Writing for Civilians: When We Write for the Publications Our Users Read, We Build Visibility-And Support-In Our Communities

Article excerpt

Love to write about libraries? Many of us do. For our fellow librarians, we speak volumes, clamoring to fill blogs, association newsletters, and scholarly journals. But for our communities? Not so much. The volume drops significantly when we consider the words we produce for publications our users and supporters read: local newspapers and company intranets, faculty newsletters and industry magazines.

These days it's more important than ever to communicate with people outside of the library world--"civilians," as library consultant Joan Frye Williams calls them. Community publications offer endless opportunities to share stories of library resources, services, and needs with our users, potential users, and funders. Let's look at how we can increase the visibility and influence of libraries by writing for publications that matter to our communities.

Support starts with visibility

When budgets are tight and many around us question the relevance of libraries, we need to be visible, to tell people what we do, to explain why it matters. As James LaRue, director of the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries, has written in American Libraries (j.mp/KeepingMsgSimple), "Our persistent loss of public mindshare and support cannot be fixed by librarians talking to each other." But it can be boosted by talking with our communities.

There's evidence. OCLC's 2008 report Geek the Library: A Community Awareness Campaign made several interesting points about factors that influence library perceptions and support:

* "There is a lot that people don't know about their public libraries." This means we have to talk about libraries more often and more loudly. We have to be present in the life of the community;

* "Perceptions of the librarian are highly related to support." Publishing locally can help put a human face on the local librarian and build credibility for the library;

* "Library support is only marginally related to visitation." Many people never come to the library, even if they're library supporters. We need to keep reminding them that we're here doing good things.

Ned Potter has been talking about this for a while now. An academic librarian at the UK's University of York, Potter (whose article "Marketing Your Library" begins on page 50) encourages librarians to reach out to nonlibrarians and the mainstream media--to break out of the library "echo chamber," where words and ideas bounce around among librarians.

There's good news, Potter told AL. When it comes to ideas escaping into the bigger world beyond, "There's definitely been an improvement recently." More librarian-writers are focusing on external audiences, submitting articles to civilian publications, and letting their voices be heard by those who may not know what we do or understand our point of view. The rewards can be rich. "Everyone I know who has done it seems to have gotten a lot out of the experience, and of course they've helped the library cause in general," said Potter. "I think it's like a lot of stuff in our profession: The more intimidating it is, the more rewarding it can be when it works."

Reaching out to users

Beyond books, what are people in our communities reading, and how can we be more present in those places? We can reach out to users through the publications they see regularly. Library staff can write a single article in the local genealogy club newsletter, occasional guest posts on a faculty blog, or even a regular column in a student or community newspaper.

Regular columns can be long-term efforts with high impact. For nearly six years, Julie Winkelstein authored At the Library. aweekly newspaper column on library-related topics that appeared in as many as five San Francisco Bay Area newspapers. Now a doctoral student in information sciences at the University of Tennessee, Winkelstein was a children's librarian at the Albany branch of the Alameda County (Calif. …