Thursday, August 21, 2014

Business Use of Libraries

Here's a great article about libraries setting up business centers:

This is an interesting issue, with two components: money, and merchandising.

Most libraries feel like money is the core of this debate. How do we responsibly allocate public funds? Here’s a quote from the article:

“Libraries catering to workers walk a fine line between appealing to business-minded patrons who help energize their once-sleepy reading rooms and avoiding the appearance of playing favorites in what has traditionally been an egalitarian space.” Is it okay to spend public money catering to businesses?

It’s so easy for the gut reaction to be “no.” But of course, we’re not talking about Altria and Nabisco. We’re talking about home healthcare workers and tutors and freelance designers and self-published writers – the all-important and over-cited “Main Street.” We spend tax dollars to run our libraries. If we can encourage local businesses, then we can serve as an economic engine as well as a cultural and learning center. We won’t cost  money – we’ll MAKE money for our community.

Should that be a concern? I don’t know if it SHOULD be, but it is. For libraries that are struggling to be funded, it has to be. Librarians understand this, but it’s hard to internalize. If you ask, “Why are libraries necessary?” you will get answers like “Because people can’t afford to buy all the books they want and need” or “Because not everyone has a computer at home, so they need to use ours.” At our library, the two largest user groups are children and seniors – groups without a lot of economic power. Lots of librarians got into the business to serve the under-served, and they are simply unwilling to make a choice based on economics. Some things, in fact, are more important than money.

This is a long-running debate that will continue in libraries for years. And it’s not academic, or confined to library staff meetings. Library users care about this issue. But exactly what is it they are worried about? Some people are truly worried about the use of their tax dollars, but others - and I think this is the larger group - are more worried about changes to the libraries that they love. Even in the New York Public Library debate, people's concerns seemed philosophical as much as practical. These were stacks that the public couldn't access, so why did they care where the books were stored? Because they love the idea of a building filled with books. 

This is a concern about atmosphere and emotion, not about budget. Which is great, because that's something we can address. We just need to listen to the real feelings behind the objections we hear. This is really just another part of listening and responding to our community. It's completely possible to set up our libraries to cater to businesses without making them feel like corporate offices. We can coexist!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What I'm reading: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

A detailed, engaging, weirdly-romantic, slow-moving historical fantasy. My library copy is labeled "Historical Fiction," but to me it's pure fantasy - character-centric, magic-centric, with enough historical detail to paint a picture of the times, without that detail overwhelming the story. At its core, this book is about "nature:" human nature, and the non-human nature of non-human beings. The non-human characters in this book ring somewhat truer than usual; their thinking is more authentically different.

I was drawn into the story slowly but completely. It was easy, at first, to read the book in short stretches - until I got near the end and had to devour the rest in one sitting. But the slow-burn style was a wonderful way to read it, to sink slowly into the story and to absorb the world. I was reminded of The Historian and Jonathan Strange - high praise indeed from me.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Hook: Planning a Sellable Event

One thing we’ve discovered when planning large events is that big events need a hook. The “hook” is the thing that reels people in – a super-cool activity, or a chance to win a great prize, or a pre-existing notion that the event is fun. Let me offer some examples:

At the library’s Comic-Con, our “hook” is the pre-conceived notion that a Comic-Con is cool. Our target audience already knows what a Comic-Con is, and they already think a Comic-Con is cool, so we don’t have to sell the idea. We just have to let people know when it is, and make sure that the publicity supports their idea of it.

At our library’s annual Teen Read Week Masquerade, we have to go one step further. Nobody knows what a “Teen Read Week Masquerade” is or what it looks like, so at the same time that we’re spreading information about our event, we also have to sell the IDEA of our event. Our hook is the prizes. We heavily advertise our grand prize, which is usually a tablet, and the winner must be present to win. In addition, we give away books to EVERY attendee. Between the chance to win a terrific prize, and the guarantee of free books, we are able to incentivize attendance in a significant way. Of course, the prizes don’t provide the fun – our activities provide the fun. The prizes just offer a hook.

A hook provides an entry point, something to make people take notice and say to themselves, “Hey, maybe I should go to that!” You’ve got to have it, and you’ve got to plan it. The best promotions in the world won’t get good attendance unless your event has an easily-stated, easily-understood selling point. “Lots of cool activities” won’t do it – not even if you actually do have lots of really cool activities. Our Dia de los Ninos event struggles every year, and it’s because no one knows what it is, and nothing that happens there is quite enough to change people’s indifference into interest.

