The More We Get Together

My just-over-two-and-a-half-year-old son is smack in the middle of a linguistic explosion. So it makes sense that whenever we come home from our regular Wednesday storytime with Miss Elaine at the Pleasant Hill Library, I catch him quietly singing lines from one of the day’s songs. It is so sweet. (My heart also melts when I hear him use personal pronouns and adverbs correctly). Two weeks ago, just before dinner, I heard whispers from under the dining room table: “I put on my glasses and open up my book. I read read read and I look look look…” Last week, from his painting table, I heard: “For your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends…”

The thing about last week’s song is the part of it that gets stuck in my head: “The more we get together to-gether to-gether… The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” The coming together of our community, for whatever reason, fulfills a need in all of us. It’s true, even for introverts like me. We humans are social creatures by nature. Parents and educators often throw around the verb “socialize” when talking about childhood development. An item on the developmental checklist for my 31-month-old: Does he show interest in other children? (My pediatrician clarified that he didn’t actually have to interact with other kids at this point, he just has to be interested in them, like a little anthropologist.). That’s the reason I take my son to storytime: so he can observe and interact with his peers. We both learn from it. We both love it.

Storytime @PleasantHillLib

So then, even from an early age we need to gather–it never stops being critical–and the library welcomes all of us, no matter our age, ability, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation or our beliefs. In other words, the library is a gathering place that does not discriminate. That makes it essential to any, and every, community.

“The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

Some people still think that a library is a gathering place just for books, and that the internet in the Age of Information is making the library-as-a-house-of-books obsolete. It’s not and it’s not. It’s all over the headlines: the library is evolving beyond books. Series such as Future Tense and public radio’s The Pulse in “The Rebirth of the Library” to Pew’s research presented in “From Library Lovers to Distant Admirers–and beyond” and “Libraries at the Crossroads” funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to articles like The Atlantic’s “Not Your Mother’s Library” all make the same case. We need to better inform the public about libraries as dynamic essential institutions that provide us with invaluable services and resources–beyond just books. This is one of the reasons American Library Association launched its Libraries Transform campaign late last year.

From, @ILoveLibraries

I read in one such article published by the American Libraries Magazine, titled “Will Libraries Outlive Books?”–covering a Future Tense panel on envisioning future libraries–that one of the panelists, Jim O’Donnell “volunteered that libraries have ‘a fabulous brand’ that must be leveraged.” O’Donnell continued, “‘We’re not pushing the product adequately. We need to be guerilla marketers so consumers start to see the value that libraries deliver,’ he warned. ‘And we need to stay flexible and responsive to the community. By directing their personal exploration, we can help shape the future of libraries.’”

It’s true. We need to get the word out. Not only is our community library a place of gathering, but it is also a key service provider and constituent in our community, vital to individuals, families and small businesses alike.

Marketing the “library brand” is a muddled challenge for libraries in the Digital Age. A brand, according to the American Marketing Association dictionary is a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Based on that, it is tricky to fit a publicly funded service provider like a library into any brand marketing mold. Couple that with the massive evolution the marketing industry itself has been undergoing because of the uber-instant gratification of technology and social media. Consumers demand not just a brand with a hip tag, but also an entire narrative cohering the goods or services and the company itself that they can interact with immediately and intimately and make, if it measures up, part of their personal brand (yup, nowadays individuals have brands too).

Wait one second. Isn’t the library a house of narratives, a collection of stories and events that take shape within its walls and within its community, shaped by individuals and the community? That sounds insta-cohesive to me.

Libraries (like schools) are just now understanding the true need for a solid marketing effort. In fact, the Contra Costa County Library recently created a Community and Media Relations Coordinator position in its Central Library Administration and hired Brooke Converse to tackle the seemingly impossible task to create a marketing strategy that will work across all County Library branches. I sat down to talk with Brooke and Patrick Remer, Pleasant Hill Library’s Senior Community Library Manager, to talk about marketing the Contra Costa County Library and, specifically, the Pleasant Hill Library.

Brooke is brand new to a brand new position. She is visiting each of the County’s 26 branches to get to know their unique situations–their needs, challenges and priorities. In a lot of the libraries, she told me, branch managers are also new to their positions and sometimes even new to their communities; they will be learning right alongside Brooke. Brooke said “the top priority will be different for each branch. They’re already so busy. As I am sitting in on different meetings I’m realizing all of the things that the branch managers have to do and it’s mind-blowing. It’s a lot.” A marketing effort may not feel like a priority for these overwhelmed managers, Brooke said, but it is her job to help them put forth their best effort to increase their presence and maintain their relevance in their communities. Brooke used adjectives like “layered”, “complex”, “streamlined” and “flexible” to describe the strategy she is tasked to create. It will have to be a “constantly ever-changing plan”, she admitted, as the community needs shift, and as technology and libraries evolve.

As a branch manager with a long history with his library and community (Patrick Remer grew up using the Pleasant Hill Library), Patrick said this about the challenge of marketing the library brand:

We’re never going to get to a place where we can just point to a simple brand. Businesses in some ways have a really discreet set of products. They can say, “this is what we want to sell you”. The work that libraries do is so much more complex and rich that it’s never going to be a simple thing. It’s going to be a really messy messy conversation and I feel like we need to embrace that chaos a little bit and say our brand is going to be evolving for the foreseeable future.

