Listening to the radio recently, I was reminded that this week is the semi-annual fundraising drive for my local public radio station. A couple of times each hour, an announcer would mention the drive and invite listeners to support the station. Instructions on how to make a donation were given, and then the station would move back to its regular programming. It was not the “in your face” approach that public TV and radio stations used to use, pre-empting large blocks of their programming to try and coerce their audience into making a donation. I was struck by the subtly of it all. The gentle reminder that, “Hey, we are here, providing a service that you probably take for granted. We just wanted to remind you that we truly appreciate your support, regardless of how much or how little you can financially contribute.” For a radio or TV station, those tangible financial contributions serve a dual purpose. Primarily, they help cover some of the day-to-day expenses, but they also offer concrete proof that their audience appreciates the work they are doing.
In the library world, we have a vaguely similar annual “celebration” – National Library Week – but why should we wait for one week a year to encourage our patrons to show their support? Some libraries have a ubiquitous “Suggestion Box,” but often those suggestions are less than helpful. Following the lead of those public radio and TV stations, we can, and should, get our patrons involved with advocacy on a year-round basis. Taking a subtle approach to this advocacy means our patrons may be more willing to be forthcoming with their comments, suggestions, and statements of support. But, what is the “subtle” way to get your patrons to speak out on your behalf?
Librarians and library staff seem to have a love/hate relationship with surveys, but they are a good way to get your community to comment. If you are going to have a survey to evaluate a program, why not include a question (or questions) near the end, asking what the best part of your library is for that patron. The early questions on the survey serve as a warm-up, getting the patron acclimated to the idea of letting their thoughts flow freely. A rating scale question on “How likely are you to recommend our library/our programs/our services to a new neighbor in the area?” should be immediately followed up with a “Why?,” where patrons can share their thoughts. Asking those open-ended questions can give you a lot of information about what your library is doing right (or in some cases, wrong).
Another subtle way of getting patron feedback is to include a “love letter” form with checkouts. This photo is a form our library uses in February to collect responses from patrons. We try to give one to each patron checking out a book. Most we never get back, but those patrons who do return the forms are quite vocal about why they love us. The additional incentive of sharing comments with our legislators helps patrons feel like they can contribute a lot without a lot of effort. Ironically, the assurance of anonymity on these forms often prompts patrons to sign their names, adding a note that it is OK to identify them to our senators and representatives! Many people are quietly thrilled at the idea of getting recognition for doing or saying nice things.
Finally (and this should be the MOST obvious), remember that people “vote with their feet.” The number of patrons who come through your door, attend your programs, take-home craft kits, or sign up for your newsletter are all indications of your community wanting to be involved with your library. The fact that these people are utilizing your catalog, facilities, and offerings can be a testament to your importance to the community, so COUNT EVERYTHING! When your patrons are deeply involved with your library, those numbers translate into the value the community in general places on your facility.
Asking your community to help advocate for you does not need to be an “every so often” thing. Help your patrons build a habit of talking up your library. Give them ample opportunity to show their appreciation, and they will!