Telling your library's story requires more than just statistics. Those are but the end result of a meaningful relationship between you and the people you serve. Whether you call them patrons, customers, residents, taxpers or library users, the reality is that the library touches each of them in unique and personal ways.
Statistics you collect about circulation, library visits, program attendance, or computer use are important to help put into the context some of the ways your library responds to the demands placed upon it, but these numbers don't convey the myriad ways in which the library positively impacts people's lives.
What is your library's response to a negative comment, or a criticism about a service or program? Do you review the situation and try to do a better job where warranted? How often do you follow up with the complainant in an effort to address the concern or resolve the situation?
Now, think of how you might respond when someone tells you how much they love the library, or how important a service or program is in their life. Do you say thank you and then move to the next customer, or do you take a moment to learn more about this positive experience? Do you encourage them to write down their comment, and do you ask them for permission to use that story in a newsletter, on your website, or in an annual report?
We often spend more administrative time responding to negative comments or criticisms, and fail to take full advantage of the positive comments. How you respond to the negative comments or complaints says a great deal about the kind of organization you are. But how well you capitalize on the positive comments and good will that already exists in your community may well determine your future.
Personal stories have the capabity to grab and hold our attention, and the emotional connection they can create beween us and the story teller is often magical. Statistics help us understand, but the stories make library service real and meaningful. That is why every library should make a conscious effort to collect the positive stories.
There are any number of ways to go about collecting positive library stories from your customers, but before any of them will work you must first help every library employee or volunteer understand why it's important to collect the stories. The positive comment made in passing to a librarian or volunteer may be be only the "tip of the iceberg." If people aren't tuned in to the importance of collecting personal stories, positive comments may not even register.
There is tremendous good will toward libraries in most communities, but that alone is not enough to ensure your continued success. Library staff members must take the offensive and understand that if they don't promote the library and all the good it does, not one else will. Everyone involved with the operation of the library -- staff members, volunteers, board members, and Friends -- must take the initiative and encourage customers to tell their stories.
That means libraries must have a system in place to record these stories, such as online forms, paper forms, and a process for conducting personal interviews to record audio and video comments. You should also have a digital camera or cell phone to take a photo of the individual in the library, or possibly a video camera. These should be considered basic tools that will allow you to effectively tell your library's story in compelling ways.
To ensure that you can maximize the use of these personal stories, your library should craft a brief explanation of why the stories are needed. When people understand the need, they are more likely to share their stories. You also should have a permission form that when signed gives you the right to use stories in printed materials like newsletters, brochures and annual reports, as well as on the web and in audio and video productions. We have some samples to get you started, but you should get final language approved by your City, Village, Town or County Attorney.
The ways in which you use people's personal stories are as varied as the stories themselves. You should have at your disposal multiple options for collecting and recording stories, and remember that more is always better. You can always edit comments down, but you can't make up information.
How you use the stories is as important as gathering them, so you should develop a plan that ensures you "cover all the bases." You don't want to just use the stories in your newsletter. Some may be appropriate there, while others may be perfect for public service announcements (PSAs) on the local cable access channel. You may collect some stories that will be particularly useful for soliciting donations, while some stories may be most effective at persuading elected officials to support the library through the annual budget process.
Spend some time identifying the arguments or opposition your library faces, then find stories that address those specific issues.
You should plan on using these stories in every form of communication you have -- newspaper articles and columns, brochures, program announcements, annual reports, fundraising letters, presentations, etc.