TLA 2014 Conference Program Abstract
Libraries often struggle with how to effectively integrate information about library services into special events. This presentation will examine one library department’s approach to this challenge during an annual Halloween event and explore tactics for engaging patrons applicable to any library event.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) Library’s annual Halloween event brings together students and library staff for an afternoon of festive fun. For as long as anyone can remember (at least 12 years), the library has held a costume contest and given out candy to students, faculty, and staff in celebration of All Hallows’ Eve. Library faculty and staff serving on the library’s Outreach Committee coordinate the event each year with the overall intent of simply reaching out to students and letting them know that the library can be a fun place to be.
In 2013, the Halloween event was reimagined. Branded as the “Halloween Hootenanny,” the event would focus on promoting library services offered to the campus community. In addition to the costume contest and candy, the Library would host an Open House where patrons could learn about what the library had to offer them. Each unit of the library was responsible for selecting the appropriate services to promote and the method of promotion. The Reference and Instruction Unit decided to concentrate on sharing information about one-on-one research appointments, chat reference service, and library workshops. Students comprised the targeted user group for this event and services to highlight were selected based upon their perceived relevance to this population. Being creative folks, with a penchant for party-planning, we were not content to set up a table with a few boring flyers. Enter the Brain Campaign!
In order to effectively promote Reference and Instruction services to students, it was necessary to select a cohesive, relevant and eye-catching theme to tie all marketing materials together. A zombie or Dr. Frankenstein theme were initially considered but ultimately discarded because it was not possible to incorporate a strong, meaningful message with the visuals. A brain theme was chosen because it was simplistic and the connection between the library, research, and the brain was immediately understandable. Brains also exude a mad scientists’ laboratory vibe as well—marrying the chosen theme with the spirit of the Halloween event.
Elements of the Event
As previously stated, the Reference and Instruction department chose to market research appointments, the chat reference service, and library workshops during the Hootenanny. To promote research appointments, a large table-top poster was constructed with the tagline "Jumpstart Your Brain: Sign Up for a Research Appointment." A simple image of a brain (with added electrodes) comprised the graphical centerpiece of the poster (see Figure 1). An iPad accompanied the poster and students were able to sign up for a research appointment on the spot or talk with librarians about how to sign up later in the semester. Many students chatted with the librarians about this service and remarked that they were excited to know that the library offered such a service.
The second service featured at the table was the Library’s chat service. It was challenging to find a way to highlight the chat service in a novel, attention-catching way. However, it was known that an important part of the event had been, and always would be, candy. In keeping with the brain theme, gummy brains were selected as the candy of choice for the Reference and Instruction table. Five pounds of gummy brains were purchased online through a bulk candy company (www.nuts.com). Gummy brains were placed in small, festive cellophane bags and tied with colorful ribbon. To incorporate the chat service, brain-shaped tags were printed with the tagline “Use Your Brain: Ask a Librarian” and a bit.ly URL for the Library’s chat service (see Figure 2). These candy bags were collected in a large glass beaker with a sign sporting the same brain graphic and font used throughout, reading "Brain Food."
The final service promoted to students was the library workshop series. Each semester the library offers a wide variety of workshops to students on topics ranging from Microsoft Office to 3D printing and plagiarism. Though the event fell about midway through the semester, a large number of workshops remained to be promoted. A small handbill was created with the brain image and the tagline “Feed Your Brain: Attend Library Workshops” on one side and the list of upcoming workshop dates and times on the reverse (see Figure 3). These were printed on brightly colored paper and scattered across the table. Though paper materials often tend to litter the ground at special events, there were none to be seen at the close of the event. The small size of the handbill and the unique graphics combined to make an excellent bookmark and, hopefully, this is how some of them were repurposed.
