Magazine article American Libraries

Putting the Public Back in Public Libraries: PLA's California Conference

Magazine article American Libraries

Putting the Public Back in Public Libraries: PLA's California Conference

Article excerpt

The primary challenge facing public libraries in the US. is to reach the public, a public with growing and diverse needs. One sure-fire indicator: PR and building public support dominated the agenda and attendees' attention at Public Libraries: FYI," the fourth national conference of ALms Public Library Association (PLA) Mar. 20-23 in San Diego.

The 4,282 people who came to "FYI" were also saturated with PR savvy in programs on how to serve special segments of the population, such as latchkey children, the homeless, the illiterate, and the aged. Add to that some 68 "Talk Tables," where conferees discussed everything from marketing to burn-out, and it's clear that public librarians are courting their public.

PR wizards Arch Lustberg and Karen Anderson packed the rooms for three seminars. If adopted, their effervescent techniques would bring patrons into libraries just to see the librarians perform.

While parts of her presentation involved throwing koosh balls and such instructions as "Grab your neighbor's earlobe," Andersons's central point was clear and anything but silly. "Do an audit of your library," she advised. "What is the first thing I see when I walk in? What is the most memorable thing about your library?" The author, consultant, and former journalist also told librarians they must promote their services "where people are"-at the grocery store, bank, or gas station. These unlikely allies may be more receptive to cooperation than we might imagine, she proposed.

Lustberg's dynamic presentations centered on "converting confrontation into communication" and included such assessments as: "In 1991, style is more important than substance." With two brave volunteers from the audience, Lustberg videotaped confrontational scenes in which he played an obnoxious reporter. At the end of his program, the volunteers submitted to a second interview for the cameras. The improvement was astonishing. With simple techniques the volunteers were able to make their points about library service while making the interviewer seem out of fine.

At other programs, librarians picked up Andersons's PR koosh baH and ran with it. Denver PL Director Rick Ashton showed staff-generated training videotapes his library uses to encourage "Excellence Through Customer Service." Ashton said, "Thinking of a person as a customer changed our attitude; a customer is someone you want to see again." DPL reserves the word "patron" for "someone who writes a large check"-more in keeping with the practices of other cultural institutions, he says.

Reading is like a drug'

He's never made dirty movies," said Conference Committee Chair Charles Robinson, Baltimore County (Md.) PL director, in his introduction of featured speaker John Waters. He's made disgusting movies." The director of such cult classics as Polyester and Pink Flamingos kept the audience enthralled for nearly an hour with what was essentially a stand-up comedy routine, replete with stories of Divine, the transvestite star of a number of Waters's films.

The moviemaker advised librarians to make going to the library more exciting. Asked to imagine what kind of commercial he would create for libraries, he said, "Reading is like a drug. Once you start, you're hooked. I'd bill it that way." He also told stories about his childhood as an oddball who wanted to read about subjects like suicide and sexual aberration-always labeled "see librarian" in the catalog. "If any kid asks you for any book," he declared to the cheering audience, "give it to them!"

James Autry delivered the conference keynote address-his sensitive "observations on the power of the word." The poet-president of the Meredith Magazine Group and chair of People for the American Way read from his poetry and talked about the two main reading problems in America today: A lot of people who can't read and too many people who can trying to tell others what they should and shouldn't read. …

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