EXTRA! EXTRA! Potty Publication Pleases Patrons

Like peanut butter and jelly, bathrooms and reading material just seem to be made for each other. After all it’s where we do our best thinking, right?! Short of relocating the stacks to the stalls, how can we engage this, ehem, captive audience?

That’s the idea behind (haha, get it, behind!) Lav Notes. This full color bi-monthly newsletter with a tag-line of “help for the stalled” is posted in every library stall and above all urinals. Being mindful of the academic calendar, each issue addresses the changing needs of our patrons over the course of the year. For example in the fall we create one around a “back to school” theme with library basics like how to check out books, where to access your online account and who to ask for help. Then over the summer we get all relaxy with book and DVD recommendations. Each issue includes changes in library hours and upcoming events like instructional workshops and author readings. We even encourage user-generated content in exchange for a gift card to the library’s café.

While I can’t take credit for this ingenious idea, I can heartily encourage you to give it a try. Only a handful of academic libraries including UVA and Dartmouth are currently taking advantage of this brilliant marketing opportunity. I’m here to testify–patrons will thank you! I’ve gotten emails and Facebook posts–even Valentines–from students expressing their appreciation. And when I talk to people about my various job responsibilities, only Lav Notes catches their attention.

If you want to get in on the magic, here’s the deal. You’ll want to make a basic design template that you can reuse for each edition. Ours has a simple text header with the name, date and volume of the publication. For aesthetic purposes we also include a rotating graphic, which can be your library’s logo or an open source doodle. To compile the newsletter I like to use the Adobe Creative Suite, specifically Illustrator and InDesign. Publisher will also do the trick and comes standard with Microsoft Office. Then you just stick in a few text boxes about library happenings and hit print. It’s all done in house, so it’s cheap and easy. Our custodial staff kindly posts them in reusable holders affixed to every library bathroom stall door and above the urinals, both in public and staff spaces.

Truly the only complaint I’ve ever received is that they’re not updated frequently enough. So there you have it: a way to reach the hearts and minds of your students… through their, lets say, excellent hydration habits. Believe me, everyone will think you’re a superhero.

The Social Media Policy Breakdown: Educational

Now that I’ve finally digested all my Tofurkey, it’s time to dive into our bread and butter—the social media policy. We’ve already covered frequency, responsiveness, entertainment and neighborliness. Coming attcha now is the seemingly obvious call to be educational. While we certainly have a lot of fun with our social media channels, and we’re big advocates of using informal language and making cultural references to entertain our target audience, this engagement strategy ultimately serves our overarching mission: to be educational. Whether in person or online, it is our duty to highlight library resources on a particular topic and share professional insight.

Appropriately enough, the library forayed into social media for this very reason. We had an outdated website that more often than not obscured the very information people were seeking. Launching a blog gave us a platform to highlight our resources. We’ll certainly include links to popular sites such as YouTube, but the emphasis is always on our collections, especially hidden gems. Just the other day we asked a blog contributor to change a link from Wikipedia to a library resource. The author initially switched it to a catalog record, but we ultimately decided it would be even better to highlight one of our lesser known databases. We even added a further endorsement in the closing paragraph.

While in the reference office, librarians serve as generalists, but on the blog we give them a chance to show off their subject expertise. This value-added type of approach where librarians not only recommend what resource to use but also their reasoning. If they suggest a particular database they can give some context as to why that one might be better than another for what they are seeking. In this way social media augments our in-person service. In fact, there are occasions in the reference office where we’ll even pull up old blog post by way of an answer, like for example, why we don’t have an institutional subscription to the New York Times.

So there you have it, an educational post about writing educational posts. Whoa.

No Rest for the Weary

Summer lull is a myth. People in academia so want to believe that we can spend June, July and August catching up on the craziness from the spring semester. Once again, the season has flown by without warning. One of the biggest projects we’ve been working on at MPOW is revamping our freshman orientation programs. Don’t get me wrong–we’re still going to give the standard library tour and introduction to resources this September, but we’re doing things a little more systematically and creating content with our audience in mind.

In the past our tours had always been a reflection of the librarian leading them. With no standardized route or formal agenda, we weren’t all singing from the same sheet—some of us weren’t even singing the same song! So with the opening of the learning commons this month, we had the opportunity to establish a more structured walk-through for our new users. We’re even switching to a peer-to-peer learning model by inviting grad students from the Info Desk to lead the tours. That way they can have a candid exchange with the group and share real insight about how the spaces are used.

