If at first…

Having had a few weeks to reflect on the things I learned at ALA, I’ve come to see that many sessions I attended focused on initiatives that, at first, seemed unsuccessful or didn’t get the reception that was hoped for.  Yet many of these seemingly underwhelming initiatives grew into successful programs due to the persistence of the librarians and staff involved.  This dynamic has made me think about how to judge potential programs and assess the likelihood that they will succeed.  Given scarce resources (staff time and energy, money, patron time and energy), we can’t do it all.  And obviously we can’t peer into a crystal ball and know for a fact what will work.  So how can we identify what projects are worth putting energy into, and which to set aside?    

One great example of a program that wasn’t a huge success at first, but has grown into a valued program was presented by Scott Vine from Franklin and Marshall College at the ACRL College Libraries Section session Reference Resurrected: Models for College Libraries in the 21st Century.  Scott discussed how reference work and outreach are inextricable in the 21st century library. To that end, he described a marketing program called Library House Calls. Launched at F&M a few years ago, House Calls involve sending a pair of librarians to every building on campus. They chat with faculty, students, staff, and visitors about the library’s services as well as answering specific questions on the spot. The first attempt didn’t generate the kind of interest the librarians were hoping for.  Scott said that college community members were a bit surprised to see the librarians outside of the library. (“They let you out?”)

Yet over time, the program has become familiar and far more successful than the initial reception suggested it would be.  Email announcements go out in advance with the locations and schedules.  College community members even make appointments with the House Call librarians.  And perhaps most importantly, librarians have found that faculty members are more willing to ask questions in their offices than in the relatively public space of the library.  The Library House Calls program offers a great example of the benefit of persisting with a new idea even when the initial response is underwhelming. (Incidentally, the House Calls Program also shows a case of an embedded librarianship technique in action.)

So why did this program succeed?  For one, I think this program was developed around the characteristics of the specific community it was launched in.  Franklin & Marshall is a small, residential liberal arts college with 2300 students.  And at its core, the House Calls program relies on a core element of a small liberal arts college education: interpersonal interaction, especially through face-to-face conversations.  Exciting as online education initiatives are, extensive in-person interaction among students, faculty, and staff is both a hallmark and strength of a small college.  The House Calls program builds on this strength by providing opportunities for librarians to meet college community members in the places where they’re already comfortable, whether their offices or the student center.

I think the program has also been successful because of this comfort factor.  Rather than requiring potential patrons to go out of their way to encounter the library, the F&M librarians are meeting community members halfway.  In the case of the House Calls program, librarians aren’t just getting into the workflow of users.  They’re meeting college community members wherever they choose to spend their time, whether it’s research-focused or not.

This is a wide-ranging topic with a lot of different angles.  I’ve found it helpful to learn more about how people sort through different options and make choices.  Despite his recent “self-plagarism” controversy, I still think Jonah Leher’s How We Decide offers an interesting introduction to the research on decision-making.  And a lot of other library bloggers have looked at decision-making in terms of library initiatives.  Andy Burkhardt encourages librarians to take risks and try new programs despite uncertainty.  Meredith Farkas wrote a great two-part series earlier this year about “Classic Blunders” librarians make.  The first post looks at the “Let’s just try it and see what happens!” approach.  It’s a great read, and I’m inclined to agree with Farkas’ conclusion, “I believe strongly that “try it and see what happens” is a great idea after you visualize potential outcomes and realize that none of them will be truly damaging.”

Ultimately, this is an ongoing issue that I’d love to discuss more with our readers.  Let’s talk about decisions you’ve made in your library career (or elsewhere).  Have you been involved in initiatives that at first seemed unsuccessful, but have grown over time?  How did you decide to persist with the program despite the initially disappointing response?

(Want to learn more about Library House Calls? Look at this presentation.)


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