It was uncertain whether these materials alone were enough to draw students to the table so an interactive game was devised to grab their attention. Much discussion was had about what type of game to play with the students. The idea was to develop something that was tactile, active and a little nostalgic. To create the chosen activity, the “Brain Dig,” a small trash can was filled with cooked pasta and the opening covered with a trash bag. A small, hand-sized slit was cut in the trash bag. Students reached in and dug through the cooked pasta hoping to find small 3D printed skulls. If they were successful they would receive a small prize (library t-shirt, flash drive, etc.). This simple game was the runaway hit of the Halloween Hootenanny. Students patiently waited in line for a chance to play this quick, messy game. While students were busy digging for brains, librarians were able to casually chat with them about library services. These conversations were more natural because the students were already interacting with the librarians in a less formal environment.
Tips for a Successful Event
The Importance of Theme
As previously stated, picking a relevant theme is extremely important to any sort of special event. The Reference and Instruction table was by far the most visited table at the event. All other tables gave out candy and shared information on services, but the Reference and Instruction table consciously tied all materials and activities together under one cohesive, memorable theme. Students appreciated the creativity and uniqueness of these efforts and were overheard telling each other to visit the “brain table.”
Consider the Audience
The Reference and Instruction department offers a wide array of services to students, faculty and staff. Instead of trying to promote the full gamut of services, the need to be selective with the overall message was recognized. When considering which services to promote, it was determined that the primary audience at the event would be students. Therefore, highlighting services geared towards faculty, such as classroom instruction, was eliminated. Consideration was also given to the time of the semester in which the Hootenanny fell, and relevant services were selected accordingly. Given that the event occurred close to the middle of the semester, it was decided to concentrate on promoting services that would be key to student success in the months to come, such as one-on-one research appointments. This selectivity helped to ensure that everything at the table was relevant to students, the primary audience for the event.
Make it Active
Adding an eye-catching interactive element to the table was key to the Reference and Instruction Department’s success at the event. Open houses and information fairs for campus services are commonplace at universities and colleges. Students expect to be greeted and handed a flyer or promotional item and move on to the next table. By offering students the chance to play the “Brain Dig,” librarians were able to engage with students for longer lengths of time. Students were content to linger at the table and casually peruse the department’s information while waiting for their turn to play. The active element also set the Reference and Instruction offerings apart from the other tables at the event and undoubtedly contributed to the comparatively larger number of students visiting the “brain table.”
Add Some Flair
The Brain Campaign offered a chance to showcase the lighthearted, creative side of the Reference and Instruction department. The brain theme and accompanying decorations caught students’ eyes and drew them to the table to investigate further. While it would have been easy to present the students with a simple, black cloth covered table and accompanying handouts, this would not have proved as interesting. Fun decorative touches were utilized to make the table “pop.” Decorations included a paper brain garland (printed on the Library’s copier and assembled by a student worker), silver glitter skulls (from a personal collection), and brain-themed buttons (created with the Library’s button maker). Fluorescent green spider webbing was stretched across the table, tying the elements of the table together physically while contributing to the “ghoulish” effect of the table. While it would be perfectly acceptable to just use a simply adorned table, spending a bit of time making a table look fun and appealing is worth the extra time and effort.
Librarians worked for several weeks to coordinate the details of this event. Despite the fact that a thorough plan was developed, it was essential to remain flexible and be prepared to modify elements of the event at a moment’s notice. For example, when students were having trouble signing up for research consultations on the iPad, the tablet was removed and instead used to demonstrate where to find the form on the web. This allowed students to sign up for a research appointment at their own convenience. Events that have multiple elements will always necessitate flexibility and adaptability on the part of the organizers.
While only two librarians were responsible for the planning on the event, it was necessary to have support from other people. A four-person team of librarians staffed the table in shifts throughout the event. This ensured that no one person was “burned out” from constantly talking up the services at the table or giving instructions on how to play the “brain dig.” Additionally, at the last minute, the organizers decided to enlist the help of a student worker from the department. This proved to be a wise decision as the student worker was able to interact with fellow students in a unique manner. When the student worker explained services to other students, he was essentially providing a peer testimonial. When planning for a special event, it would be prudent to tap volunteers early in the process. If more forethought had been given to the value of student workers assisting at the event, even more students may have been reached.
Chapel Cowden, Health and Science Instruction Librarian, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicole Tekulve, Team Lead, Information Commons, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, can be reached at email@example.com