The checklist for Library Card Sign-up month: Big sign in the lobby (check). Banner at the desks (check). Blurb in the newsletter (check). Tweets to our followers (check). Visiting people who don’t have a library card and signing them up on the spot…. I suspect we are missing our key audience when we follow our traditional inbound service model during Library Card Sign-Up Month. I believe we can be much more effective if we take a page out of political campaigns and meet the public door-to-door. I’d settle for event-based sign-ups at the grocery store, bank, train station, or playground. But door-to-door is extremely effective in transforming a contact into a conversation and that conversation into action. And it is rather easy to fix:
Model library card sign-ups on voter registration drives. Ballot-access groups do events and go door-to-door to enfranchise. Some do it in a non-partisan way, driven by an ideal that being a registered voter is a natural part of our citizenship and should be universal. Others are engaged in efforts to target likely supporters of their candidate through voter registration campaigns. But the underlying methodology they pursue in either setting is the same: go door-to-door or set up a table where the non-voters are. Both non-partisans and pro-candidate registration campaigns alike activate existing registered voters as well as bringing new ones onto the roles.
Or if you don’t like the political connotations, then look at our colleagues in public health. The home visit is a frequent part of patient engagement as well as a key driver of positive outcomes for patients and their families. From well-child visits to blood pressure medication checks, our colleagues are out making personal contact while creating personal connections that only come from in-person visits. In libraries, we already understand the positive impact that home delivery has on individuals’ lives. The stories of shut-ins—people with limited mobility, or geographic isolation—who rely on library delivery services to access materials for personal enjoyment and enrichment are well known in libraries.
Or, if you don’t like the voter registration or public health model, what about community policing? It is a tenant of new law enforcement strategies to humanize the police by placing them not just on corners but by moving them from business to business and door to door. The theory being that if you know the police personally, you are more willing to interact with them in a positive, proactive way. If you know the beat officer, you are more likely to give her a heads-up about trouble and perhaps be disinclined to create trouble yourself. With libraries, we are often the one point of government contact that is neutral. As long as we’re not out asking for fines door-to-door, I suspect our contact will be welcome.
To shake a person’s hand, look them in the eye, and introduce yourself as their librarian is powerful. The library is one part of civil society where people don’t laugh when you say “I am from the government and I am here to help.” For staff, friends, trustees, and volunteers, this is a powerful opportunity to say to someone “I am here as your neighbor. Let me tell you about our library.”
You can size up the situation inside the house pretty well from the vantage point at the threshold and ask a few good reference interview questions. Questions like “would you like information about our children’s programs and story times?” should be in your script. What happens if you knock on the door and they are a library card holder but haven’t used the library in a while because of fines? Give them a “fine forgiveness coupon” and welcome them back. What if someone wants to give you their books to take back? Well, that depends on how far it is back to your car….
Here is how to get started doing Library Card Sign-ups door-to-door:
- Pick one weeknight and one weekend day.
- Develop a script and train people on it. The script is pretty simple: “Hi, I am John and I work at the library. We’re visiting everyone on the block today as part of Library Card Sign-up Month to see if you need a library card. Do you have a library card? No…? Can I sign you up for one right now? It takes about one minute and we’ll mail it out to you next week.” Beyond the script is the opportunity to be human and chat.
- Make up a few half-sheet flyers for likely audiences (families with little kids, seniors, high school/college students, the regular stuff), plus an omnibus flyer about the library (hours, location, website, phone, etc). If you have a measure on the ballot, this is the perfect time to leave an information-only piece with the resident. I’d also suggest talking about it a little longer if they are a registered voter, too.
- Make a “Walk List”. If your policies allow, look at your library card data. If you can utilize individual cardholder data, take a page from political campaigns and use a tool like Nationbuilder or TrailBlazer to map addresses with—and without—library cards house-by-house. If you can only use the data in the aggregate, then map neighborhoods and subdivisions, or precincts and wards, with a density or heat map. If you can overlay frequency of use on top of presence of a library card, so much the better.
- Pick a block and start walking. Pick a block you know, grab your clipboard and tote bag full of info flyers, and knock. If the person answering the door needs a card, great. Sign them up.
- Travel in pairs. Work as a team until you get comfortable with the script and the nature of an average interaction. When you’re really cooking, leapfrog houses or work opposite sides of the street. Be cognizant of your surroundings and your colleagues. When you have a lot of Not Homes or No Thank Yous, it’ll be nice to have someone to re-energize with.
Tabling: See above, except you ask people who are walking by if they a) have a library card, b) would like to sign up (it just takes a minute), and c) would they like a flyer, while you stand still rather than going to their doors. Great places for tabling include anywhere that the people are in your community. Doing tabling at local high-traffic businesses gives them a civic giveback and allows you to build future contacts with potential donors and partners in the business community. Bring the bookmobile to the Safeway. If you do tabling, be sure to thank the site(s) in your next newsletter in addition to name-checks and shout-outs via social media promotion in advance of the event.
If you need a new policy to make this happen, draft it. If you need to clear this with the Mayor or chief of police, go ahead and ask. Getting the librarians out into the world will change local perceptions of the institution, humanize your staff, and build bridges with non-users and isolated populations. You will be their personal librarian. You’ve been by to visit.
John Chrastka is Executive Director of EveryLibrary, the first national PAC for libraries. Chrastka is president of the Board of Trustees for the Berwyn (IL) Public Library, and former president of the Reaching Across Illinois Libraries System (RAILS) multi-type library system. He is also a Partner at AssociaDirect, a Chicago-based consultancy focused on supporting associations in membership recruitment, conference, and governance activities. Previously, he was Director for Membership Development at the American Library Association (ALA). He is a current trustee member of ALA as well as in the Illinois Library Association (ILA), where he chairs the Fundraising Committee.