library annual report and fliers from recent events

I’ve been thinking about something I heard at the LMCC 2023 conference: “Marketing should drive usage which in turn creates impact” (source: Cordelia Anderson). 

I often forget that middle piece when developing outreach strategies for my library. At the risk of oversimplifying, I’m extending Anderson’s use of the word “marketing” to the entire outreach enterprise. For sure, there are programs and initiatives the directly impact usage: a recent campaign to promote our streaming video collection, the curation of recommended reading lists, and the annual open house. However, there are some programs that skip right over usage to create the end-goal of impact: our storytelling programming, our faculty speaker series, and our haunted library. These latter programs directly impact our students by creating a sense of belonging and bringing together our community through the celebration of its creative works, but that impact isn’t achieved via the library’s services and collections. 

I would consider creating impact via the library’s services and collections to be a traditional approach to library outreach, one often taken by teams where outreach work is embedded within reference and instruction departments. This is where you find info lit workshops, custom bibliographies, instructional handouts, e-resources campaigns, video tutorials, etc. For teams like the one I manage (we are our own “outreach and engagement” department separate from our colleagues who focus on teaching and collections building) we go straight to the impact: feel good events, mental health programs, community building, productivity support, and service learning opportunities. The motivations for our work come unfiltered straight from either the library’s broader mission or the university’s strategic goals. 

I’m not suggesting one type of outreach is better than the other. Having both is important, but finding the optimal balance between the two is a conversation for every individual, team, library, and organization to determine on their own terms. 

text on a magnetic board that reads "whisper in the library not today"

It’s a common misconception that word of mouth is “organic”: that it just happens; but this belief negates the agency required for word of mouth (WOM) to be successful. WOM requires antecedents: specifically, customer commitment, trust, and customer satisfaction, according to one meta-analysis of 60 years of WOM research (Lang and Hyde 2013). These positive traits need to exist prior to WOM marketing efforts, which can be either direct or indirect and produce both positive and negative affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects on customers.

It is the role of the outreach librarian to play three leadership roles vis-a-vis WOM marketing: building the foundation; indirectly managing WOM; and directly managing WOM.

Building the foundation requires working with all units within the library to ensure high-quality service, collections, and programs, and then aligning external messaging with that expectation of quality. Indirect WOM management involves much of the usual promotional work that raises awareness of the library (e.g., videos, blog posts, and testimonials), but also includes work that encourages student-staff relationships (e.g., student engagement activities, meet-and-greet events, student advisory boards). Direct WOM management involves far more targeted work, including paid testimonials, viral marketing, rewards for sharing library content, and student ambassador programs.

I would hazard to guess that outreach librarians spend most of their time on indirect WOM management, not enough time on building the foundation, and almost no time on direct WOM management (the latter for lack of funds no doubt). 

We are at a distinct advantage being on a college campus. While colleges are not completely closed information systems (cf. Chatman’s seminal work on information sharing in prisons), messages can get trapped within the system even when the nodes (i.e. students) swap out every four years. Like any pseudo-insular organization, ideas that develop on campus can linger long after their initial spark. This is word of mouth. Moreover, we have a captive audience. So while our ideas have to compete with many other units on campus, we are somewhat shielded by the marketing influences of the off-campus world. 

So when something spreads “word of mouth” on a campus, don’t be too quick to attribute it to the innate qualities of the message or the nature of the service, collection, or program you’re promoting. Instead, consider the foundation that has already been established and how you might continue to actively maintain that foundation into the future. This is the work of the outreach librarian.


Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for information Science, 50(3), 207-217.

Lang, B., & Hyde, K. F. (2013). Word of mouth: what we know and what we have yet to learn. Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior, 26, 1-18.

image credit: Charles Hackley Agency on Flickr, cc-by 2.0

There comes a time in every librarian’s life when your library decides to migrate the catalog. No matter what role you play in the organization, you’re gonna feel it. This past year, MPOW moved from Sierra to Alma, the first such migration in 30 years. As the head of outreach and engagement, I would be responsible for overseeing campus messaging. 

In September 2022, I drafted the initial communications plan. This included key messages and their explanation, a list of target audiences (both primary and secondary), communications channels, deliverables and assets to be created, a production and implementation timeline, and a matrix of responsibility that listed who was responsible for creating what and when. I presented this draft to our ILS Migration Steering Committee, the library’s leadership council, and various stakeholders. Six iterations later I had a completed plan. 

