Tag: outreach

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)

This is not going to go the way you think

I don’t think academic libraries need social media.

I say this as someone who has run social media accounts for academic libraries for almost a decade. Granted, the social media landscape has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years, but I think this has always been true and I’ve only just begun to realize it. 

Currently, I’m working on a literature review about how academic libraries justify their use of social media and what assessment methods they use to bolster that justification. I’m focusing on articles published in the last 5 years and I’m starting to see a general trend in the narratives. It goes something like this:

  1. Libraries need to be on social media because of X (where X is typically something you would expect, like engagement, communication, or marketing to students).
  2. Ok, so let’s assess how well social media does X.
  3. Hm, the data doesn’t make a strong case that social media does X.
  4. Well …

It’s at this point that I start tensing up. What are the authors going to do next? In too many cases, they go on to say something to the effect of: “Oh well… We should still be on social media anyway!”

What? You just found evidence that something is not working and you’re just going to keep doing it anyway? There’s an apocryphal Einstein quote about that. (The quote is actually from a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet, via Rita Mae Brown’s 1983 book Sudden Death.)

We have come to a point where everyone (well, not everyone) assumes that maintaining an institutional social media account is something we must do, despite evidence that it is not producing the results that we would like it to produce. In their 2017 article, “Social Media Use in Academic Libraries: A Phenomenological Study,” published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Harrison et al. describe this phenomenon as it relates to the content of academic libraries’ social media:

“The high level of correspondence in codes and themes were interpreted by researchers to mean that academic libraries are using social media in a homogenized manner, suggesting the presence of institutional isomorphic mechanisms (mimetic, and normative forces). Given that isomorphic forces impose conformity, but do not necessarily coincide with efficiency or effectiveness, awareness of these isomorphic forces is valuable to academic libraries. This new knowledge offers libraries the opportunity to evaluate the degree to which they have traded conformity for efficiency and effectiveness. If the tradeoff is determined to be less than ideal: academic libraries may consider requirements for establishing a social media strategy that best suits their organization as opposed to using a onesize fits all approach.”

This concept of “institutional isomorphic mechanism” comes from earlier sociological research cited by Harrison et al. Basically, institutions within any given profession start to copy and adopt each others’ actions and structures over time. This mimicry helps maintain legitimacy and “in-group” status, but sometimes at the expense of function and outcomes. As the authors note: “Regardless of efficiency or evidence of potential efficiency, organizations will adopt formal structures that align with institutional myths in order to gain legitimacy, resources, stability, and enhanced survival.”

I don’t think academic libraries’ inability to quit social media is driven by an insistence on engagement. As some of the articles I’m in the process of reviewing show, engagement on social media is tepid at best. And I would suspect that many us in outreach work would readily admit that social media engagement is an poor substitute for interacting with students in other ways.

We maintain diamond hands on social media accounts due to the (mostly unsupported) expectation that it is an effective communication tool. We want people to know about the library. On social media, we can pump out endless amounts of information: new collections, old collections, new programs, throwback programs, technical updates, deadlines, etc. It’s our personal megaphone! We easily fall into the trap of posting about a new program or initiative on social media and saying to ourselves “Done! Now people know about it.”

Except that no one is listening.

If our goal is to increase engagement online, we need a shit-ton more resources. Full-time, dedicated teams that can strategically build the brand: developing high-quality video content, working with campus influencers, and experimenting with emerging platforms. It would require more targeted, fine-grained assessment (and probably the use of personal data that would make most librarians squirm), more financial investment in ways to expand our reach (read: paid advertising), and way more yarrr! content!

Alternatively, if our goal is simply communication, there are more effective methods.

For example, if you set up a table outside the library and talk with students as they walk by, I guarantee you will speak with more students in a couple hours than might read a tweet in an entire day. Moreover, your interactions with them will be stickier and more impactful. Instead of spending an hour crafting the finest carousel of Instagram images for the library’s page, you could spend that same time crafting content for the university’s main channels and reach a larger audience. You could draft blurbs for other units’ newsletters, go on a roadshow to different departments on campus, develop vanity publications for key stakeholders, or work with student influencers. All would have a deeper impact than relying entirely on social media for outreach needs.

