Connecting with potential library users

by Emma Pinault, Senior Editor, INALJ Florida,  INALJ Idaho, INALJ Indiana, INALJ Iowa, INALJ Kansas, INALJ Georgia, INALJ Hawaii

Connecting with potential library users

Emma PinaultA long-standing and frustrating question for libraries everywhere is how to draw in potential library users. Often, many of the people in a community who would benefit greatly from library services are not using them, either because they don’t know what the library offers, they don’t see the library as relevant to their lives, or they are unable to access the library’s services (due to distance, limited hours, etc). While the library may have systems in place already for requesting and receiving feedback from current users, finding out who isn’t there and why they aren’t is a harder problem.

To find the people who aren’t in the library, you have to go outside the library. There are a few different ways you can spread the word.

Word of mouth: Be alert for opportunities to talk about what you do. Be prepared to strike up a conversation in the line at the coffee shop, or at the supermarket. We’ve all had that conversation, the one that starts with “Where do you work?” and ends with some version of “Aren’t books obsolete?” or “Who needs libraries when we have the Internet?” Be prepared to answer those questions, not just with an awkward smile and a change of subject, but with a firm “No,” followed by “Quite a few people, actually.”

And be prepared to ask questions like, “Have you been to the library lately?” and if not, “Why not?” and “What would encourage you to visit the library more often?” Personal conversations and word of mouth can be very effective.

But don’t rely on informal outreach alone. If your library doesn’t have a strategy for community outreach, get together with your manager and coworkers and brainstorm some ideas. Define some clear goals and map out a plan for expanding your library’s reach in your community.

Know the community you serve, not just the people who are inside the building or visiting the library’s website, but throughout the surrounding geographic area in your city or county. Do some research. And know what other organizations are in your community doing similar work. Coordinating with other community organizations can help you expand your reach, and also provide insights into unmet needs in your area. Coordination is also essential to ensure that the library and the local school system and other community organizations are supporting each other, rather than duplicating each other’s efforts.

Communication with library users is key to satisfying your existing customers, and those who use the library on a regular basis can offer valuable feedback on the services you provide. However, it is also important to reach out and seek feedback from those outside the library, to find out how you can draw those people inside.