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The adaptable cycle of engagement: a win/win model for the library.

Public or community engagement is critical to the success of the library. In fact, an important strategic advocacy objective of the American Library Association is to "increase public awareness of the value and impact of all types of libraries and the important role of librarians and other library staff." (American Library Association, 2013, A.1.6, strategic objective 1). ALA has also partnered with the nonprofit Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to create a program called Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC), whose goal is to help libraries move from an internal paradigm (being library centric) to an

external one that focuses on interaction with community and the potential positive results that are gained when this occurs (American Library Association, n.d.). It is only recently that most libraries have started to embrace such a focus. While most library staff can define public engagement, many employees report no involvement in the development of such programs, have little to do with delivering the programs, and receive little or no training in how to actually engage the public (Museums, Libraries, and Archives, 2011, p. 5).

Having spent time in the for-profit business arena as a published print and photojournalist and business consultant, I have observed and documented numerous companies that have utilized community engagement and social media tools to increase visibility in a competitive marketplace and to generate revenue. Although the public library is not a for-profit institution in America, the techniques that corporations use to successfully implement public engagement can also apply to the library. After searching for an applicable roadmap, however, I found no formal theoretical model structured with the library in mind. Hence the development of the Adaptable Cycle of Engagement (ACE) presented below and in Figure 1. Each "spoke" of the Adaptable Cycle of Engagement helps propel the sequence of public engagement to the next phase. The ultimate goal is a public that is more invested in the library, leading to increased support.

Conceptual Building Blocks of the Model

The first step in the ACE model is for a public library to tangibly connect with its community (see Figure 1). Fortunately, technology offers libraries many ways to share information with their communities and initiate engagement. Tools like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, and e-newsletters enable the library to reach out to a large number of people, sometimes in a matter of minutes (Dankowski, 2013, p. 39). For example, by employing its social media, the New York Public Library had success in informing the local community on a variety of topics, including the benefits of membership, so much so that after a one-year social media campaign, the Library had increased new card sign-ups by 21 percent (Eckerle, 2013).

In addition to social media tools, public libraries can host public events, offer in-house training, and exhibit art and other cultural objects, all in an effort to not only tender services to its patrons, but also communicate in new ways. Whatever technique is employed, the library is initiating the conversation and then continuing it as an active participant in the library-patron relationship.

This leads to the second step, where library users become better informed and educated about the institution and all that it has to offer. Studies show enhanced data leads to a deeper and more profound understanding of any concept (Finley, 2000; Dumais, Cutrell, & Chen, 2001). The more one absorbs about anything, the more perceptive one is on that topic. The library is no longer a general concept to patrons, but rather an accessible and comprehensible resource.

This strengthened perception among patrons is significant because it leads to the next stage in the ACE model: once members of the community understand the role and services provided by the library, they develop a heightened affinity for the institution. Then an emotional attachment to, and a passion for, the library can begin (Wooden, 2006, p. 7).

For example, the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) system in Canada established such a connection when it employed social media via a Twitter campaign. After only one year, VPL garnered more Twitter followers than any other system in Canada, opening up opportunities for immediately engaging the community, including broadcasting emergency information, offering general customer service, and enabling instantaneous patron feedback (Cahill, 2011, p. 265). Library administrators reported that with this tool, and similar social media platforms, the VPL system built a powerful and enduring relationship with the community (Cahill, 2011, p. 268).

There is no shortage of reports of libraries facing budgetary challenges in the past five years, often resulting in staff reductions, cuts in services, and curtailed collections (Henderson & Lonergan, 2011, p. 7). Of even greater concern is that these fiscal reductions have come when society is more dependent on the public services offered by the library. However, when the library has established strong community ties, budget restraints become much less tolerated. Many county libraries report patrons protesting such reductions in funds (WBOC16, 2013; Vande, 2014; Wescott, 2012) and the one common denominator in each case is that these libraries are supported by informed patrons, demonstrating that the strong emotional attachment to the library coupled with a thorough understanding of exactly what it does results in a population that will fight budget cuts.

An example of this step in the ACE model is the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina. In 2010 Charlotte Mecklenburg faced a potential $2 million deficit and the closure of half of the 24 branches within the system. Communications specialist Jennifer Daniels was sending live Twitter messages from a board meeting asserting her astonishment at the reductions proposed, and an already-engaged community in social media was listening. From that one post, word spread via Facebook, and more than $400,000 was eventually raised in the local neighborhoods, resulting in the closure of only four of the proposed 12 libraries (Dankowski, 2013, p. 40).

Even with strong support, there may be a need for additional revenue streams to fill gaps created by less government funding, and this also falls back to a strong relationship between the library and its community achieved through engagement, as seen in step five of the model. Many libraries have now enacted programs and services that not only bring more people into the library, but also enhance fund raising. Additional revenue is achieved in many ways--renting out rooms for weddings, hosting cafes, offering unique classes, selling used books that have been donated by patrons, even running gift shops. Surveys of libraries show that revenues can increase as a result of fee-based services (Dempsey, 2010, p. 22).

This is not to suggest that the library become a for-profit center. A desire to bring in extra funds should not be viewed as changing the purpose of the institution, but rather one way to mitigate budget reductions. The result is a library with an adequate budget, well connected to its community, and in a better position to serve.

With the more substantial budgets that can result from step five in the model, the library will be better positioned to offer longer operating hours, hire more professionals, enhance technology (such as 3-D printers and robotics), and improve collections. Community members now have more reasons to visit their library.

Which brings us to the sixth and final step of the model: new services and programming. These also increase communication between the library and its community. Thus the cycle continues as illustrated in Figure 1.

Having cycled through the model, the library has employed a wide variety of tools to connect with its public, resulting in a better-informed community that is more supportive of the library. This can positively impact budgets, allowing libraries to expand services, thereby continuing to increase patron affinity for the institution.

On a final note, the model presented here is titled "adaptable" because other sectors can benefit by employing similar outreach. A hospital can connect better with its local community through public engagement. Schools can clearly benefit when opening the doors to a two-way conversation. Even for-profit entities would do well to work hand in hand with the public. With minor tweaks and more appropriate verbiage, the ACE paradigm could be revised for other institutions.


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Dankowski, T. (2013). How libraries are using social media. American Libraries, 44(5), 38-41.

Dempsey, B. (2010). For love or money. Library Journal, 135(15), 20-23.

Dumais, S., Cutrell, E. & Chen, H. (2001). Optimizing search by showing results in context. In M. Beaudouin-Lafon & R. J. K. Jacobs (Eds.), Proceedings of ACM CHI 2001 Human Factors in Computing Systems Conference) (pp. 277-284). ACM Press.

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Vande, B. M. (2014, May 21). Union protest at Grand Rapids Public Library: Will patrons suffer from job cuts? The Grand Rapids Press: Web Edition Articles (MI).

WBOC16. (2013, February 20). Library patrons fight against budget cuts. Retrieved from

Wescott, S. (2012). A library fights budget cuts with social-media campaign. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved from

Wooden, R. A. (2006, Winter). The future of public libraries in an Internet age. National Civic Review, 95(4), 3-7.

Sheryl Kaye, MLIS
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Author:Kaye, Sheryl
Publication:Journal of Library Innovation
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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