers on "How Calgary Public Library makes a difference in your community," and "So what does a Librarian do, anyway?"
The Gail Borden Public Library's speakers http://www.elgin.lib.il.us/speakers/> present a "Computer Class Sampler Platter," "Family Fun at the Library," "How to Research a House in Kane County," services to seniors, and "Are you a Bull or a Bear? Investing Resources at the Library." They explain further that "From toilet-training to teen-proofing your child, the library offers assistance and advice in a variety of formats. Parents will learn of the myriad resources available at the drop of a library card." They too have seized the opportunity to explain the library to its community, with presentations like "101 Library Services," and "Behind the 'Staff Only' Doors at the Library."
Having just moved to Greensboro, I'm pleased to note that its public library offers to speak to local organizations <http://www.greensboro-nc.gov/Departments/Library/about/speakers.htm> about "The History of Downtown Greensboro," "Fundraising Resources for Your Nonprofit," "Storytelling with North Carolina Themes," multicultural Greensboro, "Making Your Neighborhood Stronger," and several other topics.
Note that these libraries have topics to appeal to virtually every kind of local organization: charities, business groups, book clubs, the PTA, homeschoolers, genealogists, seniors, new Americans, social service organizations, and more.
The nice thing about a library speakers bureau is that it doesn't require anything more than what libraries already have on hand: knowledgeable staff who love to share what they know.
In the early days of the net, there was a big discussion about the difference between a passive web presence that people could choose, or not choose, to visit, and "push technology," which brings the site's content to users. Many libraries are pushing their web content with RSS feeds.
Isn't a speakers bureau a good way to push the real heart of the library: the knowledge of our staff?
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So where do you go to find a researcher who is intelligent, imaginative, skilled in the use of computers, devoted to discovering the truth, and knowledgeable about science, technology, history, and literature and who usually works for dirt and gets credit for nothing?
After lunch I drove to the city library on Main and asked the reference librarian to find what she could on ...
James Lee Burke. Last Car to Elysian Fields. Simon & Schuster, 2003.
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