Marketing the Virtual Library with the Wizard

7 min read

By Nick Schultz

I’m lucky. Through my role with Gale Customer Care, I have the privilege of providing consultative services to the People’s University – many call this their local library – and the unsung heroes they employ on their journey to the betterment of society. After engaging with public librarians for the better part of two years, I think the following quote highlights the contrast between a librarian’s ideal library patron, Virginia Woolf, to the current reality.

“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.”  -Virginia Woolf

As much of a modernist as Woolf was – I’m sure she’d be shocked to discover the virtual stream of information that exists in today’s world. The truth is most library patrons don’t allocate hours of time to “ransack” a library’s website troving for an online resource treasure chest.  In fact, according to a recent study done by Pew 91% of Americans think public libraries are important to their communities, yet 80% of Americans say they don’t know what their library has to offer.  Herein lies the challenge. How do libraries market their evolving services to their communities?

A recent blog post by Angela Hursh, marketing development team leader at Public Library of Cincinnati, just surfaced on the ALA Think Tank that echoes this sentiment. She writes:

Libraries are failing to drive more circulation and increase program visits because they lack a marketing strategy. Without a clear-cut plan, you might as well throw spaghetti at the wall. It’s frustrating and unsatisfying and it won’t increase your circulation numbers or drive more traffic to your buildings or digital services.

She offers three solutions to this complicated equation:

  1. Create a strategy-now and stick to it.
  2. Libraries should become content marketing enthusiasts.
  3. Libraries should learn from for-profit counterparts.

I agree.  Enter Amy Calhoun.

From Career Online High School to Analytics on Demand – I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with Amy on many projects Library quote
over the last year.  Amy is the mastermind behind the Virtual Branch of the Sacramento Public Library (SPL).  More importantly she’s had great success marketing non-traditional, unconventional library services to a growing library patron base.

“Just because you have something online, doesn’t mean it’s optimized for discovery,” Amy articulates as we talk virtual shop.

Amy cites the changing landscape of the virtual world as one of her favorite things about her job. To address this fluctuating backdrop she’s harnessed the power of big data. Although circulation statistics can provide a patron snapshot, she realizes that this data alone doesn’t provide adequate detail about power users or the occasional resource devotee. Amy spends part of every week analyzing demographic heat maps, pouring through usability testing results and cross-referencing ILS circulation information with Experian Mosaic profiles as well as inspecting circulation reports.

She’s become quite proficient at targeting outreach.  This month she plans on collaborating with each of SPL’s 28 branches to generate an adapted profile of their patron base. Now, with products like Analytics on Demand (AOD), librarians can take a page from their for-profit counterparts and pinpoint programming/outreach campaigns to a laser-focused demographic.

AOD allows us to easily harness the power of big data and process the huge amount of information in a useful way.”  Amy elaborates, “I use this to make content more findable and increase discovery.”

However, hitching SPL’s virtual wagon to the big data pack horse is only half of the equation. The Virtual Library also taps into the most powerful resource – the librarian’s brain – to make logical and creative connections.  And finally, all this focus on analytics drives the fun part…

Some real life SPL successes:

Galvanized early literacy initiative – instead of limiting programming to within their branches, SPL’s early literacy platform is completely online and open to all ages. Patrons feel as supported in the virtual environment as they do inside the branches. Librarians at SPL recommend online resources and eBooks to patrons that come in to the library even when they’re not specifically asking for them. Amy uses data from this platform to connect the student demographic that engages most with non-fiction educational eBooks to SPL’s robust suite of online research tools and databases.

Classics by the Capitol event– On September 28. 2014, SPL coordinated with Gale and the California Automobile Museum to host a classic car show. About 500 patrons and potential library users came to the Sacramento Central library to wax nostalgic about the pre-1972 American muscle car. Part of the goal of the event was to draw attention to the library’s free services offered through the Virtual Library.  Included was an area to engage with SPL’s online database Chilton Library. This area also included an expert to walk patrons through the Chilton Library experience. Last, but certainly not least, SPL promoted the event via their YouTube channel with a comical video of actual librarians fixing their muscle car using only a smart phone.   These aren’t paid actors, folks!

Click to enlarge.

Creative use of social media – Amy’s virtual branch is “always open to experimentation.” She is a firm believer that people use social media not to be marketed to, but to be engaged instantly.

  • Recently they challenged their 13,000 Facebook followers to tap into their local librarians’ knowledge base. Patrons entered their last three books read on SPL’s Facebook wall and received an instantaneous recommendation by a librarian. This became so popular that Amy had to grab more staff to manage the self-induced social media storm.
  • Use of Google Hangouts to engage patrons. Amy routinely hosts Online Book Hangouts so patrons can be engrossed even while travelling. One of their most efficacious sessions came following the release of the latest book in the Outlander
  • Online librarian trading cards. That’s right folks – SPL patrons trade librarian cards online or in person. Good news – I finally added Circulation Overlord Harisimar to my collection!

lib4  lib2lib3

It’s hard to believe that Amy doesn’t have her own card.  I propose delighting all of SPL’s power-users by creating a limited addition Calhoun or the Wizard of the Virtual World.

It’s an educational experience to work with Amy Calhoun’s Virtual Library.  It’s my job as a Customer Care Consultant to pass this on to all those interested.

Being a chef, I always have to incorporate food someway somehow into all things.  I’ve decided that my closing questions for all blog interviews will be – If you could have one historical figure over for dinner who would it be and what would you cook?

Amy would have Kurt Vonnegut over for dinner. However, in order to spend as much time with this the talented Luddite she’d forgo cooking a meal and order yellow curry takeout. Here’s my go-to recipe for a truly amazing yellow curry to be used whenever and with anything. Enjoy!

If you want more Calhoun – tune-in to this Friday’s Gale Geek. You’ll be able to pick her brain live J Mark 11 a.m. (EST), January 16, on your calendar and register today!


chef nick and sonAbout the Author

Nick is a proud father, chef, Tolkien nerd, spaghetti-western lover and Whovian (with Tennant tendencies). During the week Nick works as a customer care consultant – providing post-sales consultative services to public and academic libraries and the unsung heroes they employ. On weekends he quests to create the perfect food and booze pairing through innovative gastronomy at his restaurant and catering company based in Ferndale, MI.



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