Complete This Sentence: My Library Is...
December 2, 2019
Dan Bostrom and Mary Witt, Reaching Across Illinois Library System
What are the first thoughts that come into your head when someone asks you to tell your library’s story or when you feel you need to do a better job of proving your library’s value to various stakeholders (customers, potential customers, administrators, colleagues, funders, elected officials, etc.)? In the Reaching Across Illinois Library System’s (RAILS) work with libraries of all sizes and types (academic, public, school, and special), we’ve found that library staff members often have one or more of the following thoughts:
• I don’t have time.
• My library doesn’t have any money.
• I’m afraid.
• I have no idea how to go about doing this!
Despite these reservations, few can deny the need for all connected with libraries to tell our story more effectively. Budgets are tight, and there is great competition for funding. Many libraries (especially school and special libraries) are in danger of losing professional library staff; some face the danger of losing their library altogether. Not enough people know about all of the wonderful things libraries are doing or how the library in their community, company/organization, or school can help them to lead a more productive and enriched life.
When RAILS revised our strategic plan in 2018, we conducted a listening tour throughout our entire 27,000 square mile area to find out “what kept our members awake at night.” We heard over and over again from all types of libraries that they needed help telling their story. As a result, the second goal in our new plan is to “work with libraries of all types to tell the library story.”
The Illinois Library Association (ILA) discovered the same overwhelming need when the association created its 2019–2022 strategic plan. As a result, the advocacy strategy in the new plan includes both legislative and community advocacy, and the desired outcomes of these efforts include increased support for libraries from government decision-makers and for communities and people served to “value the presence and vitality of libraries.”
So how can we all begin to tell the library story more effectively? RAILS initiated our My Library Is… campaign to help. The MyLibraryIs.org website includes general advice for all types of libraries in the form of toolkits, a blog, and other basic information. It also includes continuing education opportunities, both in person and online, information on grants to fund individual library efforts to tell their stories, and a Sharing Showcase, where all Illinois libraries can share stories (including patron testimonials), print materials, templates, videos, social media posts, and other materials that have helped them tell their stories.
Here are a few tips we have learned through our work on the campaign thus far, with real-life examples and strategies different types of libraries have used to tell their stories more effectively.
1. THINK SMALL.
There is something that every library can do to start telling their story and proving their value more effectively. It’s important to get started and to do something, no matter how small. It may not be perfect and it likely won’t bring you overwhelming support overnight, but as the saying goes, “every little bit helps.”
Find out what other libraries are doing and don’t be afraid to copy their efforts. Talk to others from your type of library. Peruse the Sharing Showcase on the MyLibraryIs.org site for inspiration and share your ideas. Explore local partnerships and collaborate to accomplish big things. Sometimes, with very little effort, and a lot of common excitement, an idea comes together. We can all tell a more effective library story by working together.
For example, the Illinois Prairie Public Library District in Metamora, Illinois began co-hosting events with a senior center. This effort attracted enough support and donations to the point where the program became self-sustaining. "I don’t know if everyone has such an open space and people eager to host other events. But I do know that it starts with talking to people," said Joel Shoemaker, Director, Illinois Prairie Public Library District.
2. DEVELOP ONGOING RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE PEOPLE YOU WORK FOR AND WITH.
This can be as simple as being friendly, saying hello when you pass colleagues in the hall, and asking them about their day. And it’s often easy during the course of these conversations to slip in a word or two about your library and what you are doing to make the person’s life easier.
Kristen Rademacher, Teacher Librarian at Marist High School, often turns to teachers for help reinforcing the value of the library. Through conversations, emails, and even impromptu meetings in the hallway, she communicates shared goals and priorities. “Teachers are often my best advocates, telling their teams about a great unit we worked on together or how useful I was in assisting their students with research projects. They also are wonderful at reinforcing things I teach in their classrooms, such as requiring students to continue using databases and other strong source material and to cite these resources properly.”
3. USE WORD-OF-MOUTH MARKETING.
When someone compliments your library, ask them to spread the word to friends, family, colleagues, other students, etc. about how the library helped them. If a patron gives you a compliment, highlight it as a testimonial on your website, in a newsletter, or via social media. Ask other library staff members to talk about the library to friends, family, and other colleagues, targeting the communication to whomever they are speaking with. For example, if a friend of theirs is looking for a job, they can highlight the job-hunting assistance available at the public library. If they know a student who is writing a paper, they can highlight the library’s role in helping to find the most reliable resources and in deciphering “real” versus “fake” news.
When faced with a budget crisis, Quincy Public Library turned to citizen advocates and asked them to contribute their voices to help tell the library story. Citizens showed up at city council meetings to show their support. Library staff used edited videos from the meetings to share on Facebook. “The videos were viewed hundreds of times on social media. They really helped start a conversation with our community about the value of the library,” said Kathleen Helsabeck, Executive Director at Quincy Public Library.
These are just a few examples of what other libraries have done to tell their stories and tips on what you can do to get started. Be sure to share your stories and how you have effectively promoted your library via the Sharing Showcase on the Mylibraryis.org website. Together, we can all find better ways to complete the My Library Is … sentence and to gain more support for all types of libraries by sharing the library story far and wide, and asking others to help us spread that story as well.