Writing the script was truly challenging. I worked closely with our fabulous User Experience Director, Steven, to get a sense of how freshmen are using the library. The data shows that underclassmen view us as a social space where they can work on homework alongside their friends. We certainly want to encourage and facilitate that behavior, so we’re skipping over all the quiet study zones and instead leading them through the talking levels, group study areas and our brand new café. We’re also highlighting the fluffier areas of our collections like the popular fiction and nonfiction shelves and our extensive AV collection. Meanwhile my fabulous colleague, Heidi, is working on creating a scavenger hunt to familiarize freshmen with the library functions they will most need, such as lockers and printing. It will be more fun than it sounds, promise!

Librarians live to be helpful and often try to cram every little bit of information possible in the 45 minutes we have with groups; after all, you never know if or when you’ll ever see them again. Our goal is to avoid information overload. We aren’t expecting freshmen to learn all our library resources forever; this is actually a PR opportunity. As Cynthia Hart from Virginia Beach Public Library explained at Computers in Libraries 2011, the library’s brand is about more than a logo or even books–ultimately it is about the emotional response we elicit from consumers. Take Coke, for example, and their Happiness Machine. They’re not demonstrating how to quench your thirst, they’re trying to make you smile. Along those same lines, we want people to leave this tour thinking of the library as a fun, welcoming place and equip them with just enough information that when they are ready to delve into more complex research, they know where to go to ask those questions.

The Social Media Policy Breakdown: Entertaining

If there’s one thing that librarians have, it’s personality, and we like to show that off. In fact our social media policy mandates it, encouraging contributors to use humor and everyday parlance to connect with our audience. That doesn’t mean we’re not talking about Serious Business, but you can only convey pertinent information when people actually read what you’ve written.

We first embarked on our social media journey five years ago in order to foster community engagement, and this particular strategy gets to the heart of that. We have one librarian who blogs all about Sci Fi and eBooks and another who is an avid film buff that touts all the local festivals and screenings. We’re so proud to cover this broad range of subjects. Moreover these types of messages make us relatable and the library a welcoming space.

What exactly constitutes entertainment? Well, we like to slide in pop culture references and embed memes whenever we can. Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ryan Gosling are all fair game. Entertainment is more than just a one-liner though; it is also an attempt to make connections through shared interests—be it concern for the environment or celebration of a particular heritage. At times we can wow people with our authoritative knowledge in our respective subject areas, but it’s also important to approach every post with the patron in mind. Why do they care? How can it we frame a particular issue to appeal to their sensibilities?

Some people are leery of personality-driven communications. After all, isn’t it ultimately about the organization, not the people? The trick is blending personality with professionalism, so this strategy, as with all things in life, must be applied in moderation. While we encourage people to write about topics that interest them, we’re also clear that the agenda they are promoting is ultimately the library’s, not one’s own. As such we have checks built into the Social Media Policy to keep any one person stealing the show. But unless you work with Jenna Maroney, this really shouldn’t be an issue.

Summer Social

The library gets pretty packed this time of year, but by the end of the week when exams are over, we’ll turn into a ghost town. Sure we still have our share of visitors, from summer students to youth programs, plus all the people in our local Baltimore community, but the volume is significantly reduced in comparison to the academic year. Thanks to social media, we still have a captive audience, however our summer strategy is a little different than the rest of the year.  

Taking a vacation from social media just isn’t possible. People expect regularly updated content. But students aren’t the only ones that need a break come May, so we cut back on the frequency of communications. Our blog and Facebook page both switch to a MWF schedule. We still tweet every day, but the required minimum number of daily tweets drops from 4 to 2.

The focus changes as well. During the academic year we really push our resources and workshops, so many of our blog posts highlight recently acquired databases or research strategies—in a fun way, of course. In the summer, the game is different. Very few of our patrons are actively researching—in fact, many aren’t even in Baltimore. So we switch to a more conversational tone, recommending summer reads, spilling library “secrets” and promoting our DVD collection. We don’t talk about Really Important Things, because it’s not appropriate timing for our audience.

