"Why do you love your library?" is NOT Community Engagement: Better Questions to Ask During National Library Week

A few weeks ago, I blogged and tweeted about a participatory display--"Why Did You Come to the Library Today?"--that yielded a great response at my library. What I failed to include in the post was WHY I think it was successful, and as National Library Week 2014 approaches and I begin to see libraries gearing up for "Why do you love your library?" campaigns, it seems like a good time to follow up.

"Why do you love the library?", "Tell us why you love your library!", and "Why are you proud of your library?", wherever I've seen them, don't often generate diverse responses or engage diverse patrons. They're mainly answered by the same sorts of loyal library fans that like your library's every Facebook post, and like each other, too. Such "community engagement" prompts feel more like "We need pleasant quotes we can use in our annual report--help us out?" than "We're interested in you and this community, and in how the library helps and can better help you. We're proud of what you accomplish with the tools we provide."

They're also abstract, compared to the concreteness of "Why did you come to the library today?" The latter can be answered easily even by folks who don't necessarily love the library but came here anyway because they needed our services (which might be, sorry folks, quite a few public library patrons).

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Cumulatively, the different responses to this concrete question raised patron (and staff) awareness of how our community uses the library and the varied ways in which the library provides value to the town--and also a more general awareness of what's going on in the community (who knew we had a "PONY CLUB" that unofficially meets here?) and the community's dreams ("get into MIT" "to learn how to help mamas give birth" "to get my 1st nursing job!") It painted a picture of our community, and got us enthused about what people are accomplishing in our building and with our tools.

So, a suggestion: when asking engagement questions during National Library Week (or any time), make the focus concrete, not abstract, and focus on the patrons, not the library—because that’s where the true stories lie. "Why did you come to the library today?" is an in-building question for physical displays“What have you learned at your library?” works both in-building and online. Don't ask "Why are you proud of your library?" but "What are you proud of that the library helped you accomplish?" (in sentiment, not in those awkward words). 

Chances are, you've seen artist Candy Chang's viral "Before I Die" participatory public art project before--either online or in real life (I think a version even turned up at PLA):

How about trying a wall or poster at the library (and a Facebook post) with, instead of the "Before I die I want to ____"  prompt,

"This year, my library helped me  _____________."


"This year, my library helped me to ____________."

I think the answers you receive will be a lot more varied, moving, inspiring, and useful than answers to "Why do you love your library?"

UPDATE:The official 2015 National Library Week slogan is "Unlimited possibilities @ your library"--so a natural question to ask in a participatory display is "What has the library made possible for you?"


Carmel said...

Subiaco Library in Perth did a Candy Chang wall in 2012 with the teaser "I read books because"... every space on the wall was used every day, and staff washed it down daily (sometimes even more often) to make room for more contributions.
Subiaco Wall Selected quotes were also photographed and tweeted during the campaign via @coslib.

Carmel said...

Subiaco also used the creation of the wall as an engagement exercise with local young people. The city's Kids Crew (primary school kids) and Subiaco Voice of Youth had a painting party to paint the wall with chalk board paint, and spray-paint the teaser sentences on.

Emily Lloyd said...

Nice! I especially love the idea of having kids be a part of the wall's creation. Thanks for sharing this!