Community-Centered Awareness: Impacts and Outcomes of Geek the Library

Jenny Powell /

Changing Geek to a Verb

geek the library plus dalek, courtesy Kim Tairi on FlickrIn the webinar Geek the Library: Impact and Outcomes, we focused on the campaign’s ability to spark natural conversation by asking the question, "What do you geek?" You can translate "geek" in a few ways -- What do you love, enjoy, express interest in, or possess a large amount of knowledge in? This public awareness campaign does more than change 'geek to a verb;' it helps public libraries start important community-wide funding discussions that impact library support.

The concept was evolved from a theory that a community-centered awareness campaign --- one that uses similar strategies to many 'super brands' -- could be an effective approach for libraries to make an impact locally. Since 2009, when the pilot program rolled out in south GA and the greater Des Moines, IA area, 1,800+ public libraries in 48 states have utilized this effective platform to educate and engage people about the immense value public libraries offer individuals and their communities.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by OCLC's Community Relations team, Geek the Library has provided free tools and one-on-one field manager support to participants. Printed materials including t-shirts, table skirts, banners, bags, bookmarks, brochures and bumper stickers to name a few, along with free access to the online Campaign Management Center (CMC), have supported participants in taking their library into the community. As libraries increase awareness about the many services and value they bring to their communities, it brings new light to people's perception of the library and staff, which results in informed, passionate library supporters.

While most libraries implement their campaigns within their immediate community, there have been clustered efforts among regional systems, consortia, and statewide initiatives. Geek the Library has amassed national followers through an umbrella campaign via a consumer website, a site for library personnel, and maintaining social presences via Facebook, Twitter, youtube and Flickr. Additionally, Geek the Library campaigns have been implemented in The Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Campaign research collected and synthesized by Ann Geinapp, Affiliated Senior Associate and Mel Howlett, Research Analyst, both of ORSImpact, a Seattle based strategy and consulting firm, was presented during the webinar. Working in tandem with OCLC, ORSImpact is supporting a three-year evaluation which began data collection in 2013 to study outcomes of the current Geek the Library grant. Four data collections are scheduled and will wrap up in 2015. The information summarized here is reflective of the second collection completed during summer 2014.

There were three methods of data collection which included the use of focus groups (7 primary contacts), staff surveys (40 staff) following the campaign and pre and post-campaign surveys primarily completed by managers (30 primary contacts) to assess the community landscape before and after the campaign. This feedback revealed approximately two-thirds of participants serve communities with populations under 20K, of which 85% are in rural areas and most libraries operated campaigns on a budget of less than $500. The pre/post survey respondents deemed as 'primary contacts' represented managers (75%) and of that segment, 50% were directors. Within the staff surveys, 87% reported having high involvement in campaign planning and implementation.

Overall, 86% percent of participants reported they are very satisfied with their Geek the Library experience and OCLC’s one-on-one support; in fact 84% would recommend implementing the campaign to their peers.

Participants also reported that community engagement is key, citing they promoted the campaign using social, online and local media, and organized campaign events in the library and community through venues including fairs, festivals, parades, and farmers markets. Additionally, libraries connected with area residents by creating custom photos with each subject sharing what they geek. Some libraries formed partnerships with business groups, schools and civic groups, as well as their elected and appointed political leaders. While libraries recognize the critical need to have focused conversations geared toward funding, only 25% percent created and shared materials that were specific to their library’s funding and the challenges they face.

We Geek Outcomes

The first campaign outcome to surface is the weight of evidence libraries saw in their increased advocacy capacity and activities. Sixty-seven percent of the primary contacts reported improved marketing skills while 47% claim improved advocacy skills. Post campaign, these contacts also reported increased engagement in activities that build support for the library, maintain positive public relations with all stakeholders and form strategic partnerships. They, along with their staff agreed these activities were taking place more frequently, more skillfully and more confidently, which will help support future marketing efforts. Too, staff realized the value in ‘thinking outside of the box’, the importance in being visible and central in the community, and learned how to better word PR and communications materials, especially in the area of library funding.

Secondly, there is evidence of increased support for libraries. Primary contacts reported heightened awareness in terms of the library’s value (57%), staff reported elevated positive profiles of the library (78%) and increased perceptions of the library as a central asset of the community (73%). They also reported increased understanding among community members of their role in library funding (69%) and staff surveys reported increased public understanding relative to how the library is funded (60%). It is important to stress that the change in awareness about the library’s value and public role in library funding was seen as strongest among business groups and there is evidence of positive changes among schools and local elected officials, especially mayors.

Within increased support, there is also evidence of the community’s heightened sense of value and support seen in social media and library website activity, increased public comments supporting greater community pride, expanded library usage, and libraries report being invited to be part of community events. Feedback also indicates no strong opposition to public petitions for library funding.

Those surveyed also reported strengthened existing connections with community groups (80%) and leaders (75%) and more new connections with community groups (75%) and leaders (59%). New champions were indicated (64%) and respondents felt it was likely/very likely (81%) that champions would continue to take action for the library. Examples of actions taken by those partners and champions include school superintendents speaking on behalf of library support, photographers donating time to shoot Geek photos, teens speaking to community leaders about the library and patrons who participated as event volunteers and ambassadors for the library.