On Facebook, summer is a good time to play the nostalgia angle. Believe it or not, students actually like the library and miss us when they’re gone. In order to keep them engaged, we take a postcard style approach—posting lots of photographs with “wish you were here” type messages. We also suspend giveaways and events in the summer months, since we want to get the most bang for our buck.

If you’ve been thinking about tweaking your outreach strategy, summer is a good time to experiment. Our librarians specialize in one platform, either the blog or Twitter, but we encourage them to switch for a few months to practice on the other platform while the pressure is low. Another change we’re anticipating is shared blogging responsibilities. We’ve spent the last two weeks recruiting contributors from across all departments to more broadly represent the library. We’ll run training this summer and kick things off this fall. But enough shop talk for now…time to hit The Beach!

Jump Starting Your Library’s Social Media Presence

For the last six weeks, our library has been hosting a very sweet woman from the University of Pretoria as part of the Carnegie Library Leadership Academy for South African librarians. We were interested to learn from her that social media is just starting to gain widespread traction in that part of the world. And while, they have established a Facebook page and a YouTube channel, they’re still trying to figure out how it fits into the bigger picture.

We’ve already outlined why we do what we do, but we know from personal experience that the hardest part is always getting started. Even for those who have taken the plunge and set up pages, it can still feel like you’re floundering. For this very reason, we devised a roadmap to success, no matter what stage your organization is at. But for this post, let’s start at the very beginning.

  • Start small. It’s tempting to want to take on every social media outlet, but don’t be an Atlas, stuck with the weight of the world on your shoulders. Focus on doing one thing, and do it really well. We started with our library blog in 2007, and that was our only outreach method for a full year. It wasn’t until after we had got our bearings and found our voice, we folded in Twitter and Facebook. I’ll admit we flew under the radar with those for a solid year as well before beginning to advertise our presence.
  • Recruit help. Very few libraries are lucky enough to have a dedicated marketing or outreach person, so librarians must often fill that role. While many hands make light the load, we also just like having the opportunity to show off the personalities and expertise of a wide range of library staff.  Having a dozen contributors is one of our greatest strengths!
  • Read up. Social media sites are changing all the time, and often the platforms are the last ones to notify you (Goodbye CoTweet, hello Timeline!). We regularly read tech blog Mashable to keep apprised of any developments and gain insight on how other organizations are using social media. For Facebook specific changes, we also pop in on AllFacebook from time to time. Of course, our rad fellow librarian bloggers have some of the best ideas. But no surprises there!

Seasoned social media’ers—am I missing any biggies? What advice would you give to a library new to the scene?

Close the Books: Stressbusters for Library Nerds

Librarians encouraging students to stop studying? You heard right. Several times a year, the Research Services Department hosts events like candy giveaways or craft projects hoping to lure them away from their textbooks, even if only for a minute. We’re a notoriously high-stress environment, and during midterms or finals our students practically live at the library. We try to give them a much-needed opportunity to sit down, relax, get to know librarians and walk away with something. Here are some low-cost ideas with high-impact returns to try at your own branches. After all, public libraries shouldn’t get to have all the fun!

Valentine’s Day

We already devoted a recent post to our Dirty Books event where every Valentine’s Day we present an array of loved-themed tomes from Special Collections. We also recommend the “Kiss & Tell: Why I Love my Library” campaign devised by Citizens for Maryland Libraries. A testimonial in return for a Hershey’s Kiss…win win!


Every spring our George Peabody Library branch opens to the public in conjunction with Baltimore’s Flower Mart festival. Last spring Heidi Herr, our very innovative Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections, created the most wonderful coloring books for the occasion featuring spring-themed illustrations like flowers and bugs from our own rare books collection. Throw down some crayons, and turn them loose! (I promise you, this activity is just as entertaining for college students as it is for toddlers.)


All Hallow’s Eve falls right in the middle of the fall semester, providing a good break from midterms. We had avoided making bookmarks because it seems so cliché, but how could you possibly resist these guys? So easy to make, and they’re literally hungry for knowledge. (Heavy usage of puns is always encouraged.) Inspiration for Making Monsters Monday comes from this creative blogger.

Winter Holiday

Finals can be particularly brutal for our students, so we host something silly every year. This December, we made Candy Cane Critters of the mouse and reindeer variety. If you don’t remember the pattern from your childhood, the Internet will happily remind you. You’ll need some kind of strong adhesive, and to minimize lawsuits, I’d recommend double-sided tape over hot glue.