If you can do both, great! But most of us are working solo and thus choices are necessary. Unless you have a team (or at minimum a full-time employee) dedicated to social media, you are going to get more bang for your buck (read: impact) spending your energies elsewhere.

Does this mean I think academic libraries should simply shut down their Instagram accounts tomorrow? No, that would be reckless and unnecessarily disruptive. But I do think exploring the idea of “what would it look like if we did?” might serve as useful exercise in strategic thinking. Plotting the path between here and there by exploring how we might substitute the creative energies we spend on social media to communicate in other ways would almost certainly illustrate areas where we could improve how we connect with students, faculty, and senior leadership.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make some content. (yarrr!)

Talk library closing to me

In a recent article for portal, Megan Hodge, assistant professor and head of Teaching and Learning in the James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, discusses creating an online portal for providing “the library experience” from home through streaming audio/video content and resources on mental wellbeing and productivity. 

At VCU, Hodge and her team created a LibGuide that brings together a wealth of internal and external materials that connect students to the library as place and encourage “an academic mindset.”

This phrase caught my attention. What is an academic mindset? What conditions and behaviors does this include, especially within the context of the library? Hodge doesn’t go into detail, but I would suggest that it requires the ability to work in isolation without interruption, to get lost in one’s subject matter, to experience deep focus, and to shift into a state of flow. Traditional library spaces, with their ambient noise, innumerable pathways for intellectual and creative discovery, and ability to offer a sense of belonging (as one student scholar among many), provide a context in which one can really get into one’s own head.

Of course, against that suggested ideal we have to ask: for whom is this possible? Hodge points to the challenges posed by COVID-19, especially to commuters, first-generation students, and other campus communities significantly impacted but the transition to remote learning. Access to library spaces is about more than access to collections: it’s about access to a mindset, one which every student should have the ability to enjoy. For many, college is the first time in one’s life where they have the ability to go deep without any interference. Libraries can be the space that enables that growth, provided we build environments that are inclusive of and responsive to students’ needs.

Lastly, there is one finding from Hodge’s article that I have to highlight: the students’ love of the PA system. 

“Extant audio files includes announcement from Cabell Library’s public address system. […] These short recordings were turned into a 20-minute audio loop.”

“A 20-minute video loop of images of the library was accompanies by recordings of the library’s evening closing announcements […] This video loop became one of the most popular resources on the guide.”

Who knew that the dystopian electric vocals of recorded librarians would be the balm that soothed our students’ wounded souls?

Driving the narrative

If libraries simply report outputs as we always have, we run the risk of someone else dictating our worth.

Meredith Farkas, “Your Library’s Story

I think about this potential pitfall frequently. Even more so, I worry about how relying on traditional metrics creates eyes-glazed-over reactions from stakeholders who already struggle to remember how libraries’ play a necessary and invaluable role in higher education.

Libraries are essential to the educational mission of the university, but we have become so very efficient at integrating into that mission that we’ve become invisible. While I knee-jerkingly resist worn out tropes about librarians, I sometimes find it valuable to play on these archetypes in my outreach and communications work.

Over the centuries, we’ve gotten pretty good at developing workflows that maximize our ability to support IHEs. Libraries and the work they do are certainly not without problems, but considering all that we do for our students and faculty, especially in the areas of collection development and research support, we are a damn fine and extraordinary machine. That outputs that we’ve traditionally reported to stakeholders were, for decades, the simplest distillation of an extremely complex operation.

But these outputs were predicated on a false ideal of “growth.” Academic libraries today don’t need to show evidence of growth as much as they need to show evidence of enrichment. As Farkas says, we need to showcase “how patrons use the library and its effect on their lives.” And we need to drive that message home.

