What's Your Story?
How to find, develop and tell stories about your library.
You need to tell your story. Whether you call it story-telling, marketing, advocacy, promotion or community outreach, you need to make your library's story heard in your community. To tell your story effectively, you must understand your own story—what you're about, how you're central, what you offer and what you should offer. What's your story?
Story and Brand
Those comfortable with marketing might rephrase that question as "What's your brand?" For most of us, that's not a true equivalence. At best, your brand might be the shorthand version of your story—the "elevator pitch" or one-sentence highlight.
Traditionally, a brand is a trademark, distinctive name or distinctive category. Your library logo and motto constitute your brand—but not your story.
Today, "brand" has taken on broader meaning. It's shorthand for the apparent public image behind a brand—or, if you like, the apparent story, what you think of when you hear a brand.
If I say "Halliburton," you probably have one mental story. If I say "Johnson & Johnson" or "GE" you have a different one—and I wouldn't have a clue what that story might be, although both corporations try to mold our mental stories. If I say "Nooenautica" on the other hand, you probably have no mental story at all: You don't recognize the brand.
If I say "public library," the overall brand is "books" or "free books." The OCLC Perceptions report demonstrated that effectively, and did that come as a surprise?
You can and should go beyond books—books are only the beginning. Your story needs to inform your brand and support that brand, and you certainly do more than provide free books. But note the word that I did not use before "provide free books"—that is, "just." Don't try to run away from books as a brand. There's nothing negative about providing free books, and most of your community appreciate that as a fundamental part of what you do.
Special comes in two flavors. One should be easy, at least for a partial answer:
What do you do better than anyone else?
A few possible answers:
You make good books available for free. Who else does that?
You make CDs, DVDs, 3-D printers, downloadable e-books, internet access and more available for free too!
You tell interesting stories to groups of kids, and maybe to other groups. For free!
You organize those free materials so they're easier to find and so related ones are close together for your patrons looking for "something on…" Oh sure, bookstores organize. You organize better, don't you?
You provide breadth and depth, serving special needs and maintaining worthwhile stories across time.
That's only a partial list of the things you do better than anyone else in your community. What's on your list?
The second flavor may be tougher:
What's distinctive about your library?
You're not the same as the library two towns over, are you? If your community numbers 7,000, I'm certain you're a whole lot different than Los Angeles Public Library (3.9 million) or Redwood City Public Library (80,700).
You're also different from another library serving 7,000 people. You have different strengths, different weaknesses, possibly different unique services and collections.
What makes you special within the library field, as compared to other libraries with similar community sizes, or as compared to other libraries in your region?
Maybe the answer to that question isn't as important to your community, but it helps to know where you lead (and where you lag), particularly when funding issues arise.
Fleshing Out Your Story
The two questions above should help you discover your core story—what makes you special, within your community and beyond.
The rest of your story also matters. That's likely to be the story that's constantly changing. That story encapsulates everything you do and want to do. It includes the people on your staff. It includes the story of your building(s), past and present. It includes the special stories of those in the community who treasure the library and find more than average value in it.
Don't assume people already know any given aspect of your story, especially when you consider your story as a source of newspaper columns, blog posts and other ways of telling your story. Chances are, for almost any service other than free books and materials, and for any special program, most people in your community don't know about it, since they don't use it. For that matter, do newcomers, particularly recent migrants, all know and understand that you really do provide free materials?
As you flesh out your story, you need an effective way to store and maintain it for reference. Almost any database will work. So will a simple document, but it's important to maintain flexibility for two reasons:
Your story will change over time.
Just as fish probably don't know all there is to know about water, you may be too close to your own library to recognize some aspects of its story.
"Don't assume people already know any given aspect of your story. Chances are, for almost any service other than free books and materials, and for any special program, most people in your community don't know about it, since they don't use it."
Developing Your Story
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 resources backed. 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?
As you craft your narratives and think about how to get them out into the world, take a look at the many resources for your next steps in the sidebar at right.
As you craft your library's story and the stories of the impact your library makes, here are resources and examples to explore.
Advocacy toolkit: Advocacy in Action: Local Library Awareness Campaigns
Webinar recording: Telling the Library Story
Telling the Library Story (State of Iowa)
Libraries Transform (an advocacy campaign from the American Library Association)
Get Storied (storytelling toolkit for libraries)
How to Advocate for Your Library through Storytelling (TechSoup webinar recording)