By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS
They say there is no such thing as strangers, only friends who haven’t met—and the same goes for library users and library advocates. There are potential new ones all around you, every day. Several mentors in my career have talked about the importance of using everyday opportunities to make a case for your library or the concept of libraries in general. The simplest interaction could have a profound impact on someone’s life and expand the library fan base. With funding an ongoing challenge, we need a strong base of community advocacy and support to help keep libraries viable.
The good news is that, conceptually, libraries are an easy sell. Society tends to value equitable access to resources. But let’s face it: competition for funding is fierce among federal, state, and local infrastructure and services. And competition is also fierce in how the public chooses to spend its time and money.
Librarians need to be prepared to articulate value in any way they can to a variety of audiences, particularly non-library users. But conveying the library’s day-to-day value, particularly to the uninitiated, can be challenging. Elevators, public transportation, waiting rooms, cashier lines, filling out a loan or rental application… each and every time you are asked where you work or what you do is an opportunity.
When strangers I meet learn of my occupation, their reactions generally fall into a few broad categories. Some are immediately on board with platitudes: “I just love that I can download e-books for free!” Some are indifferent or irregular library visitors: “I used to take my kids there when they were young.” Others are struck dumb that libraries/librarians still exist or they have antiquated or bad memories: “Who needs books anymore?” or “You mean you get paid to do that?” We have our work cut out for us.
There are lots of resources available to help you generate your own elevator speech and talking points. To the layperson, however, these can sometimes come off as too formal, rehearsed, and/or preachy. I prefer to think about library advocacy in terms of teachable moments.
We all know that the key to being a good conversationalist is discovering and engaging in whatever it is that people like to talk about. I often think about what kind of people I may encounter and what I could tell them that might be new or interesting about libraries.
Interactions involving any of these topics offer fertile ground to plant a library seed. Here’s how I choose to position the value of libraries with respect to particular topics, although there is no definitive right answer for any of them.
- Caregiving—Free entertainment for all ages, through items to borrow and programs to attend
- Sense of Community—Gathering with like-minded individuals through book clubs, knitting groups, author appearances, writing workshops, poetry readings, musical performances
- Do-it-Yourself—Those great how-to books you see at the home improvement store are free
- Education—Professional materials and books for the classroom
- Health—Resources for diet, nutrition, cooking, exercise
- Home Decorating—Paint colors and techniques, upholstery and textiles, accessory ideas
- Hobbies—Perfect your skills, study up to decide on new pursuits
- Literature—Informational, recreational, scholarly reading
- Local History—Genealogy, rare books, census records, historic photos, yearbooks
- Newcomers—Opportunities to engage in interesting activities or meet new people
- Makers—Digital media labs and studio spaces
- Minimalism—Access over ownership
- Places to go—Libraries are one of the few free, open places where people can go without being confronted with expectation to buy
- Saving money—Why buy when you can borrow or share?
- Taxes—Anyone paying taxes should want to get their money’s worth
- Technology—Those either permanently or temporarily on the other side of the digital-divide need to fill out on an online applications, apply for unemployment, print, fax, scan
- Traveling—Country and state guidebooks, road trip guides, passports
This is just the tip of the iceberg. What can you add to this list?
Then there are always the tough sells. It pays to be prepared with some “pro” arguments to combat the “cons” associated with libraries.
How would/do you respond to the following?
“I don’t really read…” Response: That’s okay, do you like to learn?
“I find what I need on Google/YouTube…” Response: But sometimes, don’t you need more?
“I can afford to buy my own books…” Response: But you could afford other things if you took advantage of free resources.
“I don’t want to wait for the newest book/movie…” Response: (Again, the money aspect…)
“I just go to RedBox…” Response: RedBox can’t match the library’s collection depth.
“I don’t want to pay to park.” Response: It’s a small price, plus you’re supporting your local community.
Questions along the lines of “I don’t know what the library has…” or “I can’t find anything and don’t like asking for help…” are tough ones to respond to, and they reaffirm the universal need for library marketing and merchandising strategies.
Remember, not all battles can be won. Just try to give your audience something to think about. An impression of you as a person is also an impression of the profession you represent. Somewhere down the line, someone may simply remember that they met an interesting librarian, and who knows where that may lead?
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Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries. She is an avid gardener, bicyclist, and kayaker. Click here for more.