Expanding Your Story, Finding Their Stories
Let's look at two more aspects of building your library's story:
- The library as a place;
- Their stories—how your library improves the stories of your users and the community.
Some marketing gurus will tell you that everything I've said up to now is wrong: That it isn't about what your library offers, but only how it affects your users. I think they're half right, and I think most marketing campaigns reflect that duality. What you are—what services you offer, the strengths of your collection, the things that make you special—is an important story. But how you improve your patrons' lives may be more important. That's what makes you essential, not just a civic monument.
Your library may also be a civic monument, to be sure, or the center of a revitalizing downtown—or a space within a shopping mall. In any case, it's a place as well as a set of services and the place is a significant part of your story. If your library has a distinctive look, that look may be part of your brand, but you probably already know that.
Consider five aspects of your library as a place. They won't always all apply, but some of them should play into your overall story:
- The history of your library building(s)—when your community's first library opened, what happened to earlier buildings, why and when it's expanded.
- The place itself—what's distinctive, what's interesting, what's unusual.
- Your library as an influence on the space around it. Is downtown or a neighborhood rebuilding around your library? That's an important, positive story. Is your library one of few bright spots in a still-troubled community? That's also an important story. Are you lagging behind the community—a rundown facility in an expanding economy? That's extremely important, of course.
- Place-dependent services: How your community benefits from your place in ways that can't be done virtually. Whether it's study, meeting rooms, multimedia production and publishing facilities, story hours, teen spaces, or just a place for the weary to rest for a bit, don't discount the value of place-dependent service. I've long said that libraries are one of few “social welfare” agencies that nobody's ever ashamed to enter or use. That's important and worth noting.
- Paying for the place—particularly if you're in a remodeled or new facility. What was involved? What does it say about your community's attitude toward libraries? It's sad when Big Beautiful Libraries wind up underused because there's not enough money to operate them properly (and saddest when the Big Beautiful Libraries are totally unused because of funding failures).
On the other hand, the will to build a Big Beautiful Library says something important about your community's values: No city builds a magnificent library expecting it to rot for lack of funding and use.
How does your library improve people's lives? How does what you do make their stories better? You'll never know the whole story in this area, but even anecdotal answers can play a big part in making your library's story whole and effective.
- It's great to know that your business information center has an up-to-date set of print resources backed by well-chosen databases and guides. But that's not nearly as impressive as the testimonial from a community member who founded a successful local small—or large—business using your business resources—particularly if that patron was laid off and needed to find a new way. That's not exactly a priceless story, but it's certainly a worthwhile one.
- Story hours and good children's book collections almost certainly lead to earlier and better readers, particularly when parents read to their children from those library books. Can you identify people who recognize that they did better in school and in life because of library resources in their formative years—or whose children are doing so now? It shouldn't be all that difficult—and those are real stories of real value.
That list could go on almost indefinitely. The writer inspired to new output by your local history collection (and all those writers who use your library for its many resources). The illiterate or semi-literate adult who finds a better job thanks to your adult literacy programs. The immigrant who succeeds thanks to your English-as-a-second-language programs and your collections in that immigrant's own language, which encourage the immigrant to learn and care about ideas and words. The people who find appropriate social agencies through library referrals, or who learn to help themselves using your nonfiction collection.
Library value calculators such as this one can be enormously useful in demonstrating the economic impact of your library.
But no calculator can capture the added value of stories like the ones noted here. Those stories are part of your story, maybe the most important part. Treasure them and find ways to collect them.
The Personal Connections
Here's one good way to find those personal stories—and one key addition to your library's story: Your staff, especially the ones who've been making personal connections through the years.
A colleague reminded me of this as we were discussing the draft of this column, noting that so many kids over the years, including his, had gained so much from a particular children's librarian. (A quick shout-out to Chuck Ashton at the Redwood City Public Library!) There must be thousands of children's librarians, reference librarians and others—not all of them professional librarians—who have an ongoing impact on and connection with your library community. Treasure them, include them in your story and take advantage of their knowledge.
They can lead you to the personal stories you need.
Putting It All Together
You've looked at what your library does particularly well and what you do in general. You've brought in others to offer a fresh view, seeing your library perhaps more clearly than you can from within. You've looked at the place itself—and you've gone to your patrons, your community, to see how the library improves their stories.
There's a lot to ponder there as you organize that all into a set of proper narratives. What's most important? (Hint: Their stories may mean more than anything else.)
- Can you extract an "elevator pitch" from this set of stories—a key message that takes no more than 30 to 60 seconds to tell (figure 75 to 150 words)?
- Can you formulate a set of longer stories—ones that would work as ad campaigns or newspaper columns?
- Is there an overarching story worth telling in long form?
See Also: What's Your Story?
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