Scaffolding outreach broadly

And realize that one person cannot be all outreach, even though they may have the title. It takes a concerted effort on the part of many people at all levels to make outreach a success at any institution, never forget that.

Fontenot, M. (2013). Five “typical” years as an outreach librarian: And five things I have learned. College & Research Libraries News, 74(8), 431–432. https://doi.org/10.5860/crln.74.8.8997

I’ve been meditating on this idea recently. In some respects, almost everything we do as librarians that touches on an outside entity (i.e. users) could be considered an outreach moment. How do we capture that? How do we scaffold it?

Maybe it’s less the responsibility of the outreach librarian to do all the outreach things, but to build skills and support throughout library staff. At MPOW, we expect all librarians to have a basic capacity to talk about information literacy, even if they are not instruction librarians. And every librarian is expected to do some collection liaison work, even if they are not collections librarians. Why not the same for outreach?

Writing for the programming librarian

I’ve started writing for the ALA’s Programming Librarian website. My first two posts are up.

Collaborating with Galleries: A Blessed Match

“One of my first planning meetings as the new outreach and communications librarian for the William H. Hannon Library was with the director and curator of the Laband Art Gallery, an on-campus exhibition space in the College of Fine Arts at Loyola Marymount University. Over the past few years, the Hannon Library and the Laband Gallery have developed a synergistic relationship built on shared vision and trust, a relationship that has increased the impact we could achieve as single institutions.” Read more.

When Library Student Workers Take Over Instagram

“Since I began managing Instagram accounts for academic libraries three years ago, I’ve discovered there are two types of posts that attract the most engagement from students: idyllic photos of the library and pictures of other students. We are privileged in that our building’s unique architecture and proximity to a near-ocean bluff provides endless opportunities for the former. So, to leverage the successful nature of the latter, this year the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University invited our student employees to “take over” the library’s Instagram account for a day and use the platform to tell our followers about their work and what they find useful about the library.” Read more.

That time we all decided to marry Canva

In summarizing the recent success of the ACRL Library Marketing and Outreach Interest Group, one of the coordinators noted that “this past year, we all decided we loved Canva so much that we decided to marry it.” We chuckled, but I’m sure some of us where thinking “hm, I wonder if I could marry Canva?”

Canva is an elegant online tool used by many librarians for developing visually stunning digital graphics, but as Lindsay Davis tells us on Librarian Design Share, Canva can also be used to create print handouts as well. Check out this flyer Davis created for students at Merced College:

los-banos-1

Dancing in the library lobby

The Roesch Library at the University of Dayton is doing some amazing outreach work to engage students with library services. Communications and Outreach librarian Katy Kelly recently wrote about their new library tour photo hunt for the ALA’s Programming Librarian blog:

“Another clue that is entertaining to watch is, ‘Every year during final exams, the library offers FREE chair massages, free pizza, free taxi rides, free coffee and tea, visits from therapy dogs, and sometimes a midnight dance party in the lobby. Take a photo of a group member dancing in the first-floor lobby.'”

Back in 2012, Kelly also wrote about how the programming team monitors social media to design relevant and timely finals activities:

“My daily interactions on Twitter via the library’s account show students that someone is listening. We’re also able to make an impact by making some of their comments, suggestions, and ideas into realities. I think a lot of students are really clever and have funny and important things to say. Twitter is a great way to see what students are saying and an outlet for finding creative programming ideas by students.”

Katy’s creativity doesn’t stop there. If this inspires you, check out some of her recent posts in the ACRL Library Marketing and Outreach group [Facebook].

Staying student-centered on campus

From I Plan To Be in the Library. A Lot:

“Staying student-centered on campus takes more than providing one-shot course-related instruction, quiet study rooms, or flexible seating. It will require us to be engaged with more components of the student experience, educate other campus faculty and administrators as to why we should have a seat at the table to influence and affect student programs and services, and talk with students to find out what challenges currently exist.”