No, we don’t need a flier

Men looking at books in library

Expedit esse deos, et, ut expedit, esse putemus.  

Ovid, Ars Amatoria

If you want to see an academic outreach librarian sigh using only their eyeballs, ask them if they can make you a flier. 

It’s a running joke among colleagues in my field of work that if you discuss promotional efforts long enough, someone will always recommend making a flier. An 8.5×11 inch flier… that they can attach to an email.* There is something strangely definitive about making a flier: as if it adds legitimacy (and perhaps finality?) to the promotional process. Or perhaps this only applies to those who worked in a world before the emergence of social media.

In “The Human Element”, Loran Nordgren talks about “fuel vs. friction” in promoting new ideas. When we are pitching a new idea, product, or service to an audience, our impulse is to add as much “fuel” to the pitch as possible. For example:

  • here are all the reasons why you should come to our library event,
  • here are some flashy graphics about the new service we’re offering students, or 
  • here are some really trendy tchotchkes for taking our survey, or
  • here is a flier. 

All of these well-meaning incentives are intended to fuel people’s desire for what we’re offering, but as Nordgren points out, it’s unlikely to move the needle in your direction. In some cases, it will have the opposite effect.

Instead, Nordgren’s research shows the reducing barriers, or “friction”, is the best use of our time and resources. Maybe it’s not that library events are not appealing, but remembering the date and time is an extra hassle. Maybe it’s not that no one finds library consultations useful, but coming to the library is just that much extra effort. Maybe it’s not that no one wants to complete our survey, but having to go through DUO authentication one more time is just… too much. 

For library events, what if we sent text message reminders to anyone who signed up to be alerted about new events? For library consultations, what if we offered them on Zoom? For our surveys, what if we set aside time to have students complete those surveys during library instruction sessions?

None of these solutions are novel, but it is easy to forget how everyday, seemingly mundane barriers keep us from making connections with library users. I am lucky in that I work on a campus where affinity for the library is remarkably high. We don’t need more fuel to communicate the value of the library (e.g., more emails, more signage, flashier swag); we need to reduce barriers to engagement. As I am thinking about ways to expand library outreach next year and working with my team to improve our work, I am keeping Nordgren’s work in mind. Where can we reduce friction?

*I’ve always wondered what people think the recipient will do with that flier. Do you think faculty will print it out? Students certainly will not: do students even have personal printers anymore? Have you ever tried reading an 8.5×11 flier on a mobile device? Do you enjoy constantly swiping left and right to get the whole thing in a 16:9 frame? I am sighing so hard with my eyeballs right now.

(image source: Men at a public library in Malmö 1949)

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