Along the way, I asked for buy-in from each and every stakeholder. I recorded the changes to the plan in a change log, and noted the date of each stakeholder approval. A created lists of every action item and recorded who was responsible for every asset and its deadline. I created a list of check-in dates—three for every stakeholder—by which I would touch base about various aspects of the plan.

It was a robust plan. The most robust plan I’ve ever created. And while I cannot prove that it was foolproof, the library successfully migrated its catalog with no campus outcry. Certainly, there were some complaints: many of the functions previously available are currently still in production as we slowly check off all our post-migration to-dos. But not a single person has said they were unaware of the change. In fact, many faculty and staff have made comments to the effect of “oh, I heard your have a big systems change happening…”

Now, one could read this as indifference, but as a the person who oversees communications, I read this as success. “So, you’ve heard of me, then.”

What I’m reading

In this essay I will: On distraction by David Schurman Wallace

“A common idea of distraction presupposes that you’re turning away from something more important that you ought to be paying attention to instead. And you ought to be working all the time.”

LeVar Burton Wants You to Read Banned Books by Heven Haile

“I think, in truth, the effect of book bans has been limited. What happens, though, is people who engage in this kind of censorship self-identify as folks you need to keep your eye on. And for me, that’s gold, because now I see you.”

Six Months Ago NPR Left Twitter. The Effects Have Been Negligible by Gabe Bullard

“Recognizing that social media is not a key to clicks seems like a correction to years of chasing traffic through outside platforms.”

Links to the past

  • 1 year ago: Service work is broken. Relying on committees to accomplish work that is operationally necessary to the library, while also expecting (read: allowing) those committee seats to be filled by “volunteers” is a recipe for failure.
  • 6 years ago: Subtle nudges in library programming. How we at MPOW try to subtly remind our guests about future events (other attempts are not so subtle).
  • 10 years ago: When parenting was easy. It’s been mostly downhill since then.

Overheard online

Correspondence disclaimers through history

1660: I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.
1950: Dictated but not read
2010: Sent from my phone, please excuse typos
2030: Composed by AI

overholt on Mastodon

folder of library handouts and an introductory letter

“Hailing frequencies still open, sir.”

“The Corbomite Maneuver”, Star Trek (1966)

Before the pandemic, I was passionate about outreach to university staff at MPOW. Our weekly all-campus email used to include a photo of the attendees at the bi-weekly HR orientations (which of course used to only be held in person). The photo’s caption included the names of the newly onboarded employees. Using our online directory, I would pull the departmental and mailing information of the new folks and prepare a library welcome packet for each (seen above). It included: a custom letter outlining the various library services that might appeal to staff members, a copy of our latest annual report, a list of upcoming events, and various swag* items.

I would diligently send these packets through intercampus mail, being sure to track when and to whom I sent these off. Within 1-2 weeks, I would follow up via email to see if they had received the package (oftentimes, folks would contact me directly to express their appreciation) and offer to set up a tour of the library. But I didn’t stop there. I also set a reminder to follow up with each new employee one year later to see how things were going and if they had any new questions about using the library.

I was incredibly proud of this workflow and the connections it created, not just between myself and staff from other units, but also between those units and the library. COVID upended that entire project. HR stopped posting the photos to our internal all-campus newsletter (because who wants to see yet another Zoom screen shot). And even though new staff orientation have returned to in-person, the information about new employees is no longer published to the campus community. 

Of course, I don’t put all my staff outreach eggs in that basket. My team and I host “VIP Staff Library Tours” twice a year, first during the Thanksgiving week and again during our campus staff appreciation week in the summer. We regularly invite staff to our events, and collaborate on various events with other units, such as our finals stress relief events, annual storytelling program, and one-offs like the Human Library and Long Night Against Procrastination. University staff continue to be an important connection point between the library and students.

Yet I miss the one-on-one outreach to new employees. I am still passionate about outreach to university staff, but I’ve yet to regain the momentum we lost post-2020.

*My student employees tell me that “swag” is no longer a cool word.

What I’m reading

The Platform Wars by Joshua Citarella

“Once these ideological views are coded in, users will not be able to exit to their preferred political values because they remain materially reliant on other lock-in features of the stack: like cash and health care data that are non-transferable.”