You can never go wrong with candy, and we give it away at any excuse. We’ll just set out a table and some cookies and wait for the hoards to arrive (we do store-bought so there’s less risk of food contamination or allergy issues). People always want to know why (there’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all), so be prepared with a canned response. Sometimes we’ll explain it’s just a fun stress-busting event, but other times we’ll say that it’s “sponsored” by this or that service—like when we rolled out our new Text-a-Librarian program. Other times we just print out labels with our Facebook or Twitter URLs on them to stick to mini candy bars. People can grab as many as they want to give away to friends, because the advertising is baked in.


At the beginning of every semester, we stock up on gift cards for our library’s beloved Café Q, and we give them away all year long. One of the easiest ways to do this is hold a 24 hour poll on any of your social media websites. We pick a winner at random from among the comments. These things go viral, so we usually end up with a number of additional followers and lots of goodwill.


An event we’ve sadly never done but is too cool not to mention is hosting a s’mores night outside the library. And please, when you plan it, be sure to invite me!

Kermit Knows Best

Show of hands: who belongs to the old building club? Our library, which opened in 1964, is much beloved by students, so much so they even hold their senior party here. But we all know there’s room for improvement, and the most requested upgrades are sustainability-related retrofits. As Kermit the Frog once lamented, “it’s not that easy being green,” but our challenge is different than you might expect. We’ve actually got a number of programs aimed at reducing water, paper and energy usage–our biggest problem has been publicity.

When I started working at the library (two years ago tomorrow!!) Ellen recommended that I join the Green Campus Reps, an organization of “JHU staff members dedicated to advocating for and implementing strategies to improve the sustainability of their offices and the university at large.” In preparation for my first committee meeting, I did some poking around to see what sustainable practices the library already had in place. Over a series of conversations with several staff members across various departments, I discovered that we were actually doing a lot but that no single person knew the whole story. Most appallingly, many didn’t know we were doing anything at all. From the questions we received regarding our services, it was evident that patrons were also in the dark about our green initiatives. What a shame!

To overcome our publicity problem, I built two guides with overlapping information regarding our ongoing commitment to the environment. The first was hosted in our private library Wiki. In addition to being educational, we also hoped to solicit staff input. As intended, we immediately received good, thoughtful comments, which drove the focus of our work over the following months. In response, we added composting to the staff lounge and our library’s café area as well as at our library-wide events. We’ve also switched from the traditional bottled water dispenser in the staff lounge to a filtered tap alternative. Most exciting, our new Learning Commons slated to open this summer will be certified at a minimum of LEED Silver.

Educating staff was only half the battle though. Since our campus doesn’t have a formal student center, the library is the heart of the university. We receive emails from students asking whether we use recycled paper or if staff can turn off lights when not in use, etc. With the Sustainability LibGuide I created, we now have a ready resource to point them to in response. In addition to the information contained in the Wiki, it also includes a tab for educational resources such as programs of study, contact info for the subject librarian and links to related LibGuides.

But this ain’t no Field of Dreams. In my capacity as Communications Coordinator, I’m always looking for outreach opportunities. As such I was honored to be included in Ignite@JHU last week. Not only did I get to share our green message with our target audience, I also made a lot of great connections, including an enthusiastic grad student who wants to host an Earth Week event right in our library! Twenty slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds flies by quick, though. In order to extend the life of our presentation, we’ll distribute the live recording through our Facebook and Twitter accounts. I’ll also make a screencast of the slideshow for our YouTube channel. Now if only I could get Kermit to do the voiceover…

Successful Event Planning (Now with More Smut)

It’s not often that you can get away with smut in the library, albeit of the 18th century variety. But once a year, we delight in putting our most provocative classical works on display for our annual Valentine’s Day celebration, Dirty Books & Longing Looks! Brainchild of  Heidi Herr, Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections and Archives, the event showcases love-themed tomes, from sweet or naughty to the …unconventional. We attract the attention of all sorts who wouldn’t ever think to incorporate rare books into their research—even a couple gentlemen who had (wince) never even been in the library. Not only is it a great opportunity for outreach and engagement, we also strive to demonstrate that rare books aren’t all stuffy and elitist. People are amazed that they can actually touch a book that is older than our country!

While this event is super fun even for us planners, as you can imagine it’s also incredibly time consuming. So how do you make the most of it? And how do you measure success?

