In a recent article reporting on Pew results regarding the public’s relationship with their public libraries, Sarah Hatoum emphasized the struggle for public libraries to make their users and potential users aware of what the library has to offer. This is something I’ve encountered at my two part-time circulation gigs. Patrons come in, check out books, maybe some DVDs, and they leave. On occasion, a sign will catch their eye — “The library offers ebooks?” they ask in shock. “You’re having a seminar on writing a novel?” They ask for a slip of paper to write down the name of the app or the date of the upcoming event. “I had no idea!” We finish their transaction, and they head out of the library, practically wiggling with excitement.
There’s no question that the library is offering things of interest to the public. For patrons with lower incomes, the library allows access to things they may not otherwise have. Can’t make a case for Netflix in your budget? We have DVDs (and you may even get the next season sooner at the library than you would on Netflix). Don’t have an at-home computer? Boy, can we help you there. But, from my perspective, the low-income members of the community are already very much aware of what the library has to offer. It’s making the case to community members who don’t use the library out of necessity.
I have a confession: I was (and sometimes still am) one of those people. I don’t take out DVDs from the library because (a) I’m fortunate enough that I can justify spending extra for Netflix and (b) my laptop (another thing I’m very fortunate to have) doesn’t have a DVD drive, so even if I didn’t have Netflix, I wouldn’t have the means to watch anything from the library. In college, despite being an avid library use in high school and before that, I stopped going to the library. I had just about everything I needed on campus — programs, social opportunities, educational opportunities, and plenty of reading to do. I didn’t even use the university library, to be honest, even for the space. I went maybe five times when it wasn’t class-required.
Part of this was because I simply didn’t have the time. Part of this was because I felt the local public library didn’t have much to offer my age group. Part of this was probably for a lack of effective advertising.
I am well aware that libraries do their best to advertise. It’s challenging to meet all types of groups in their advertising prime spot without breaking the bank. A lot of advertising takes place at the library or on the library website, but this is only good if you’re already using the library.
In my senior year of college, I started going to the public library with slightly greater frequency. I had the means to get there (a car) and had come into a bit of advertising that worked really well. The library came to my school, set up a table in the dining hall, and signed us up for library cards. Not everyone got a card, of course, but I walked away with mine and a sense of what the library had to offer. Setting up booths at various events and locations — colleges, high schools, local fairs, elections, and other public events — is a great alternative to flyers (which, let’s be real, no one reads). Once they’re in your library, you can wallpaper your walls with flyers if you like. Getting them in there is the key.
We did something similar at the special library I work at. Bringing our patrons to us, we held an open house, which we advertised through emails, email signatures, attachments to routed newspapers, table tents in the break room, and word of mouth. We had nearly one-half of the agency attend the open house (with the bribe of doughnuts, coffee, and the chance to win prizes). Each library staff member had a station. If attendees visited a station and got the spiel on the featured library offering, they got a raffle ticket for a coffee mug and Starbucks gift card. This resulted in a number of patrons signing up for routing lists they were previously unaware of and general increased awareness. Our reference statistics have increased dramatically this year, as well (though, admittedly, this may be more a symptom of overall increased workflow agency-wide). With a smaller set of people with which to work and more personal relationships with each individual, it is admittedly easier to get them into the library. But that doesn’t mean the open house concept can’t be adapted.
One final note, I think, is important to address. Many very interesting and provoking events at the libraries in my area are held during business hours. This makes sense, to some extent — the bulk of the staff is in-house during this time and with more staff comes greater flexibility. However, many potential patrons simply aren’t available at this time to attend programs. While at-home parents may opt to bring their child(ren) to story-time during the day, daytime programs on container planting aren’t ideal for most people. Evaluating the times programs are offered can bring a huge boost in attendance. Try different times, with a little luck, your library will become the community hub it’s meant to be.
Image courtesy of Photo Pin.