Public Libraries, Local Government, and Value

“Libraries exist as parts of larger systems. Public libraries are part of cities, towns, and counties… Almost no library stands alone. These larger host systems created the libraries, and they sustain them. Libraries rise and fall as their host systems rise and fall.”

-Eleanor Jo Rodger, “What’s A Library Worth?”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that libraries must go beyond talking about their stuff and counting their circulation.  In order to survive, libraries must communicate their value and measure their impact.  In order to thrive, libraries must align themselves with the goals of the community they serve and help realize those goals, hopes, and aspirations.

Lots of libraries are doing this for their communities.  As Eleanor Jo Rodger put it in her outstanding article on the subject, these libraries understand the host ecosystem they serve and are contributing to its survival and success.  But our external community is only one ecosystem we exist within.  Public libraries hold a great deal of value for the internal community we serve as well.

Whatever our governing structure – municipal, county, regional, quasi-governmental – public libraries are generally a part of local government.  Local government is an ecosystem-within-an-ecosystem with its own goals, hopes, and aspirations.  Whether we are tightly knit to that system (like a municipal library) or a little further removed (like a regional library system), we can do for these ecosystems what we do for our communities at large – communicate our value, align ourselves with them, and contribute to their goals and aspirations.

Here are a few practical ways public libraries might do so:

Training Initiatives – Is your city/county placing an emphasis on training and development? Are they looking for cost effective ways to provide more training? You might send information about the Library’s computer classes to employees – or host a special class just for them.  If you have resources like, you might send staff out to different departments to show supervisors and training coordinators how they can use it in their training programs.

Tech Initiatives – Is your city/county talking about revamping its website?  Maybe a device loan program for employees?  You might offer a staff member to serve on the web development team – or offer the library as a spot for usability testing before they launch.  You might offer the library as the perfect spot to manage a device loan program, as you already loan lots of other things.

Information Initiatives – Is your city/county looking to get the word out about a bond referendum?  Are they looking to recruit citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions?  You might let them know about a very busy spot in the community where hundreds of residents come every week for trusted information and civic engagement (sound familiar?) and offer that spot as a place for them to directly engage with the people they are trying to reach.

There is some investment here – proactive persistence might be required, staff might need to be redeployed, you might get told “no thanks” many times before you are told “yes please!”  But the pay off is worth it. Here’s why:

When it comes time to consider resource allocation at the city/county/regional level, the decision makers and stakeholders of your internal community of users will understand what you external community  understands – that your public library is a vital and valuable part of each ecosystem that can help it not just survive, but thrive.

Next time, I’ll share some of the ways we’ve been doing this at Chapel Hill Public Library.  I’d like to know if you’ve had success in this area.  Are you working with your local government to achieve a shared goal?  Have you had success in communicating your value to internal stakeholders?  Please share!


UX is Brand is UX is Brand is UX

We’ve been working with the fantabulous Aaron Schmidt for 9 months now – and we just birthed this baby.  This letter to our users represents a TON of thoughtful conversations, deliberation and iteration, and just plain hard work by our staff here at CHPL.  Couldn’t be prouder of what we are doing with and for the great community we serve.


Capture logo header

Dear Chapel Hill,

Every time you interact with us, the experience should be simple, satisfying, and delightful.  Lately, we’ve been making a lot of changes to help meet this goal – whether you walk through the door, visit us on the web, or call us on the phone.

As part of an ongoing user experience improvement project, we moved the magazines upstairs, shifted the holds shelves, interfiled paperbacks, redesigned telephone systems, and much, much more – all in the name of improving your library experience.

Behind the scenes

Not all of the changes have been visible.  Behind the scenes, we’ve been asking ourselves and our community big questions like What is our purpose?  What do we value most?  What promise do we make to our community? Those questions led to great conversations and to new foundational statements that guide all we do and convey the promise that we make to you:

Our Mission           

Sparking Curiosity. Inspiring Learning. Creating Connections.

Our Values

Opportunity, Hospitality, Stewardship.  

Our Service Pledge

You are our top priority.

Fulfilling the promise

So how do we fulfill that promise?  With our collections, services, programs, and spaces.  When you approach the desk or post to our Facebook page.  In our posters, library cards, signs, and more. To help us communicate that promise, we developed a new logo to reflect our new mission.

You’ll start to see the logo in all kinds of places – in the building, in emails like this, and on posters and stickers.  We aren’t throwing out all the old stuff, just phasing in the new look.  We used gift funds to pay for the logo design and we will use gift funds to purchase some giveaway items that feature it.

What’s next?

More improvements.  Later this month, based on what we’ve learned in the user experience improvement project, we will launch a new website and reconfigure some of our stacks and service points.

It might be a little noisy and confusing while we do these things but the end result will make your library experience more simple, satisfying, and delightful. We promise.

Susan Brown

P.S. Here’s a little more about our Mission, Values, and Service Pledge:


Six Partnerships for Public Libraries

Fred and Ginger. Batman and Robin. Starsky and Hutch. Your public library and ____________________ (insert community organization, local business, or local nonprofit here). Your library has the potential to join the list of great partnerships – all it takes is a little time, attention, and maybe a cup of coffee.

At every local, regional, and national conference I’ve attended in the past year or so, one of the frequent buzzwords has been partnerships. In an era of decreased budgets, over-stretched staff, and limited resources, partnerships make more sense than ever. Here are a half dozen partnerships that public libraries can readily develop – for programs, PR, and more.

If you’re wondering how to get starting developing these relationships, I suggest a cup of coffee. Contact the marketing officer or program director or even the agency head, and offer to buy them a cup of coffee.  Let them know that you’d like to partner more and be ready to brainstorm possibilities.  A good strategy is to start small – consider what the lowest-hanging fruit is and use that as a first effort. And don’t forget that partnerships are a two-way street: be prepared to discuss both what they can do for you and what value you can offer them in return.  Continue reading “Six Partnerships for Public Libraries”

On the Subject of Subject Lines

I spend an hour or two every week crafting our weekly e-newsletter – editing content, uploading a few images, and creating links to drive traffic to our website.  I tend to obsess over this piece, endlessly proofreading for errors and triple-checking links.  Until recently, however, I had not paid nearly enough attention to one of the most important parts of this or any e-newsletter – the subject line.  Continue reading “On the Subject of Subject Lines”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Marketing

For more than a decade now, the library community has talked about the importance of marketing, yet librarians often seem to have trouble articulating just what marketing is, what it means for them, and how to go about doing it.  Some librarians “get it,” and many more struggle to do so.

What’s the barrier to “getting it”?  There are many, but a major one is the mixed message we often receive from marketing experts.  It’s a paradox – they tell us to keep our message simple, yet their own message to us is complex.  Too often, we are told that to really market effectively, we must have a firm grasp on market segmentation and pantone color palettes and brand loyalty and ROI and CPM and USP, oh my!  Sometimes, we’re told that we should all be doing it, yet at the same time we’re told that it is best left to the professional marketers.  Continue reading “What I Talk About When I Talk About Marketing”