A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Telling the Story of the Public Library

by on December 27, 2012

If there was a buzz word surrounding libraries in 2012, it would have to be “relevance.” Libraries across the country are fighting for funds and trying to prove their relevance to the powers-that-be. Libraries are struggling with the non-user: the individual who has no current experience in their public library and who is unlikely to support any increase in funding for it. This non-user is the same person who will question the relevance of the public library in the digital age.

When I was hired at my library, my director told me the story of a library in a small town in another state. He said they were very proud of being the best kept secret in town. Why did he tell me about them? Because he realized that being a well-kept secret is the most dangerous thing a library can be in this day and age.

Libraries are relevant—we know that every time we look at our statistics and see the increases in circulation, computer use, and visitors. We know our community uses the library more and more as the economy struggles and belts get tighter. We see the trends nationwide. Relevance is not the challenge for libraries. Telling our story is our biggest challenge.

The American Red Cross is one of the most recognized brands in the world. The organization is over 130 years old and has responded to hundreds of thousands of emergencies. But if you asked most people what the Red Cross does, they would only be able to tell you a few things. The general public has very little knowledge of the variety of work the agency does throughout the world.

So this year the Red Cross did something different. They decided that the best way to educate people about the many things they do is to let the people who have been helped share their stories. So they sent out video cameras—300 of them, to be exact. They asked people to record their stories and they took those videos and compiled them into short films, advertisements and PSAs. (http://www.redcross.org/stories/)

Libraries need to take a lesson from this American Red Cross project. We need to find new ways to share our stories with our communities. It is not a question of being relevant; it is a question of sharing our relevance with the world. How are you gathering your patron stories? What are you doing to show your community the transformative ways you interact with your customers? How can we better demonstrate to the non-user that every single day lives are touched and people are better off because of the work of the public library?

The answer is different for each of us. Perhaps distributing video cameras to your community isn’t the best storytelling strategy for your library. However, we must stop reveling in being the best kept secret in town and begin to focus on shouting our stories from the roof tops. No one else will do this for us. We must take the lead and change the conversation. It is not that libraries must prove their relevance; it is only that we must share it with the world.