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Preaching to the Unconverted: Talking to Non-Library Audiences about Libraries

by R. Toby Greenwalt on April 26, 2013

Technology gives libraries plenty of tools for meeting our patrons in a space beyond our physical walls. Having a presence across a variety of social media turns each platform we use into a service desk. We can engage the public in an environment that is comfortable to them, and in turn we are able to demonstrate our skills in a series of public (cyber)spaces. But there are times when we have to take a more direct approach. Sometimes we’ve got to (horrors!) go out there and talk to folks in the real world.

A growing number of librarians are making a concerted effort to take the cause to venues far beyond the standard echo chamber1 of library conferences,  blogs, and (ahem) magazine columns. There’s even a bounty out there (“The Great Librarian Write-Out,” created by librarian Patrick Sweeney2) for people looking to get published in a non-library-centric publication.

And now we’re starting to see librarians making presentations at tech conferences such as South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi). The prospect of talking to a group of techier-than-thou scenesters may seem daunting, but we have much to gain by sharing our stories with these new audiences. Whether you’re speaking at a tech conference or simply to a small group of locals, getting non-librarians excited by library technology can go a long way toward advancing your organization’s mission. Via email, I recently interviewed Nate Hill of San José (Calif.) Public Library and community library technologist Jessamyn West, who lives in Vermont, about their experiences in preparing to speak at SXSWi.

Public Libraries: Tell us a bit about what you’re presenting and the audience you’re speaking to.

Hill: I’m speaking on a panel at SXSW 2012 called “Making Stories: Libraries and Community Publishing.”3 My piece is specifically about public libraries and how they can and should strategically position themselves as community publishers. I’m going to present two different components of a system that would truly reposition the public library as a local publisher.

West: I am on a panel [“A Penny Press for the Digital Age“4] that is actually taking place in the journalism track. Basically talking about how major news organizations are sort of abandoning less affluent readers in their quest to stay “relevant” and the effect this has on how people interact with the news and what sort of news they actually wind up getting. I’m talking about the digital divide, sort of the statistics part of it and how this affects professionals like
ourselves who have a mandate to serve the entire public and not just the ones who can afford to access our services.

PL: Do you feel like non-librarian audiences have certain preconceptions or stereotypes about libraries? How do you overcome those beliefs?

West: Absolutely. I think it’s important to be a living example of “Hey, libraries and librarians are doing more than you think.” I think a lot of people specifically don’t know about our anti-censorship work, about how we protect children’s rights to read and how we are a truly public space in a country that is seeing public spaces eroding and disappearing.

PL: What’s the most important thing these audiences stand to learn about libraries?

Hill: Speaking to tech folks at tech conferences outside of the library bubble gives us a chance to show off where we are conceptually, while reminding them of the scarcity of resources we are working with.

West: That we’re for everyone, rich and poor, and that we’re democratically run. The distributed nature of the public library system in the US means that each library is simultaneously an individual unit but also part of this vast interoperable system. It’s like the world’s best free file-sharing network, with clean bathrooms and people there to help you use it.

PL: What do you think libraries stand to learn by speaking outside the echo chamber?

Hill: Libraries and librarians are full of ideas, but we lack the expertise and funds to follow through on many of them. There’s a lot of good will toward libraries in the greater tech community, and in my experience many people see the endless possibilities of what a public library can evolve to be in the twenty-first century. What they don’t understand . . . is how to get from point A to point B.

West: Seeing the sort of flexibility and responsiveness the tech world can bring to the table is useful I think. I still live somewhere where the library website won’t reflect if the library is closed for a snow day. While I understand why the library systems are the way they are, I think it’s worth shining some light on the fact that they don’t have to be this way, that at some point in time decisions were made and maybe they haven’t been revisited recently enough, or that people’s expectations have changed as they’ve experienced other systems.

PL: What do you hope to gain from your audience? Do you think they can contribute something back to the library world?

Hill: Grand, sweeping ideas are easily presented on a panel or in a speech. Details of implementation are better discussed individually or in smaller groups. I hope that at SXSW I’ll be able to spark the imaginations of some of the audience, and then make time to talk through bits and pieces of the way libraries work afterward.

West: I want people to go get library cards and be an active part of their library community. In my particular case, I want people to understand the digital divide better, both from a personal perspective . . . as well as what they might be able to do from their positions in the tech world. Make the web as usable as the public library, in short. Make it for everyone.

PL: What advice would you offer to other folks trying to preach the “wired library” gospel?

Hill: When you are looking to step outside of the library bubble and talk about technology and service delivery as it relates to technology, be prepared for people to not understand why you can’t “just do it.” The thing that a tech-savvy librarian brings to a conversation outside the bubble is their knowledge of how libraries, local government, and our self-imposed bureaucracies work. I like to think that the best administrators are the ones who clear the road so that their creative staff can do their work, while the worst ones offer all the reasons that the answer is no. When presenting your tech ideas to an audience outside the library bubble, you should make time to act like a good administrator would. Explain the roadblocks in place that prohibit change.

West: Be clear that if you are not preaching to the converted that you need to make this sort of thing into a genuine option for people, not just a “you should do it because it’s cool” situation. A lot of this stuff comes about because there is one motivated and passionate person who is in a position to say yes to a technological choice or innovation, or say no to something that doesn’t work. Be ready to make that decision when it comes to you and work to get yourself to that decision-making position. It’s a long game, but patience and passion can really pay off.


  1. For a terrific breakdown of the “library echo chamber,” see Ned Potter and Laura Woods, “Escaping the Echo-Chamber,” July 13, 2011, accessed Feb.22, 2012.
  2. Patrick Sweeney, “Great Librarian Write-Out (Round Two),” PC Sweeney’s Blog, accessed Feb. 22, 2012.
  3. Making Stories: Libraries and Community Publishing,” South by Southwest Program Schedule, accessed Feb. 24, 2012.
  4. A Penny Press for the Digital Age,” South by Southwest Program Schedule, accessed Feb. 24, 2012.