My students are using AI to cheat. Here’s why it’s a teachable moment by Siva Vaidhyanathan

“It’s a library without librarians, consisting of content disembodied and decontextualized, severed from the meaningful work of authors, submitted to gullible readers. These systems are, in Alvarado’s words, ‘good at form; bad at content’.”

Those aren’t “Tweets”, Those Are Your Thoughts by CJ the X

“People who habitually use Twitter will often make comments about Twitter as if it’s synonymous with lived experience.“Everyone is saying *this* about *that*.” Everyone? Like who? Someone you know? This line of questioning consistently produces the admission that ‘Everyone’ meant ‘The thread I scrolled through while on the toilet.'”

News from the garden

I’m worried about my peaches this year. To start, the tree didn’t produce as many fruiting stems as usual, and of those it did, they didn’t produce as many buds. Then as you can see from the image above, I got leaf curl (despite my diligent application of dormant spray in winter). I’ll still get a small crop, but I may not be canning as much as I did last year.

Links to the past

  • 2 years ago: Garden seeds and room. I am well into midlife, and I’m still not sure that I’ve found “a task life-long given from within”, but I am lucky to have most of these others in my life.
  • 7 years ago: The opportunity to breathe. There are a few stories that irrevocably changed my outlook on work and rest. This one I still think about frequently.
  • 10 years ago: On Lincolnshire Posy. There is no lie.

Overheard online

Tristopher: What exactly is the academic dream?

Elsevier: Spending your entire youth creating knowledge, then paying a billion dollar corporation to take it from you in exchange for career capital that you can then use to buy meaningless promotions from other exploited individuals.

Tristopher: That’s the dream?

Elsevier: I didn’t say it was a good dream.

One of the more difficult aspects of my job as an outreach librarian is the need to wrangle people together for a common cause. This need is constant, recurring, never-ending. There is very little that I do which doesn’t require asking someone else to set aside their time, resources, and/or attention to support a project that I’m working on for the library. My work consists of finding connections between and among others in relation to the library. Though this type of work could be required of any librarian from time to time, it is my daily work.

This frequently puts me at odds with my colleagues. It’s like that meme about everyone’s reaction when the social media person shows up to your office: Shit. Shit. Shit. When I come a calling’, you can be assured that something is about to be added to your plate. For some, this may be invigorating! The novelty of a new project or a new partner. For others, it may be a frustration, especially if there is a sense that one cannot say no.I try to be considerate. When possible, I do some of the groundwork in advance. I provide concrete deadlines, estimates of time needed, and suggestions for how this work could be mutually beneficial.

Ultimately, the job of the outreach librarian is to make connections and promote the library, and like any job, the part that involves people is the hardest part.

a room being added to a house

For the past two years, I have set myself to building my CV through publications. That work and intentionality paid off this month when three works of scholarship I co-authored were published all within the same two weeks!

Metzger, R., & Jackson, J. (2022). Developing Competencies for Outreach Work in Academic Libraries. College & Research Libraries, 83(4), 646. doi:

Abstract: This research study investigates the behaviors, knowledge, and skills necessary for academic library outreach work. Through a review of published literature, job advertisements, and a survey of library practitioners conducted in the fall of 2020, the authors define and prioritize 18 competencies for outreach. Hiring managers, LIS instructors, and practitioners can use the results of this study to structure and lay out the essential areas of outreach work in academic libraries. [peer-reviewed]

Jackson, J., Andrade, R., Raby, C., & Rosen, R. (2022). Apples and Oranges: An Indicator for Assessing the Relative Impact of Library Events. Journal of Library Outreach & Engagement, 2(1), 56. doi:

Abstract: This article details one library’s attempt to create a simple assessment method for evaluating the relative engagement of program attendees across a variety of events. The indicator–a combination of perceived level of engagement and calculated level of certainty–can be used alongside other metrics to give a fuller view of overall impact of library programming. By conducting this study, the authors created a method by which to quickly assess and prioritize the most and least impactful events within a particular set. [peer-reviewed]

Finally, it’s not a full article, but a brief case study I wrote on social media analytics was published in Practical Marketing for the Academic Library, by Stephanie Espinoza Villamor and Kimberly Shotick (ABC-CLIO, 2022). I look forward to reading the whole book!

Currently, I have no writing projects on my plate, though quite a few half-formed ideas. My goal this fall is to identify and begin at least two more opportunities for research and/or publication. If I can initiate one new writing/research project each semester, I should be well on my way to promotion to full librarian in four years.

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)

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!)

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?

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.