Adventures in Library Marketing

Over the summer, I presented at a Career Fair a for high school and middle school students at a local museum. The aim of the fair was to encourage kids to get involved with STEM careers and since I work a lot with technology I got picked to participate. I started by highlighting the fact that libraries don’t seem super STEM-related and when I asked my audience to play a word association game with the term “library” they all yelled out “books” and “shhhh.” Seriously. The “shh” made me laugh, but it also got me thinking a good bit about a question I ponder fairly frequently: who librarians are, what it is we do, and how do we, and can we, effectively communicate that to a broad audience.

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Easy to understand jobs from the greatest movie ever made

For some reason I’ve spent my post-college years working at jobs where I have to explain what it is I do, or at least clarify what I do. When I started library school a friend of mine said it was good that I now had a “Fisher Price job,” something that everyone could understand, like a teacher or a surgeon or a firefighter. In reality, and perhaps unfortunately, I ended up having to explain what it is I do to people who are convinced they already know what librarians do.

It’s this issue of having people think they know what you do, when they really don’t, that presents some challenges and difficulties for people who consider themselves librarians. I had to emphasize the technology and teaching aspects of my job to secure my slot on the Career Fair panel, and that conversation is one I have on at least a weekly basis with people I’m trying to work with. While people might think of books and quiet when they think of libraries, my actual day-to-day job is about 90% teaching and other educator related activities (like curriculum and outreach events) and I can go days on end without seeing a single book. And this is true for a lot of librarians out there.

Libraries, and other cultural institutions like museums, have changed a huge amount in recent years, which I think accounts in large part for public misconceptions regarding what they do. And media portrayals and stereotypes don’t help all that much. Case in point: Ghostbusters, The Mummy, The Music Man, and Buffy.

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While I wouldn’t mind dancing at work or going on Mummy or vampire fighting adventures, none of those things are true.

As much as I roll my eyes and laugh at silly media portrayals (a bit redundant as most media portrayals of most professions qualify as silly to some degree) and stereotypes, libraries actually have a huge problem in marketing which impacts how librarians work with others (as a personal anecdote, a lot of faculty at the college where I work are completely clueless about what I do), how librarians get funding and collaborators for projects, and how to attract people to library services. And it doesn’t help that libraries themselves are so incredibly diverse – the strengths and needs of public libraries often differ wildly from those of academic libraries.

In thinking of some ways, for myself at least, to develop and deliver a strong narrative to potential partners and collaborators and users, I thought of master storyteller Peggy Olson. Really.

In the Burger Chef storyline on Mad Men (stay with me), Peggy and co. realize that they can’t get around the reality that Burger Chef is a fast food restaurant, and can’t escape everything that fast food entails. So, Peggy opts to draw people’s focus to something else instead, something that has positive connotations for people.

If people tend to associate libraries with books and shushing, then perhaps there are ways to tweak that narrative and shift their focus elsewhere. It’s something I learned in a writing class in grad school – start with the familiar and guide people to unfamiliar ideas; use the familiar as a building block and a transition.

There are definitely initiatives out there trying to tell a more up-to-date story about libraries, including Every Library, a nonprofit that works on library ballot issues, and SXSW Libraries Archives and Museums, a library advocacy group. And for my own part, I’m using the start of the school year to tweak my own personal narrative and think of new ways to let people know what I do and how I can work with them.

Hacking Away: Activity and Expectations at Museums and Libraries

A few weeks ago I participated at a Civic Hack day event at the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago (where I volunteer with teen groups). Civic Hack Day is a nation-wide event that lets groups come together and spend the day using technology to work on solutions to social problems. The event I was at had teams working on everything from ways to reach out to LGBT youth in Chicago to teen groups working on improving school culture.

Civic Hacking and hackathons in general definitely seem to be gaining steam – they’re happening at museums, at universities, at tech companies. And I really like the spirit of them – you work collaboratively, you share big ideas, you tackle problems, you use technology.

The traditional museum-going experience

That hacking spirit fits really well with museums and libraries, in their current form. Though, traditionally, museums weren’t really seen as active places. You went to an august cultural institution like a museum to look at things hanging on the wall, to look at things under glass cases. Museums have definitely taken the whole participatory, active experience thing and ran with it; you can still look but you can also play and make and, well, do.

When I worked at a museum, and people inquired about what I did for a living, the reaction I got from those asking was generally some sort of exclamation of “cool” or “fun.” When I tell people I work at a library, I often get something more along the lines of “do you like to read?”  Libraries are definitely changing and evolving, but stereotypes are stubborn and there can be a disconnect between what I actually do at my job (mostly teaching!) and what a lot of people think when they hear a word like librarian or library (it’s a bit of a marketing fail and Leslie Knope’s propaganda isn’t helping matters, of course).

But while libraries are embracing newer opportunities like maker spaces and hackathons and digital media labs and information commons and other cool, active learning opportunities, the fact is that libraries have always been active places, in a way. Libraries have always been places of intellectual creation, problem-solving, research (an active process of making something new), and learning – but these things are often cast as passive pursuits in contrast to the revolution of making and doing and hacking.  (Check out this great blog post by Lane Wilkinson over at Sense and Reference for more on this concept – Lane discusses knowledge creation and how libraries have always been places of learning.)

Museums, it seems to me, have managed to make clear their shift in purpose, from more passive absorption of information to more active experiences; libraries seem to have an issue with descriptive marketing sometimes and don’t always make clear, to a broader audience, what they do now and what they’ve been doing for a while in terms of active learning.

There are new and exciting developments in making and hacking and working with technology, and I think that hackathons, makerspaces, and the like can provide great and valuable experiences for visitors at museums and libraries.  But libraries in particular could also use these active, tech-oriented events as a platform to demonstrate how they’ve been doing a lot of active things for a long time by reframing the conversation. 

A hackathon involves using technology but it also involves collaboration, research, discovery, and sharing – things that aren’t specific to tech-oriented events, things that involve active learning, and things that have been happening at places like libraries for a while, albeit it in different forms. After all, if a civic hack event encourages people to look at social problems with a new angle, then that spirit can apply to the institution hosting such an event.