Suffolk Public Library Has Left the Building!
Serving a population scattered throughout a 430-square-mile area—and doing it with just three physical library branches—isn’t easy, but that’s just what the Suffolk Public Library in Suffolk, Virginia has had to do. To cover more ground and reach new population segments, Assistant Director of Libraries Sarah Townsend decided to bring “Pop-Up Libraries” to the people, and it’s working beautifully.
What started as a temporary experiment during National Library Week has turned into a regular—and wildly successful—occurrence. In the first nine months alone, the library issued 800 new cards as a direct result of its Pop-Up Libraries.
Here’s our recent Q&A with Sarah Townsend:
Q. When did you start bringing Pop-Up Libraries to the public?
A. We did our first Pop-Ups during an outreach blitz during National Library Week in 2014. We did 10 different locations over the course of the week. Everywhere from in front of a grocery story, a daycare center, YMCA, Buffalo Wild Wings.
Originally it was just something that we were going to try during National Library Week and maybe every once in a while after that, but it was so successful during that week that I decided we needed to rethink how we were approaching outreach and use it as a model for branding and delivering library services outside of the building on a regular basis.
Q. How did you get the idea to do Pop-Up Libraries?
A. I’ve always liked the idea of pop-up shops—businesses that are temporary and can easily adapt to current trends and show up where the people are. It made sense to me that a library should and could be just as flexible. In Suffolk, we cover 430 square miles, so it’s unrealistic to expect that our physical buildings can reach everyone. We needed a library service model that was mobile and flexible.
Q. What expectations did you have for the Pop-Up events, if any?
A. Originally our idea was just to reintroduce ourselves to the community by showing up in unexpected places. The surprise factor would capture people’s attention. However, it’s now become a core way of how we do outreach. We’ve taken our core services and made them mobile and easily transportable. We do library card sign-ups, material checkouts, digital resource and device help, even programming.
Our expectations for our Pop-Ups are the same as they are in our physical locations: that people will have access to the resources they need, be engaged and connected to the library and larger community, and will have a positive customer service interaction with our staff. And maybe some fun, too. We’re all about fun.
Q. What has the public’s reaction been?
A. The public’s reaction has been phenomenal. This has gone a long way to build a positive relationship between the community and the library. We’re able to be in neighborhoods and parts of town where we previously had no presence.
Q. Has bringing Pop-Up Libraries to new areas within the community helped to drive new users to start using the Suffolk Public Library itself?
A. Yes, definitely. In the first nine months, we had over 800 new cards issued from our Pop-Ups. We have customers who know us exclusively or primarily through our Pop-Ups. Our philosophy is that a library isn’t defined by its buildings, so we have users that have met us out in the community and might only use our digital resources or attend programming and use services at Pop-Ups, and that’s perfectly acceptable. The point is that we come to them.
I realized at a certain point that we put a lot of energy in to trying to get people to walk through our doors. This kind of marketing is still important to us, but we’ve found that if you just put a fraction of that energy into actually going out and finding people and being where they are, it’s just as fruitful—if not more fruitful.
Q. You set up inside a 10-by-10 tent or sometimes you just use a table. How do you decide what circulating items to bring with you? What do you typically have on hand?
A. What we bring depends on where we are. For example, we do some regular Pop-Ups at retirement communities. There, we take carts of books that are picked based on what the residents request and what we typically circulate there. Carts make it easier for them to browse without having to bend over.
For most other locations, we pack items into plastic milk crates that then can be easily stacked for make-shift shelving wherever we are. We always have iPads, laptops, and MiFis with us for Internet connection, demoing digital resources, and access to our ILS. We always have literature on our library programming, too.
Depending on the location, we also try to do programming—sometimes kid crafts, sometimes LEGOs put out on a ground tarp, sometimes story times. We take the Wii with us to some locations.
The idea is that the set-up should be able to be done by two people. So, we have lightweight foldable tables, stackable stools, table covers that wrap around the table legs and don’t blow up in the wind, collapsible literature holders, stackable milk crates, etc.
And branding is important. We have a great marketing coordinator/graphic designer who designed our logo. It’s eye-catching, and now people know it’s us when they see that logo up.
Q. You’ve popped up at the farmer’s market, YMCA, Goodwill, and other locations. How do you decide where to locate?
A. We go wherever there are going to be people. I’m always keeping an eye on new businesses, community events, school nights, neighborhood celebrations, etc. and trying new locations. We are at most major community events and have developed regular Pop-Ups at places like the YMCA, for example. We’re always trying a new spot, though, to keep it fresh and also see if we can reach new people.
Q. What types of marketing/PR work do you do ahead of time, if any?
A. Very little. The idea is that people don’t have to come out to see you specifically. They might just happen to be out, and you’ll be where they are. We knew we’d started to succeed when we started hearing “The library is everywhere!” We did some branding and initial marketing to establish ourselves. We post our outreach schedule on our website, but, mostly, we just coordinate with our location and show up.
Q. What are some general Pop-Up Library best practices? What, if anything, do you wish you had done differently?
A. We had some trial and error in the beginning figuring out equipment that worked best for us. The idea is to find things that are lightweight, fold flat, and can be set up by one or two people.
Put some energy into branding yourself and having signage and literature that is attractive and engaging. Part of the idea is to reintroduce yourself to your community as an organization that is relevant and forward-thinking. Visually, you want to make sure you are telling that story. If you look like another fundraiser table in front of a grocery store, people are just going to walk by.
Don’t be afraid to give up on a spot and move somewhere else. This is meant to temporary and flexible, so, if you’ve tried a particular spot and no one’s interested, try someplace different the next time.
Some staff training is helpful, and this is something we’re continuing to work on. While the logistics of setting up a Pop-Up are fairly straightforward, helping staff know how to engage the public in what might be a very different scenario for some is important. In the library, we’re often used to people coming to us first. Outside of the library, we have to get comfortable with approaching community members first and seeming comfortable on their turf. This was especially important when we set up Pop-Ups in some of our public housing communities. We had to work with staff on relationship-building and approachability. It’s an ongoing process for us, but an important factor to consider when developing any outreach program—especially if there was not one in place before.
Q. What advice do you have for other libraries who might like to try something similar in their communities?
A. Even if you don’t have extra funding or staff, this is something you can do. Scale it to your library and the resources you have at your disposal.
More than anything, it’s a way of thinking about outreach and library services. The main idea is to take the library to the people, not expect them to come to you. Even if you just adapt one in-house program and find a place to do that program offsite, it’s a step in the right direction.
Our first Pop-Ups were done mostly with equipment and materials we had in-house. We later invested in some professional signage, a tent, more transportable equipment, iPads, etc., but you can do this with whatever you have on hand. Paper library card applications, flyers, and some books at a table at a community event are a good way to start. Don’t be afraid to take that first step just because you don’t have all of the bells and whistles yet.
Staffing can be a struggle. We started with an Outreach Services Department of two people, and I know that’s more than many systems have. To staff all of these Pop-Ups though, we opened them up to all staff. Any staff member could sign up to work it and we worked schedules to make it happen. All of our managers were very supportive which helped, and it helped to reiterate that our Pop-Ups were like another branch and were just as important to staff as any of our information desks.
To read more about Sarah Townsend and Suffolk Public Library’s Pop-Up Libraries, check out Distinction