Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Seven Rules of Avoiding Poutreach, by John Pappas

The author.

Poutreach: (n.) Where librarians grudgingly go out in public to sit behind a booth avoiding eye-contact with strangers.

I have come to the conclusion that most librarians undervalue outreach. Could be they are intimidated by professionally walking outside the library; frightened of opening themselves to the whole of the public, or are too busy. To the outreach librarian the job is defined by relationships - not by number of contacts, questions or size of our catalog. Relationships with civic organizations, chambers of commerce, governance, teachers, parents, businesses, higher education, professors, the homeless, students and the public at large. If it has a face, we want to listen to it. It is our bread and butter.

In my job, there is a certain amount of the unknown that goes into attending events. Farmer’s markets are loud and dirty. Job fairs are busy and stressful. University campuses can be rowdy and uncontrolled. Sometimes there are pirates or zombies. Librarians feel out of their element and with good reason.

When uncomfortable most people cocoon, but cocoons do not work at an outreach event. If there ever was a time for your forced extrovert to shine, it is then. I have seven rules to help make it easier. They are easy, practical, and you probably already know most of them.

1) Garner your goals: Research the crowd. Who is attending? How many? What are their expectations? Will people browse from booth to booth? Answering these questions help you set goals and expectations. For example: At a college event I was told to expect 800 attendees. The event was not mandatory so I figured half - 400. Even on my best day, 400 people in 5 hours is 80 people/hour which is more than one person per minute. The best I could do solo is 150-250. So that was my goal, really more of a floating target.

2) Modify your message: Do you focus on awareness of library services, library use/sign-up or public exposure for the library? All three are valid. All three are important. All three can include a toilet paper roll craft. Back to my example from number 1: These students are the proud recipients of a brand new joint library. They already have guaranteed access, so cards are out. This event was purely about awareness. Since it was a registration event, I assumed most students would want to be in and out without too much hassle. No time for conversation, Dr. Jones. I need a pitch. No wait....!

3) Practice your pitch: A pitch is hard. This is the part where I lose most librarians (I lose almost all of the rest at rule #5). Arrive early. Do not bring a book. Do not open your laptop. Look for early attendees, event-organizers, lost people. Whoever is there is there for you to practice. Eventually a person will find my booth and say those dreaded words...

“Oooo! So what is new at the library? Har. Har.”

I have found my first victim. I am going to talk your ears off and see what sticks, what falls away and what makes you respond. This is an art. Try it. Your pitch with refine itself over use. Make it simple. Make it memorable and make it quick. You don’t want people walking away with a "1000 points of light." You want them walking away with one message that blows them away that they will share with others. So your pitch should be three lines about 5-7 words each. No more and less would probably be better.   Your pitch is an idea, not a script. Modify as needed. My basic pitch for the college event - Your student ID is your public library card. Since most were heading to get their student ID card and had to wait in line, it was the perfect seed to plant with the material I had.

4) Remember your results: I tend to count the material I hand out to people. So I knew I had 150 small ebook business cards I would hand out with my pitch. Some people use a hand counter and others just wing it. Either way, you have a floating goal. Try to realize it but don’t be disappointed if you don’t. I assign myself a quota but quality of contact is just as important as quantity. SUCCESSFUL OUTREACH IS NOT MEASURED BY THE NUMBER OF CARDS SIGNED UP. Sorry about the all-caps, it won’t happen again.

5) Be proactive: For the love of all that is holy DO NOT JUST STAND BEHIND YOUR BOOTH! (I lied!) Talk to people. Make the first contact and most will stop to talk. I credit this to my dashing good looks, but it might be the swag[ger] I usually bring. Really, it is due to the social capital inherent in the library. People trust, like, and are willing to listen to librarians.

6) Be ready for anything: It is Thunderdome out there. Memorize your funding and be able to explain it quickly and know your selection policy. Be prepared for technophobes and techno-freaks of every variety. A few of my more interesting experiences:

  • ·   Gang of irate homeschooling moms at a street fair.
  • ·   Drunken business men at a Chamber of Commerce meeting.
  • ·   I’ve been converted, de-converted, re-converted and even once, perhaps, the victim of a drive-by baptism.
  • ·   A delightful Greek family once offered to take me in like an orphan.
  • ·   Harassed by drunken pirates!
  • ·   Chased zombies!
  • ·   Seated between the student LGBTQ student group and a Mormon group (The great mediator!).
  • ·   Asked to leave because the crowd around us was too loud (I appreciate the irony).
  • ·   Got to ride a police Segue with a semi-automatic rifle.
  • ·   Had my aura read?Spoke to a demon. (Allegedly a demon, as I couldn’t actually see it but it did find me hilarious). Can I get a library card with my married name?” Of course. “Good, because I changed my name and had $350 worth of fines on my old one.” You do realize that I work at the library, yes?

7) Try anything once: The event itself is an adventure. It is like a first date. Expect a handshake and maybe a peck on the cheek at the end. You may not get a second. You may get lucky but outreach relationships do run their course. Sometimes it is time to stop attending if one grows away from the other. Your time is still important.

8) Bring Duct-tape: No more explanation is needed. Always bring duct-tape.

9) Have something for everyone: Have a pitch for patrons, soon-to-be-patrons and those that are out of district. Always have something prepared for those that are not eligible for a card. It could be a web resource that you developed or public programming or an author event coming up. It includes people and those people talk. Who do they talk about? You.

10) Have fun: Be approachable. Smile. Laugh at jokes and make a few. Many groups are uncomfortable about library services. Some may not trust a government organization. Some are intimidated by the structure. You are an ambassador to those groups. Make it count.

John Pappas is the Outreach Services Coordinator at the Rapid City Public Library. He likes mammalian paleontology, Zen Buddhism, Norwegian Death Folk Fusion Metal and Power Yoga. Say hi on twitter @zendustzendirt or on Google +.


  1. I love this. Maybe it's because I'm an extrovert. But yes, we need to get out there and talk to the people, even if they are pirates. And if we talk to them like pirates on the 19th, so much the better.

  2. Indeed! Talk Like a Pirate would be a fun way of engaging the community. I had a gaggle of pirates help promote my library both last weekend at a Rotary Club operated themed park called "Storybook Island." It was a blast...they never leave me alone.

    Part of my excitement in outreach for me is that it is the only way to get non-card-holders converted. Spending time in their environment is pivotal. We can't expect people to simply walk into the library and sign-up. We need to put a face to the organization and once we do we need to talk to people. So many new patrons would have just passed me by if I didn't initiated the conversation. 90% of the time they are appreciative and I end up with a new card-holder or at least building some awareness for a resource that meets their needs.

    In the end it is practically salesmanship.

    1. Having witnessed John during outreach events, I am always impressed at his ability to speak to everyone even if they glare at him. I am a extrovert/introvert (extroverted with friends, coworkers, but in large crowds I tend to retreat and feel awkward). I was a non-believer in the power of outreach before John's position was created but since seeing it done right, I get it now! Put on a smile, talk to people and refuse to be intimidated by strangers!

    2. Yay, Morgan is a convert! We refuse to be intimidated! You will love us...or else.