The scourge of book challenges and bans—especially those targeting books by and about Black and LGBTQ authors and characters—have dominated headlines the last two years.
But what about those libraries that leverage their marketing platforms to head challenges off at the pass? What does it look like when members of the profession decide not to back down?
At “No More Neutral: How to Use Marketing to Position Your Library in Challenging Times,” a January 28 session at the American Library Association’s 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans, attendees heard some of these stories. Presenter Angela Hursh, manager of engagement and marketing at NoveList and author of the Super Library Marketing website, discussed how some libraries across the country are strengthening the public’s perception of what they do, rallying their supporters, and responding to book challenges effectively using the tools at their disposal.
“[Challenges] really threaten the existence of your library,” Hursh said. “Not talking about it is not going to prevent a challenge.”
Hursh suggested the first step a library take to protect itself is to audit and update their policies—including their behavior and collection development policies—to make sure they are aligned with the library’s mission, vision, and values. “Policies are a defense in these instances. They allow for due process,” she said.
After that, Hursh advises that libraries promote their policies through their marketing channels and invite their patrons to request materials that they can purchase. This invitation, she said, can go a long way in empowering the community.
“I think the public thinks [collection development] is just a person sitting in a cardigan, purchasing books on Amazon that they think people should read,” she said. “Our job is to provide materials for everyone in the community, and that’s what your money goes to.”
Hursh shared some vibrant examples of libraries that are positively connecting with their users during these fraught times of censorship. For instance:
– Maitland (Fla.) Public Library regularly creates Facebook posts asking patrons to suggest titles and encouraging them to read their collection development policy.
– Parkersburg and Wood County (W. Va.) Public Library was able to mobilize its community to show up to a city council meeting and pressure the council to withdraw a library censure resolution over the book Gender Queer.
– Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library is making it known that they “are on a journey to become an antiracist organization,” and adopted the slogan THIS IS A LIBRARY FOR EVERYONE.
– Baker County (Ore.) District Library, located in a conservative area of the state, has used the First Amendment to position their banned and challenged books, comparing a person’s right to read whatever they want to freedom of religion.
Hursh reminded attendees that they don’t need to save these ideas for Banned Books Week: “I’m an advocate of celebrating and promoting intellectual freedom all year long.”
But for all this marketing, Hursh admits that strengthening your library won’t necessarily prevent a challenge. She urges libraries to be ready for when that time comes.
“When faced with a challenge, we want to make sure our staff are not making fear-based decisions,” Hursh says. She recommends that libraries train every single staff member on how to respond to an in-person and online challenge. The topic should be talked about regularly at staff meetings and be included in new employees’ onboarding. She even suggests using roleplay to simulate potential interactions with the community, so staffers can practice what they’re going to say.
Hursh left the audience with some hopeful parting words: “I want you to remember that you’re not alone in this fight.”