I wish I could sit and read all day, but I have a column to write

graphic of newspaper girl

Public library directors in Idaho are known for their resourcefulness. One of the tools they often make use of is the local or area newspaper. Writing a weekly or monthly newspaper column is an effective — and cost-effective — way of reaching your community and shaping its view of the public library. Reaching out to the community on a regular basis is important for several reasons. This means of communication can advertise library programs, announce new library hours, and introduce new staff, of course. In addition, it offers the added bonus of reaching those who do not frequent libraries. These people are taxpayers, too, and they need to know that the library’s staff does many things which do not involve sitting at the desk.

 As anyone who has done the job can attest, the library director’s duties are multifaceted. One of the many responsibilities of this position is to publicize and interpret the library to the community. Many issues come to the attention of the director, and by extension to the attention of the staff and trustees. Staff and trustees learn about the library over time, and many of the myths and misinformation about libraries are dispelled for them.

But what about the public? Do they really know what goes on behind the scenes at the library? Probably not. They may think, as many people seem to, that the state operates and funds public libraries, or that publishers automatically send one copy of each book to public libraries, or that libraries operate strictly with donated materials and volunteer labor, or even that elves come in at night to do what little work needs to be done, because after all, it’s just a library. The director probably just sits and reads all day, anyway. The truth is that most people do not really give much thought to how a library operates. They just know that they want the latest Grisham or Steele or Karon, and that the library always comes through.

The newspaper column is the director’s way of telling the community, all of the community, more about the library. And there is a lot going on at the library. While it is tempting to use the column to review books, it is much more important to use this forum to explain the library’s role in the community and to raise awareness of issues facing the library. Do you have a local history or genealogy collection? Do you have new computers? Is it time to publicize Summer Reading? Is there a new book discussion group that your public might like to know about? There may be potential library users out there who would like to know. Are you facing budget cuts? Is there a censorship issue that needs to be discussed? The newspaper column is the place to discuss these issues. If the library wants community support, the community needs to be informed. And, they need to hear the correct facts, from the library director, not just the version that is going around town.

Other topics worth writing about include:

  1. Services offered by the library, such as interlibrary loans and homework help. What are they? How do they work? Each of these is worthy of coverage in the newspaper, written in a way that someone who does not use the library can understand.

  2. How can a child get his or her very first library card? This is the director’s opportunity to explain the lifelong benefits of introducing a child to the library and to reading at an early age. This column can even include a story about an excited child bringing books up to the desk or how a youngster told staff about a favorite bedtime story that mom or dad reads aloud. You can change the names to protect the innocent.

  3. A director who is lucky enough to have a friends group to help out can write a big “thank you” for a special project or gift purchase for the library. This is a chance to name names and be as generous with the friends group as they have been with the library. It’s also a perfect way to tell how others can join the friends group. Nothing appeals like a success story.

  4. Many library users do not know anything about the library’s history. Here is a perfect place to recount who donated the land for the town’s first library, who funded it, who staffed it. It’s also an opportunity to compare and contrast how the library is funded and staffed now and how many services have been added over time. Don’t forget historical statistics if you have them.

  5. Publicizing an upcoming library event is definitely an appropriate topic for the column. In addition to the usual who, what, when, and where, this is a good place for details of how the program was planned and whether or not it is part of a series. If there is enough space, it is a good idea to add what additional programs the library would like to offer and even to make an appeal for volunteers to make these programs work.

  6. When writing about volunteer opportunities at the library, it is important to list what skills are needed, how they could benefit the library, and the name and contact number of the staff member who coordinates volunteers. It is also a good idea to highlight how much money the library is saving by utilizing volunteers when possible.

  7. Fines and fees can create bad feelings toward the library and drive library users away. The library director could explain about how it hurts the library — and, by extension, the community — when materials do not come back to the library. Not only are these materials unavailable to others who might want them, but also the replacement cost may not be in the library’s budget. This would be a good time to explain ways of working off fines, paying the library in installments, or maybe talking about the upcoming amnesty day that the library will be holding soon. This would be a great time to announce the library’s Food for Fines program, if there is one in the works.

  8. Another way of using the column is to write about something that may cause an emotional response in the community. For instance, the library has managed to secure a larger building and plans on moving into the new space as soon as renovations are completed. The library has been in the old building for as long as most people can remember, and there is going to be a public outcry over the move. The column is one way the director can explain the reasons for the move (unstable roof, ancient furnace, no parking, for example) and the many benefits of the new space. This is a chance to thank those who made the new building possible and to say farewell to the old familiar building that the community will now mourn.  And it will help the staff have the words to respond to the public displeasure with the move.

  9. Donors need to be thanked. A newspaper column is a fine place for publishing thank yous, even anonymous ones. The thank you may include how the item will be used and what segment(s) of the library’s users will benefit from the gift. If no gifts are forthcoming, the column could even be a place to publicize a donation to a neighboring community, which might trigger some local generosity. Thanking a deceased patron and his or her family for a bequest to the library is a subtle but appropriate way of letting the community know that this is an option to consider as well.

  10. The library is a great deal. For a small amount of money paid in taxes or guest card fees, library patrons can check out thousands of dollars worth of materials. This is one of the last real bargains. The director should consider publishing some numbers to help the reader understand how much money a typical user or family could save by using the public library instead of buying books and movies.

The important thing is to vary the topic each week or month, so that there is always something for the reader to look forward to. Although it is tempting to publish book reviews each time a column is due, the wise director will resist the temptation to waste this type of opportunity.

A little careful planning can help the director to decide what topics to emphasize or announce in the next issue. Checking facts for accuracy, using statistics when necessary, and keeping the tone upbeat and never personal will allow the director to explain the library and its programs to the public, reach the non-library user, build public support for the library, and provide the trustees with talking points when they are doing their bit as library advocates — and at no cost to the library.