The third outcome indicated positive changes in library resources via fundraising efforts, school budget votes to increase tax dollars and millages that were passed. These changes equate to community members being educated on the importance of funding and support, and having a clearer understanding of the library’s overall value to their community.

Additional takeaways illustrate that effective partners express shared values, passions, and trust of the library. However, there is some evidence of promotional fatigue setting in among staff, along with the recognition that time and resources are factors to implementing a six month or longer campaign.

In order for webinar attendees to gain a real-world perspective of the campaign which mirrors the data, we invited three participating libraries to share key learnings and highlights of their campaign.

Following are excerpts from Geek the Library participants and webinar panelist interviews with:

  • Ava Ehde, Library Services Manager, Manatee County Public Library System, Bradenton, FL
  • Andy Schuck, Head of Youth Services, William P. Faust Public Library of Westland, MI
  • Sara DeVries, Marketing PR Manager, Herrick District Library, Holland, MI

What is an example of how you reached out to and engaged community members with the Geek the Library campaign? What made it effective?

Ali Longstreet: I Geek Dance, courtesy Topeka Library on FlickrSara: At Herrick District Library, like many libraries, we have had some funding shortfalls lately and staffing was cut. In order to do the campaign well, we used community volunteers to create and staff advocacy events. We did have staff assist at some of our community engagement opportunities, but most of them were done by volunteers that we trained.

Ava: We were very fortunate that the point person who started our work with the Geek campaign made some great connections in the community with both the South Florida Museum where our oldest living Manatee in captivity resides, and with the Marauders, which is the home team for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We featured them on our geek vehicle wraps and were showing up in unexpected places with that eye-catching message. We also did a :15 second theater preview and it was great to have folks tell us they were at the movies and saw something about the library.

Andy: In Westland, we went to our local Homecoming game and set up a table featuring candy, geek stickers and a t-shirt raffle. We also provided pamphlets and bags made up for school administrators and teachers. We set up our geek board, conducted a t-shirt drawing for everyone who signed our geek board and I think everyone who attended the game had a sticker on them before they left. What made it really effective was being visible at a very popular game which was also a community event.

What is an example of a partnership you forged and what made it effective?

Sara: We reached out to lots of different groups and one of the groups that worked well with us were schools. We connected with them early while they were still forming their plans for the next school year. One school in particular really ran with the geek concept and created their own mini campaign. We were also able to change some of our own services, as a result of our thinking. They decided to geek Right Fit Reading and they did their own shoots of families who came in and posed with their student. Students chose a book that fit their reading level and they created their own t-shirts, messages, and geek posters. In turn, we started thinking about Right Fit Reading and the fact that so many of those readers for elementary levels may have a number on them, but each publisher's number doesn't correspond to the same level and ability. We made our own classification system to help those families when they came in.

I geek lettuce, courtesy Manatee County Public Library on FlickrAva: We developed a partnership with our youth and teen advisory board where they created their own video. They wrote it, produced it and we simply videotaped it. What a great way to get the message out to teens -- by teens. That was really helpful and it moved us forward with that group. Also, the partnership with the South Florida Museum with Snooty's picture helped us because we had been trying to bring more business downtown.

Andy: One of the primary reasons we got involved with Geek was its focus on getting the library and staff outside of our walls and interacting with the community. Our local Biggby Coffee was integral in creating a spot where people outside of our normal community could learn about the library and campaign. This of course started with a really great owner and he did an 'I geek coffee' poster and was really into whatever programs and services we suggested. We created and sold I geek coffee mugs and he ran a coffee special for customers who brought the mug to the shop. We sold mugs at his shop on Saturdays in March and had people sign our geek board. It was really effective having a business which was sold on our message and campaign. At the end of the year, we awarded a 'Geek the Library Small Business of the Year' award to Biggby Coffee and they put it up in their shop.

What was your biggest 'a-ha' from the Geek campaign in terms of new learnings?

Geeking the Library @ The Unquiet Library, courtesy The Unquiet Library on FlickrSara: Our model of working with volunteers to create an engagement opportunity meant a couple of things that were new for me. We were used to coming up with an idea of what we wanted to do and then implementing it. We realized quickly that we needed to let go of our plan and instead inspire their plan. That took some thinking of how to help them think of the right idea that they were energized around that they knew would fit their audience and their resources, and ---that they could reach better than we could.

Ava: I believe that the marketing lesson of finding out how to support the people we are effectively trying to reach is going to be one of the best tools for us. Learning about people's passions is a huge message, and if we can find out what folks are really passionate about, have as a hobby or interest, we can learn how to support them and they'll begin to see our value. It seems really simple but that was the thing we weren't getting. Previously, there was a lot of old school notion that we had this degree and therefore we knew what they needed. This was a great way to disabuse us of that notion.