Brooke added that the library is a “moving brand” and the message, however it is delivered whether by word-of-mouth or through programming or across social media platforms, will change based on how the community receives and interacts with it. “It will evolve each time based on what is learned through feedback and participation,” she said.

The idea of connection, partnership and constant collaboration resonated throughout our conversation. It’s the direction in which the library itself is transforming. Brooke plans to build and maximize community partnerships, with individuals, businesses and organizations, and encourages branch managers to do the same. “One thing that’s great about the library is that we are not asking for anything in return. We’re offering it. For free.” Brooke said. “Across the board we want involvement from people in some way but that involvement will vary. The kind of involvement we need will change from location to location.”

Patrick explained that his approach to library programming has also shifted toward the collaborative and interactive. While this may be a new model for programming specifically, libraries have always been responsive to their communities because libraries exist to serve, in a variety of ways. “Our most powerful messages come by the doing and offering of our services,” Patrick said. “We’re facilitators and we’re conveners but the actual meat and activity of our programs are actually the community that shows up for it.” He used the example of the recent Maker event, Gingerbread City, where families gathered to make gingerbread houses. In Patrick’s view, sweet treats, creativity and engineering challenges aside, “the event was actually a hundred families coming out one night and doing something fun together with their neighbors. It’s really about convening the community around some fun event.”

The more we get to-gether to-gether to-gether, the more we get together the happier we’ll be.

There is just so much fluid reciprocity, so much symbiosis, between a library and its community.

While the Pleasant Hill Library brand is largely built on the intergenerational transcendance of storytime (where new families and caregivers are welcomed back to the library, as was the case with me), Patrick is willing to try whatever works: “I’ll take any hook. If that’s storytime–great! If it’s ‘you guys have public restrooms’–great! I’ll take whatever I can get and see if we can play that into something life-changing because I know we have something for everybody.”

Brooke and Patrick shared some of the marketing strategies in-play and on-deck including:

  • Creating and using marketing checklists
  • Installing large digital signs in the libraries
  • Getting advertising wraps for the County Library’s two box trucks that ferry books across the county
  • Creating mini off-site libraries
  • Building relationships and partnerships in the community
  • Partnerships and programming collaborations with animal services, health services, youth services and school districts
  • Reaching out to and building relationships with the media community
  • Taking part in civic events like parades, award ceremonies, and meetings
  • Collaborating with Friends’ groups
  • Revitalizing volunteerism
  • Maintaining a strong virtual presence
  • Engaging with social media
  • Creating CCC library patron profiles inspired by Humans of New York

It’s a large to-do list to add to already long to-do lists. This is where Friends’ groups–and the community’s support of the Friends’ groups–are essential. The Friends’ groups can do the outreach, fundraising and advocacy that the County Library and branch libraries cannot because of the laws that restrict publicly funded organizations. Soliciting also goes against the grain of what libraries are all about. Both Brooke and Patrick spoke to the “no-strings-attached” approach to library services and programs. Brooke said: “Our main goal is to get people to love what we are doing and then share that love with friends, family and the community.” Patrick said he even considers “a successful referral [connecting someone to a non-library service] a win” because librarianship and libraries are, historically and currently, all about connecting people to resources. That’s the beginning of a powerful and valuable brand narrative.

Or as Patrick put it:

Just as we approach our programs as true collaborations, we should be approaching our marketing in the sense of true community collaboration where I am seeking to empower everybody who is a library lover to become an ambassador.

Brooke said it like this:

The best way to sell what you are trying to sell, whether it be a library or the things we offer at the library, is to hear from people in the community. So I think we can utilize the people who come to our community  libraries to tell their stories, which also tells our story. I think we can leverage the relationships we have with the people in our community to help us build our brand.

If libraries need to market their nuanced dynamic brand to remain relevant, then it is up to the community to step up and step in because, as Patrick admitted, “My personal communication is never going to be as effective as, say, another mother or a library user communicating the value of the services.”

How then, can we engage our community, with all its rich diversity, to invest in the library brand? By understanding an investment in our community library is really an investment in ourselves. A library’s brand is the community’s brand.

“You hear this a lot,” Patrick stated, “from people who are incredibly proud to live in Pleasant Hill. It comes to this quality of life thing and what all of [our community’s] institutions represent and how their personal identity and their family identity is bound up with those services and activities and events. The library helps creates an ideal community picture for them. ”

Old Pleasant Hill postcard

When asked for the elevator pitch for the Pleasant Hill Library brand, Patrick responded: “The Pleasant Hill Library is where our community goes to see itself. Wherever we go to satisfy our curiosity about the world inevitably becomes a place where we learn about one another. The library is a place of discovery, but most importantly a place where we discover ourselves.”

So go visit your local branch, attend some of the programs, take advantage of the services. Investigate, inquire, consume, create, play, but most of all enjoy. Because as Patrick said, “We’re here for you. Come and enjoy it. The best way for you to show your love for the library is just to use it.” To which I add, then go tell people about it.


Originally published: February 1, 2016

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