A Way to Advocate for Library Collections Outside and Inside Your Institution


Until recently, I worked for a library in a medium sized historical society. Like some other libraries located within a museum, the rare books, manuscripts, and graphic materials in the library were often overshadowed by the museum’s collections of objects and paintings. Although the library was always busy with researchers, the museum exhibitions and physical collections were better known to the public and to the institution’s administration.


Planning Stages


In 2010, a small group of us were hoping that a blog could increase the library’s exposure. This was hardly an innovative idea as many other libraries were succeeding with the same plan. When we started we were unsure of its outreach potential; we simply knew that we had plenty of material to showcase. During previous processing and cataloging projects, the archivists and librarians would e-mail each other to excitedly describe their latest exciting finds.  Now that there was an easy way to share this information, why not do it?

An informal team of three of us wanted to get the blog off of the ground.  We received an official okay to begin and worked with IT to set it up so that it looked professional and fit in with the design of the website.   We began with the intention to feature our collections with images and to continually post once a week.  We decided that anyone who worked in the library, from a part-time library page to the library director, could contribute.  We did not really discuss who the intended audience was but assumed that they would mainly consist of history buffs and library researchers. We really just wanted a venue to share what we thought was fun about the collections.


Growing Pains


Our first attempts were a little shaky.  We had trouble reaching readers and the implementation team was completing almost all of the posts.  When the institutional website was being redesigned in 2011, a consultant hired for the project had to pull us aside and explain blogging basics such as how to effectively use SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and tagging.  As a time consuming endeavor, it was difficult to explain to our bosses why we should be spending our limited time and resources on a blog.  It was also hard convincing busy staff members to contribute.

However, our continual efforts gradually paid off as Google Analytics demonstrated that the blog had begun to attract new readers.  Other history and local blogs began linking to ours, and our number of readers was growing every week. Not every post was popular, but allowing everyone in the library to contribute created a wide range of topics and materials to be featured.  We were not receiving many comments on posts, but were receiving “likes” on Facebook, and patrons were sending us questions relating to the topics and materials highlighted.  

After a few years of posts, we had built up our own archive of descriptions of our treasures that were now easily found on search engines.  The blog was functioning as a place to provide answers to some of our frequently asked questions and to highlight some of our “hidden” or newly processed collections. As it grew in popularity, more librarians and archivists were excited to write about their favorite item or topic.


Unanticipated Success

Although we did not initially understand where we were going, we were happy with the general direction of the blog.  However, we realized that it had become successful when the institution itself began to take notice.

Once the blog started to attract readers, the institution’s communications department began contacting us.  They had questions about collections featured and presented us with ideas and tips for upcoming posts.   The Associate Manager of Communications began promoting our blog posts with the institution’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and would contact us before upcoming posts to see what would be featured.  He contacted Slate about their new historical blog, The Vault, and convinced them to take a look at our blog for some ideas. Within a few months, The Vault featured information and links from three of our blog posts, and our hits increased significantly. About a year after our blog was launched, we were asked to give a presentation on it at an all-staff meeting. The blog we started had the unintended consequence of attracting readers from inside the institution who were learning as much as readers from the outside.

It was not until this sudden attention that we began to realize that the library and its collections were likely not previously being ignored on purpose.  The institution probably just did not realize what we had. While the museum collections were described individually with pictures in TMS (The Museum System), many of the library and archival treasures were buried in MARC records and complicated finding aids. The concise descriptions of collections with visuals on the blog made it easier for the institution to want to promote the library because they could now understand it.  The information on the blog and the audience that we had developed had at last alerted the institution to the rich nature of our collections.


-- Maurita Baldock