As for the former, the first goal is to get as many people as possible to show up the day of the event. For that, we turn to social media. We promote the hell out of it on the blog, Facebook, Twitter and our institution’s “Today’s Announcements.” Sure we put up a few flyers, but we primarily rely on viral marketing.

Even with the best marketing campaign, you have to consider other factors that will help boost attendance. Be strategic about timing and location. Last year we held the event in a library annex across the quad from our main building. We got a great turnout but realized that those who were connected to us through social media probably already knew a lot about our resources. To reach a broader audience, this year we set up shop right by our library’s entrance. As for timing, we tried to hit the busiest hours, 11-2 and 5-8. Spreading it out over two chunks helped ensure that we hit two different sets of library users. We also promoted the possibility of FREE CANDY. We never said we were above bribery.

Flickr gives these types of events immortal life. We post a selection of images in the weeks prior to whet people’s appetites. These are great to include in all of our promotional messages so people get excited about the materials before even interacting with them. We also take photos to document the event and post a separate album the next day.

Once the event has concluded, set aside time to gauge success. We estimate between 250 and 300 people actually attended our event this year. Thanks to social media, we were able to extend our reach even further. Here is a sampling of metrics generated by Flickr.

  • Feb. 13 – 1,721 page views, around 1,400 of which were generated by social media. By means of comparison, we typically receive 350 page views a day.
  • Feb. 14 – 814 page views, 600 relating to the Valentine’s set
  • Feb. 16 – 2,546 page views, with an estimate of 2,200 relating to the event set.

What do these numbers mean? Let’s first clarify that it doesn’t indicate thousands of people were looking at our Flickr sets. Rather, page views show that people who visited our albums spent time browsing all of the photos within. So while the actual number of unique online visitors was probably closer to 400, they were a highly engaged audience.

We’re also all about the qualitative metrics. This year we invited our new User Experience Director to join in on the fun. He created a Kiss & Tell station where people could fill out a pink paper heart telling us what they loved about the library or what we could improve to make them love us even more. We had 107 people pour their heart out in exchange for that “free” bag of candy. We left our love notes posted for the duration of the day, sifted through them for relevant feedback, and then distributed them to the appropriate recipients. For example, I was given one that said “Lav Notes!!!” because I create a newsletter by the same name for our bathroom stalls. Ellen, who trains and supervises the grad students that staff our info desk, received one saying they really “knew their stuff.”

So there you have it: our secrets for hosting a successful event. Now go forth and plan. You don’t even need smut. But it helps.

Why We Do What We Do

We tend to take it for granted that everyone else is as comfortable with the idea of social media as we are. I mean, this ain’t exactly new anymore, amiright? And while a lot of libraries are using some form of social media, it’s definitely not all and often it seems they’re staffed by a rogue group of one or two motivated employees. Certainly there’s no harm in starting that way–easing your way into the platform, learning the back end, finding your voice. That’s what we did for our first couple years! At some point though, you need to be out and proud with your presence, after all, your goal is to attract an audience.

If you’re preparing to launch a social media program or take your existing one to the next level, you’ll first need to discuss your reasoning with your colleagues and supervisor. After all, it does take time to craft a message, respond to questions and maintain appearances. And time is money. Good news, we’ve got your back. Here are just a few talking points about why it is vital for libraries to take social media seriously.

  • It’s your job. Talking to people—over the internet or otherwise— comprises a significant portion of the librarian’s day, making these platforms a natural extension of reference consultation.
  • Promote services. Flyers just don’t cut it anymore. So much work goes into workshop preparation, make sure you’re attracting the kind of audience to make it worthwhile.
  • Provide timely updates. This came in especially handy for us during the infamous Snowmageddon of 2010. Although our physical space was shut down for a whole week, virtual services were uninterrupted.
  • Foster community engagement. Your ears should be burning, because people are constantly talking about you—good, bad and UGLY. When you establish an online presence, you can be part of the conversation.
  • Professional development. Master social media, and you will become an indispensible asset to any organization. Your other work shouldn’t ever fall by the wayside, but it is possible to incorporate social media into your daily routine. Cite Google’s 80/20 innovation model to win over your supervisor.

We could go on (and on and on). But we’ll give you a turn for a change. Rate your library’s social media presence. Is it time you took the reins?