by Marylaine Block
It's getting so I almost hate to see news stories about libraries these days, because they tend to take one of two tacks. One is scandal stories -- demands to remove books from the collection, kids finding porn on the internet, assaults in the parking lot, etc.
The other tack is the story about new facilities or equipment, a story that almost invariably starts with a line about how -- surprise! -- the library is not just about books and shushing anymore. It sure seems like a lot of reporters haven't been in a library since they left school (and may not have had entirely happy experiences with libraries then).
And that's unfortunate, because good news stories are still the best means librarians have for telling voters and potential users about new and interesting things the library is doing to serve them. We need to educate reporters about what librarians do these days, but we can't educate them if we can't get them inside the building.
So, how do we do that?
It helps if we understand what reporters need, and arrange to provide it for them. Since I hung out with journalists during the two and a half years I wrote a column for Fox News Online, I think I can offer you a few suggestions.
Ideally, our stories should have a hook that grabs their attention. A great visual can do the trick, and it's a must for television. Maybe your library put on a Harry Potter lookalike contest, where hundreds of little boys lined up to prove that geeks in glasses can be cool (and hundreds of would-be Hermiones showed up to cheer them on). Maybe you're getting ready to open a new building; instead of giving reporters static pictures of it, you could put together a 60 second time lapse film showing the construction process from hole in the ground to completed, landscaped building.
Are you retiring your bookmobile? How about enlisting libraries throughout the neighboring for a bookmobile parade or rodeo, to celebrate its long years of service? Once you have an audience, you can announce what you're replacing it with.
And if you want to make a point, a telling, funny visual can be a great way to do it. For years, academic librarians complained about staggering journal prices, and couldn't get anybody to care. Then Cornell's library created its Sticker Shock web page, <http://www.englib.cornell.edu/exhibits/stickershock/>, comparing the prices of journals with various lavish consumer purchases, and people started paying attention to the problem.
You should always give reporters good story lines. Journalism is storytelling, first and foremost, which I think accounts for reporters' fascination with anniversaries. There's something about a nice, round number -- 10 years, 25 years, 50 years -- that invites us to think about the long shadow cast by an event, and who better to talk about what it meant, and the lessons learned, than the people who were there?
Many libraries have been sponsoring events celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. The Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas has invited people to send in their personal stories for an ongoing project, "What the Brown Decision Has Meant to Me."
Even more libraries have created web resources about it, like the University of Michigan Library's Brown v. Board of Education Online Archive, <http://www.lib.umich.edu/exhibits/brownarchive/>. Virginia librarians pored through their archives and special collections to prepare an annotated list of manuscript resources and oral histories, <http://spec.lib.vt.edu/viva/brownvboed.html>.
The Newton (MA) Library is one of the many libraries planning events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day; it's sponsoring David Greenfield’s “Return to Normandy” photography exhibit during June, and kicking it off with with an opening reception. [They have learned the first rule of public relations: feed reporters.] City College of New York's library, like many others, has created an online resource, "Government Views of D-Day, 1944," <http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/library/Divisions/Government/DDay.html>.
Once you've constructed resource pages on such anniversaries, and other important continuing news stories, make sure reporters know about them. They often have to write as many as four stories per day, and don't have a whole lot of time to research them. Make their lives easier by offering them something better than Google -- a set of really good references, photos, maps, memorabilia, oral histories, and such -- and they'll love you. The Library of the University of California's Institute for Intergovernmental Studies, for instance, put together a one-stop shopping page for information on the California recall election, <http://www.igs.berkeley.edu/library/htRecall2003.html>, that was widely used by reporters.
Anniversaries don't have to be weighty, though. After all, everything has a history, and that history can be good for an event, an exhibit, or a party. Perhaps you missed the chance to commemorate the 100th anniversary of teddy bears in 2002, or the 100th anniversary of baseball cards in 2000, but this year, you could celebrate the 100th anniversary of Peter Pan and the 50th anniversary of the TV dinner and rock and roll (Bill Haley's "Rock around the Clock" and Elvis' first recording). It's also the 30th anniversary of the post-it note, and the 20th anniversary of the PG-13 rating. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of Rotary Club, the 75th anniversary of Scotch tape, the 50th anniversary of Kermit the Frog, and the 40th anniversary of Dune. I'm sure you can think of some fun ways to celebrate these and other interesting anniversaries, including some drawn from your own community's history.
Another thing reporters like is numbers. Why don't you take those great use statistics that are hiding in your annual report, unseen by human eyes, and dress them up for a party. Are you approaching a milestone, like your one millionth circulation, your one thousandth story hour, the ten thousandth book you've given away to newborns as part of your literacy program? Notify the media and have a party on the day you expect it to happen.
Reporters are like anybody else. Give them what they need -- pictures, stories, instant information, and free food -- and you'll get them in the door.
What you do with them once they're there is up to you.
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The three most beautiful words in English, French said, are not "I love you" but "to be continued." His talk was an argument for the power of the of the slowly unfolding story -- the wait, the suspense (though I don't think he ever used the word cliffhanger). The world in general, and the newsroom in particular, are like his father -- let's get to the point, cut to the chase, what's the bottom line? But the faster life gets, French said, the more powerful it is when a writer or director makes you wait to see what happens next.
Tom Lenehan. "What Happens Next? Tom French on the Power of Unfolding Narrative." Poynter Online, Report on the Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference, December 1, 2001, http://legacy.poynter.org/nww/nieman/french.htm
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