Library Card Sign-up Month (LCSUM) is right around the corner, but does the annual campaign really make a dent in the numbers of cardless potential patrons? That depends.
Every September for nearly 30 years now, countless libraries have redoubled efforts to get more library cards into the public’s hands, but the results have been mixed, leaving some librarians cold. Fortunately, by trying several different tactics, there are libraries that are getting better outcomes—and so can you. (Turns out, a good pair of walking shoes is mission critical.)
Then and Now
LCSUM began simply enough with a common-sense comment by Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in his 1986 First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America: “Every child should obtain a library card—and use it.” To that end, the campaign was launched in 1987.
This year, Stan Lee is the face of the campaign. The American Library Association has used Lee’s image on free print and digital PSAs, a Facebook cover graphic, and other digital assets for libraries to use to get the word out.
The ALA is also encouraging libraries to use the hashtag #LibraryCardSignUp on social media. But, this begs the question: what are the odds that the cardless are Facebook pals with their local libraries—or that they routinely follow them on Twitter?
That’s not to say Library Card Sign-up Month is without merit, but, all too often, libraries’ inbound marketing tactics target people who are already familiar with the library.
Take a Page from Politics
In order to cater to adults without library cards, public libraries sometimes set up informational tables during outdoor events like street festivals and farmers’ markets. But, because of the need for proof of address, closing the deal in these situations can be difficult. (After all, who carries their utility bills with them?)
What’s more, John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, said, “That tends to still be inbound. We just moved the reference desk from the inside of the library to the outside of the library. It’s still the same [inbound] mode or mindset. We need to do things a little bit differently.”
A relatively new political action committee for libraries, EveryLibrary works on local library ballot initiatives. Chrastka believes libraries can take a lot away from political models, and—this is where those comfortable shoes come in—he actually encourages librarians to use door-to-door campaigning techniques. “It’s the most basic form of enfranchisement. You say, ‘I’m your librarian. Here’s my business card,’” he explained.
“In campaigning from president down to the dog catcher, people get to meet the candidate or their representative in order to really be solidified as a voter for them. The best way to solidify a voter is to have them pledge to vote ‘yes’ to your face,” he said.
Chrastka points to a 2008 Gates Foundation study called “From Awareness to Funding” to to bolster the point. “That study proves very strongly that voters are activated by the perception of the librarian as much as their perception of the institution,” he said.
Get Out There!
Last September EveryLibrary worked with Washington’s Kitsap Regional Library to reach underserved populations by putting librarians in unusual places far outside of the library.
“Kitsap is across Puget Sound, across from Seattle. There are seven ferries a day that go back and forth from Bainbridge and Bremerton. What they did during Library Card Sign-up Month, which was also the Seahawks football season, apparently, was they put librarians on those ferries during those football days,” Chrastka said. They had very positive results.
(This year EveryLibrary is an organizational sponsor of Get Outside the Lines, a project that Anythink Libraries and the Colorado State Library created to encourage new ways to engage the public during September.)
Chrastka also mentioned an Ohio library that recently restarted its bookmobile program after many years of not having one. “They started not by driving [the bookmobile] around, but by going door to door in a four-block area around where the stops are going to be. You knock on the doors and introduce yourself as the bookmobile driver and the bookmobile librarian. ‘We’re going to be back on Tuesday of next week and every Tuesday thereafter over on the corner of X and Y. You can walk there from here.’”
Want to get outside your library to try some outbound tactics this September? If you’re not quite sure where to begin, don’t be afraid to start small. “The first year doesn’t have to be a whole campaign, if it just has compassion behind it,” Chrastka said.
If your ILS includes a mapping tool, you may be able to output a map of library cardholders and lapsed cardholders to see which parts of your community are not being served. Or simply talk with colleagues and outreach staff for suggested locations to visit.
“Getting the librarians out there as the ones who are the public face and the public doers of the institutions—that’s the last mile. That’s what we’re trying to encourage,” he concluded.
More Traditional Tactics
“The purpose of Library Card Signup Month is to make sure that people who might not know what libraries have to offer get that information—especially children,” said Megan McFarlane, campaign coordinator for Campaign for America’s Libraries. (McFarlane makes a point to say she is not an official spokesperson for LCSUM, but she does try to keep tabs on libraries’ LCSUM activities across the nation.)
There is definitely a time and a place for more traditional tactics. Libraries teaming up with area businesses to reward library cardholders.“If somebody goes to a local business and shows their library card there, they get a discount on something. So, if it’s an ice cream shop, they get a free scoop of ice cream. I’ve even seen auto repair shops give free checkups on cars,” McFarlane noted.
Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL) in Kalamazoo, Michigan gave this a try last year, and about 10 businesses chose to participate. “I designed a poster for the event, then asked local businesses if they would consider offering a small discount to customers who showed them their KPL card at check-out. The process was very easy, and the stores dictated their own terms of participation,” explained Farrell Howe, KPL marketing and communications manager.
“We likely will do the same event this year. We prefer to keep it small and easy, as we have a lot of programs and big events in the fall that take priority, but we don’t want to let this event slip by. It’s an easy buy-in for our community,” Howe added.
Go to School
Reaching out to local businesses is a good start, but, when it comes to reaching kids whose parents might not regularly visit the public library, library cross-promotion via school visits is paramount. “I like to see public libraries partnering with school libraries. It provides kids with the opportunity to see what each library has to offer, and how they might benefit from differences in resources and programming,” McFarlane said.
That means being willing to leave your library and head to area schools at the beginning of the school year. Plan to bring library card sign-up forms along and tell kids what resources you have for their age groups. You can even share free resources for teachers to coincide with LCSUM.
McFarlane noted that libraries across the country now offer programming for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics that students need to know about: “Libraries are offering all kinds of creative programming—doing programs about using digital printers, building websites, or even teaching [computer] coding. These are all things that are available to [library cardholders] for free. But are they going to know about them if somebody’s not going out there and telling them about it?”
Want more content like this—delivered straight to your inbox?