A couple of weeks ago I attended the Manchester NLPN Spring event. The theme of the day was Advocacy and Outreach and the lineup of speakers was very varied: Stewart Parsons from Get It Loud in Libraries; four librarians from the Manchester School Librarians Association; Emily Hopkins from the NHS and Alison Sharman from the University of Huddersfield. Each of them was there to give an overview of the advocacy or outreach (or both) that is part of their work as a librarian.
At the start of the event, I was most excited about hearing from Stewart Parsons, as I knew a little bit about what he does, and was interested to learn more about it. During his talk he explained to us how he had developed the Loud in Libraries scheme and what his plans were for the future.
Stewart was working at a music library when he first had the idea for Loud in Libraries. He realised that the resources that the library stocked weren’t very up-to-date and therefore weren’t attracting a very wide audience. In order to increase the membership of the library, Stewart first decided to restock the library with some newer music, but soon came up against a roadblock: to protect music sales, the BPI does not allow libraries to stock CDs until three months after release. Therefore, the library had no way to draw in young people, as they wouldn’t want to wait three months to hear the latest albums from their favourite artists. And so Loud in Libraries was born: a project where the library would put on gigs for up-and-coming artists, to promote the library’s services to a new audience.
Stewart made the point that as librarians, we should be at the forefront of culture, and the Loud in Libraries project has definitely helped with that. By getting in artists who weren’t (yet) well-known, Stewart could show that his library had its finger on the pulse. You may be surprised to hear it (I was) but in 2007 Adele played Lancaster Library for a fee of £75!
What has really worked for Loud in Libraries is the fact that it’s a youth-led project; Stewart enlisted young people from the local community and universities to help run every aspect of the scheme, from web design to front of house to merchandising. This made the project seem more appealing and more credible to the target audience, and also helped with getting the word out; peer-to-peer marketing among young people is a very powerful tool. The work that young people have done for the project has also supported their own academic success, providing material for photography or fashion portfolios, so it has had benefits for everyone involved.
Get It Loud in Libraries has had proven success; Stewart said that at each event, 60-80% of attendees have been new library users, which is an amazing statistic. The sustained success is down to a very clear vision – the project has to consistently produce high-quality events and keep innovating. In the near future the project will be rolled out across the North West, involving libraries in areas of low arts intake, and will be partnering with brands which have the resources and social conscience to help Stewart continue to exceed expectations. It’s a really inspiring project, and I expect to hear a lot more about it in the future.
I think what was really interesting for me about this talk was the whole notion of having to pull in an audience – my experience so far of academic libraries is that this isn’t really something that is given much thought, as we sort of have a captive audience. It was surprising (although maybe not that surprising) to find that not everyone at the music library was originally on board with the idea; I would have thought that any idea which gets more visitors to your library would be popular, but this is maybe a bit “out there” as far as ideas go!
I love the idea of getting involved with the local community in ways like this, as it is both advocating for libraries and reaching out to a potential new audience.
The next session was about advocacy and outreach in school libraries in Manchester. School librarianship is something I know next to nothing about, so this session was really enlightening on that front. School libraries turn out to be as varied as the people who run them, and this session was a great example of just how varied that can be.
The first speaker was a librarian at a boys’ grammar school, which is very well-ranked academically. She said that her students have a great work ethic, and that the library is very well-used as a study space, but that the challenge for her is getting classes to come and engage with the library. She said that for school librarians especially, “advocacy underpins everything we do”. The first thing to do to get the library taken seriously is to target staff; if they’re not on board, then you’re struggling. They either need to bring classes in to the library or give messages out about it. To get noticed and on board with staff you’ve got to invite yourself along to everything – all meetings, INSET days, literacy groups and so on – and get the library involved in all cross-curricular events, for example Shakespeare Day or Earth Day. Being seen to be involved is important, as is being seen behaving professionally and positively. Getting to know new staff early on can often be the key to getting new projects and collaborations off the ground – and it can show other staff what the library can do for them.
After targetting staff, you need to target students. Your library needs to be a welcoming environment, whatever that means for your particular library. For this library it means regular music performances at lunchtimes, which gets those students involved who wouldn’t normally come into the library, and competitions themed around events, such as the Olympics (or Sports Day). All this adds up to a library service that’s involved in all aspects of the students’ school lives, so they can’t escape! Muah ha ha ha… No, but seriously, by seeing the library involved in various events and involving them in activities, the students (and staff) will appreciate it more, and hopefully utilise its services more.
The next librarian to speak was based at a coeducational compehensive school, which has recently had a new library built. The librarian has only been working there for a short time, but he has had the chance to set up and run the library exactly how he wants it. This, I think, would be one of the best parts of being a school librarian – although as the quote goes, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and I think it’s a challenge to sort out stuff you’d like to do from stuff that would be best for your library. This librarian certainly had some interesting ideas – a shoeless “learning lounge” with lots of soft seating and not much shelving. This is to encourage students to come in and use the space as a study or reading space, which is something that needs to be worked on here much more than in the previous school. I’m not convinced on the shoeless front myself, but whatever works, right?
The main point of this librarian’s talk was that he uses data an awful lot. He’s collected information about his students, such as how many Gifted and Talented or ESL kids there are, and used it to tailor activities and projects towards these sets of students. This has helped him advocate for the library service as he’s got data and statistics he can use to present for OFSTED inspections and other reports, to justify his budget and show how the library is addressing the school’s priorities.
The next school librarian’s talk focussed on her outreach projects. She is based at a large high school and is one of two professional librarians, which means she has more time to work on projects which take her away from the library, unlike some of the other school librarians. As her high school is near several others, the school needs to sells itself well to local primary schools in order to maintain its large intake numbers. This librarian helps with that by going into primary schools to run peer education programmes, which helps the younger students become familiar with the staff and students before they move into the larger school. One project involves gifted and talented students training up Year 6 children to be reading buddies for younger pupils, while another gives students the chance to share books they loved at age 10 with current Year 5 pupils (it sounded a bit like speed dating for books). There’s also a shared reading initiative, where pupils at primary schools read books in class and then go to the high school for a big session at the end of the book, to meet the author and get their books signed. These initiatives have been successful because the senior management at the high school were supportive and provided a budget to pay for books for the primary schools and for author visits, and they have benefited the school enormously as it is held in higher regard in the area.
The final school librarian’s talk was very short as it was almost lunchtime, but her main point was that self-advocacy is very important, and that you have to help yourself as much as possible. Being a solo librarian can be very insular, so CPD activities that get you involved with other librarians and organisations are a great idea. She also said that innovation is the key to success in school libraries – if you want to show how great the library is, you have to keep coming up with new ways of doing things so people will sit up and take notice.
At the (brief) Q&A session, an interesting point was raised – none of the librarians had mentioned using social media at all, which is unusual for us non-school librarians, as it seems to be increasingly important these days. The answer was that it’s not easy for school libraries to work with social media, due to the need for safeguarding of children. School internet access is a bit like a walled garden; you can only really get to half of it. One of the librarians said that she’d be afraid of looking ridiculous – but I don’t really think that’s a valid excuse. If you maintain a professional demeanour on social media and don’t try and get too “down with the kids”, it can be a really valuable tool. Lots of public libraries do this, as do school PTAs (at least in my bit of South Manchester they do!) and local community organisations. I reckon that a school library Twitter feed could be a great way of showing parents what sort of stuff the library is offering their kids, as well as potentially creating new connections and new partnerships with community groups, for example book festival organisers or local history groups.