The larger lesson here is a familiar one: marketing begins in the planning stages, not in the promotion stages. You’ve got to know what you’re selling, and you have to be sure that people want it.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Value Frameworks

Here's some good reading:

And it does bring up the question: is attendance our main measurement for success? I work in event planning, so let's use that as an example. Are the most popular events the best ones?

In terms of what we report and measure, we certainly act as though popularity is the only thing that matters. But we know, we know in our hearts, that it's not. An event where 100 people watch a skateboarding dog is NOT a "better" event than a class where 20 kids use Lego to learn about science. I think most library people would feel like the science class was more valuable, and a better use of taxpayer dollars, than the skateboarding dog.

Which means that we need to use another framework to define our success. To put it another way, when someone asks, "How did the Lego program go?" we need an answer that doesn't relate to attendance. "It was wonderful, the kids had fun and learned a lot!" is a good start.

But of course, that's just a start. Most of the time, when we are explaining why something is valuable, it's important to be professional and convincing. Which means that you need to take that statement and turn it into something you can tell your boss, and maybe something you can tell the board, or tell the taxpayers.

My quick and dirty method for doing this is to find one thing to measure that isn't attendance. Use your library's mission statement, your strategic plan, or your department's goals to figure out what this should be.

For example, if your mission has to do with learning, think about doing a quiz question at the end of the Lego class. Did the kids get it right? You can report that 90% of the kids in the class displayed an understanding of the such-and-such principle after your class. If your mission has to do with inspiration, try asking them instead if they plan to go home and use what they learned to make more Lego creations. If your mission has to do with providing opportunities, ask the parents whether they would have been able to do this with their child at home.

If you don't have a stated mission or goals, then just find some commonly-agreed-on Good Thing to support. If your boss is always happy to hear that people are checking out books, try setting up a display of Lego books in the classroom. Count how many of the items get checked out, or count how many kids take books from the display. Then you can say "75% of attendees checked out Lego books after the program!"

This is going to help you in several ways:

First of all, it will help you express the value of what you're doing. Right away, your projects will sound more purposeful and more impressive. If you work in a library (or other non-profit) then you probably believe pretty strongly in your work. This is going to help you get other people on board.

Second, it will actually add value to your projects. Here's a recent example from my job: I was using this method to think about a "Hunger Games" party the library is hosting. I wanted something besides attendance to measure, and I wanted it to be related to reading. Maybe we could measure book checkouts somehow? Then I had the idea to create a cool read-alike book display that would encourage the teens to check out books. What a fun idea! And it doesn't just articulate the value - my program is better because of this idea. In a small way, I am better expressing our mission.

Third, it will help you prioritize. You'll be able to sit down and say, "What should I schedule for this summer? A Lego science class, or a skateboarding dog?" You won't have to guess which would be "better" - you'll have a framework that helps you evaluate which program fits with your organization and helps you accomplish your mission and goals.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

My Day in Design, May 5, 2013

At long last, another "My day in design" post! Lots of signage and architecture elements, mainly from Carytown, with a few from downtown Richmond.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wonderland: The Library Experience for Book Lovers

Do you remember reading Roald Dahl's Matilda? (if not, go read it now. Dahl is still very good reading for adults.) Remember her library experience? For book lovers, that story still rings very true - the world of wonders just waiting in books. It's the same reason we love The Never-ending Story movie, and we identify with Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Books are magical for us, and libraries are wonderlands.

I've posted before about the clash between this nostalgic affection and the image of the "modern library." But I've come to realize that while our wonderland libraries do clash with the library-as-consulting-agency model, they are delightfully consistent with another new idea of libraries: the library-as-destination.

Library-as-destination is really a beguiling vision. Libraries from this vision are community centers, coffeehouses, hubs of literature and conversation. We'll have concerts and storytimes and philosophy discussion groups and many, many book clubs. One of the high points of this vision is that we don't have to give up our love of books! Literature will be a focal point of our passionate community centers. Our teen areas will be cool to hang out in, and our children's areas - well, they will be wonderlands! Bright, magical spaces with toys and climbing furniture and walls of bright, colorful books.
The best thing abut this vision? It's appealing to our most passionate users, our "core" group - book lovers. Book lovers would flock to this library. And it makes more sense, really, to build a library that appeals to the people who already love us, rather than trying to build libraries that will draw in people who are currently indifferent.

So what's in the way? Mainly conflicting visions. A library cannot brand itself as both a cool modern library of expertise and professionalism and as passionate literary hub. We have to pick one. And sadly, there are practical concerns at work here. Our governing body (also our source of funding) is the county government, and they are eager to prioritize economic development - which means that the consulting-library is easier to sell than the wonderland-library. We would need an amazing amount of community support to work towards a different vision. And I think we could get it- it's just a matter of selling the dream.