If you want to shake up your community’s perception of the public library, I strongly suggest you consider getting a giant dinosaur skeleton. An 18-foot Triceratops has worked out very well for us. You might consider a T-rex if you’ve got a tall enough ceiling. I’m not being completely serious of course, but I am being literal. Installing a life-size dinosaur skeleton in the middle of the library has done great things for the Waynesboro Public Library, increasing library usage, community awareness, and general awesomeness.
I was extremely fortunate to inherit this opportunity. I’d love to be able to claim all the credit for being the most innovative librarian around and forging a partnership between the city library and the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) all on my own. The reality is, however, that the partnership fell into my lap. When the museum decided to construct a satellite location in Waynesboro, before I even started working here, the museum director saw a great opportunity to partner with the best organization in town, the Waynesboro Public Library. Dr. Joe Keiper, the director of VMNH, deserves endless kudos for coming up with this program, but the library is certainly reaping the benefits.
Kevin Osborne, Director of Waynesboro Public Library
The Pandemic closed the library and slowed down the project for more than a year, but gave us a chance to reconfigure some space to make room for this massive lizard. Reopening has been gruelingly gradual and like most public libraries, our foot traffic has not returned to what it was pre-COVID. Well, it turns out that surreptitiously moving a massive dinosaur skeleton though your children’s section, across the circulation desk, and into the holds area will create a little buzz. There is nothing cooler than seeing a family in the library for the first time to check out a dinosaur and the kids positively beaming with excitement and disbelief. The news spread fast via word of mouth and we’ve seen a lot of new faces, leading to a big jump in foot traffic, new card sign-ups, and summer reading registration. I attribute all of those increases to the “Triceratops Effect.”
”Okay, so dinosaurs are awesome and everything but what does this have to do with public libraries?Customer
People used to say that same thing about story times, singalongs, movie nights, computer labs, and 3D printers. Library dinosaurs may not be the next makerspace, but that’s not the point. If you’re reading this blog post I probably don’t need to explain that the public library’s role in the community is constantly changing, developing, and evolving. We’re not just a building full of stuff to borrow. Libraries are a reflection of the community they serve and its needs for information, resources, and entertainment (and dare I say fun?). For Waynesboro that means that the library is constantly building ties to the city’s other unique organizations in an effort to give customers access to as much of what they want as possible. Partnerships allow us all to not only work together but bolster one another.
Library partnerships are nothing new, but they are typically predictable and, for lack of a better word “safe.” Schools, daycares, and maybe the Parks Department if they’re feeling wild. These are great partnerships you should strive to make, but I would encourage all libraries to explore more non-traditional partners and collaborative out-of-the box programming. Organizations outside of the “library-education complex,” will provide libraries significant access and reach that might otherwise be impossible. Look to small businesses, museums, community groups, homeless shelters, job training agencies. Any organization looking to improve people’s lives with information, services, or entertainment probably has a mission very similar to your library. They are already allies, now make them partners.
With local news coverage and word-of-mouth about our dinosaur the town is humming. I can’t even go to a Kiwanis meeting without a dozen people asking me about the skeleton. Capitalizing on this burst of popularity is imperative to the library because publicity is priceless (okay it has a price, a very high price. Have you seen how much advertising costs?). Aggressively promoting our brand as the “dinosaur library” has become a top priority.
Developing a “brand” is hugely difficult, but once established, staying “on-brand” simplifies everything. We’re fantastically lucky that our brand happened organically and that has made everything simpler. Cross-promotion is simple and effective. Programming can be easily themed to reinforce the “dino-library” brand while synergistically the skeleton’s popularity serves as built in marketing for those same programs. Jurassic Park movie marathons, guest lectures by a paleontologist from a local university, foam horns craft night, digging for fossils, the programming opportunities are endless and so are the chances to promote your partner’s offerings. Partnered organizations promoting each other pays dividends, and you should strive to promote one another as often as possible. In our case every single dinosaur themed program reinforces customer awareness of the new VMNH satellite location and its offerings.
If we’ve learned anything from Facebook it’s that engagement is paramount. If a dinosaur gets new people through the door you’re already winning, you’re engaging people who were non-users before they walked in the door. Why not maximize the impact? New faces in the building means it is the perfect time to grab their attention and pitch all the other great things you and your community partners offer.
If your team is primed to promote the library services you’ll see an uptick in event registrations, materials usage, and attendance across all your offerings. Every partner you make will benefit from every engagement you have with your customers, and if your partners are promoting the library with equal enthusiasm all parties will benefit.
Push this engagement out of the building and onto social media to drive even more attention to your partnerships. The museum and the library are both enjoying community attention with our “Name the Dinosaur” campaign. It’s a simple activity where anyone who signs up for summer reading is allowed to submit a suggested name for the Triceratops–sorry, Dino-McDinoFace is disqualified. When summer reading wraps up I’ll pick my favorites and post them to Facebook to get a community vote of what we’ll call the dinosaur moving forward. Leveraging people’s desire to engage with the naming process lets us drive people to summer reading registration boosting numbers significantly. These participants will continue to engage with the library online all summer to vote on their favorite names and see who won, learning about more library and museum offerings all the while.
So my advice to you is to get out of the building and into your community. Build connections with organizations just like you do with individual users. Embrace the unexpected and try something new, reach out to groups who have never had any relationship with the library, maybe they want one! Go where the people are and see what they’re responding to. If what they do stops people in their tracks and strikes them with glee and wonder, it’s probably a good idea to partner with them.
-Kevin Osborne, Director of Waynesboro Public Library