Andy: We realized that our patrons loved to express themselves since we are in a selfie world. Through the campaign, we had a geek tree with die cut birds and leaves near our circulation desk for people to write on. We filled 6 poster boards and while there was a lot of I geek books, or fiction or science fiction, there was a ton of variety --- I geek cheer, I geek kickboxing, and I geek electronics, which was exciting to see from our community. We just found out that people just really, really, love the library.

What is an example of how you and other staff have applied your newly improved marketing and advocacy skills since your campaign ended?

I geek dancing, courtesy Eckhart Public Library on FlickrSara: At Herrick District Library, it has really shaped our thinking and so we've gone back to the drawing board and have spent some time in meetings. We are working on things that we'll be implementing soon. One of them is drafting a library card sign-up campaign on a similar scale to the Geek the Library campaign. This will help maintain momentum between our Geek campaign and a millage that we have coming in 2016. We only have millages every 20 years so we are excited to build that momentum. We are also creating a similar team to that volunteer Geek Force we had, that will staff events like school carnivals and community information fairs and represent us when we don't have enough staff to do so.

Ava: For Manatee, I think we learned a lot about the impact of videos. Having that little short movie preview was a huge help for us to learn how a :15 clip could be that effective. We've gotten a lot more mileage out of one, three or five minute clips and now we can take that and share with our super supporters either electronically or on thumb drives. It provides them a way to share if they are at one of their local meetings, and it really gets our message out there in a beautiful and effective way. Having those advocates in our community is huge.

Andy: Our administration noticed how important it was to advertise and to capitalize on excitement about the campaign. At our local high school where we had a huge success with our Homecoming outreach, we ran Geek the Library ads with the local high school mascot (e.g. I geek presents during the holiday season, we geek hearts during Valentine's Day, I geek graduation), so now we are continuing with the ads in the high school newspaper aimed specifically at teens since that was a group that we recognized wasn't using the library as often. We feature programs like our teen Halloween party, new services including online tutoring help and streaming movies and music. We also had staff who hadn't used Photoshop before the campaign and we ended up creating all our posters in house. We had our local cable access station take the photos for us and they gave us the raw files. Now we have a number of staff who are really well versed in Photoshop and are creating some dazzling program fliers for us.

What kind of ripple effect have you seen in your community since you've completed your campaign?

I geek comicbooks, courtesy Eckhart Public Library on FlickrSara: In Holland, our Geek the Library campaign has surprisingly been looked to as a local model for how to include people of diverse groups across the community in an organized effort. When we've been involved in community conversations about new initiatives, several times in several different arenas, people have said something like “well you should talk to the library about how they did that Geek the Library thing because they really got it figured out how to get the whole community involved” which is a great compliment for us. I find that we're invited to the table more often for community efforts and we've earned a more respected and relevant place and are not having to ask for a seat and to justify our existence, which is a great thing.

Ava: For us, we have noticed a huge increase in staff confidence which has meant better customer service and a greater community awareness. They are more likely to be advocates themselves and participate more. This has helped us a lot and we just actually for the first time in years have received more staffing this year. Our increased business has been noted, as this campaign has really made awareness of libraries much greater and we also received a funding increase for the first time in many years. So, I think those are all tied into the success of our campaign. When our Foundation saw how hard we were working, they fundraised $100,000 to help us buy a new ILS this year.

Andy: We are seeing more library presence at city-wide events including school district programs, community events like our holiday taste-fest and our local Relay for Life. People are recognizing our library as a leader in cultural programs and since our community was named after a local shopping mall, we have a definite niche that we can fill there. We have organizations like the chamber of commerce reaching out to us to enrich their programs and we've built solid relationships with our school district through their family resource center and multiple organizations that participate in that. Our city's cable access station has contacted us about filming local library programs on youth services and upcoming programs, and our library board has reached out to engage the community in an expansion project for the library and included staff in the discussion. We've definitely seen a swelling of support for the library in the community.

What is one piece of advice you would give other libraries who want to create stronger local support for their library?

Sara: Get to know your supporters and converse with them a lot about the needs you have and your desire to get greater exposure in the community. Your supporters have supporters and they know how to reach those people best. Consider how you can inspire them to create an impact on your behalf.

Ava: We all recognize how busy we are, but there is always more to do. Advocate. Advocate. Advocate! If we are doing all these amazing things but nobody knows about it, it's not going to really help us. We have really learned how important it is because we are seeing that response from the community and from our funding bodies that people need to be more aware of what it is we are doing.

Andy: One of the main reasons we got involved was to get us and our message out of the library and into the community telling our story, our patron's stories and sharing our resources. We've built really strong relationships with our local businesses, and organizations and schools and young people, all of which might not have been possible if not for the Geek campaign. When you let your patrons tell you their geeks and stories, and how they use the library, it really gives us a gauge of how and what we are doing, and provides us a goal to reach for and to move forward.

Moving Forward

Geek the Library enrollment closed on June 30, 2014 and field support and materials will be available to participants through June 30, 2015. Public libraries, universities and schools are welcome to adapt any copy and information to help raise awareness in their communities. The Geek the Library program wrapped up in 2015, but related materials and information are now available on WebJunction's Geek the Library page.

Please visit the webinar archive page for many additional resources including Geek the Library case studies and the report From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America.