When the first Memphis public library opened in 1893, its shelves were empty. Memphians mobilized to fill the Cossitt Library with books, something that had been overlooked in the building’s $75,000 construction.
Decades and 17 branches later, Memphians have continued to shape library branches to meet neighborhood needs. A new strategy undertaken by Memphis Public Libraries intends to underscore libraries as community centers with unique identities. In addition to access to books and computers, libraries offer a variety of free programs that make each branch a true visual reflection of their community.
MPL’s new communications strategy, dubbed Start Here, began in September. MPL intends to increase access and heighten programming awareness among potential and current library users by revamping the main website, updating the social media strategy, adding new signage to each branch and placing an emphasis on the offerings of each individual branch. Coupling the new communications strategy are external enhancements to several neighborhood branches.
Teen Haven at the Whitehaven library branch. (Renee Davis Brame)
The plan started in 2016 when The Memphis Library Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to securing funds and support for MPL, turned to two local organizations for help in assessing the state of communication between MPL and the communities they serve.
“We sought a fresh perspective of where and how we, as Memphians, use the library,” said Keenon McCloy, director of MPL. The engaged organizations, Little Bird Innovation and DCA, found there to be a communication barrier between the public and the programs and resources offered by MPL.
In addition to offering published resource material, Memphis’ 18 library branches act as neighborhood community centers offering a heavy calendar of programs and activities that range from afterschool programs for teens to music concerts to ukulele classes for all ages.
Cara Greenstein, public relations and social media manager with DCA, said each branch “not only has its own address, but also has its own personality that is reflective of the community it serves. Together, these branches represent a robust asset for our citizens.”
Once the exploratory phase was complete, a plan was put in place to increase knowledge and engagement with the library’s branches as well as the programs they offer. This plan includes new Start Here search bar signs at library help desks, a redesigned website with their new motto “Start Here” front and center, and social media activation with individual branch pages on Facebook as well as a #StartHere Twitter campaign. Before the new communications plan officially launched in September, MPL was already introducing the idea of #StartHere on their Twitter page as far back as early July.
On Twitter, #StartHere takes on the role of conversation starter. The library chooses a topic of interest, posts one fact or idea related to that topic and offers a link where you can learn more. This invites patrons to interact with the library by learning more about topics of the day. Recent conversation topics have included activists Ruby Bridges and Cesar Chavez, the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and library favorite Banned Books Week.
The Memphis Public Library's new Start Here campaign encourages its patrons to consider cultural and political issues of the day.
Allison Fouche, marketing manager for City of Memphis, says that with this platform “Memphis Public Libraries isn’t taking a side—we’re contributing to the dialogue of the day with our digital resources.”
Branches are taking these conversation starters offline as well by implementing the same social media concept in a physical way within the library. The Whitehaven Branch, for example, currently has a display of books and photos related to the recent struggle between President Donald Trump and the NFL regarding the National Anthem. No side is taken, but the library does have a sign posted along with the display that asks all who enter to consider the question “Should NFL players have to stand during the National Anthem?”
By setting up this display, the Whitehaven Branch engages residents with a topic that they felt might be of interest to that particular neighborhood. This helps further the point made by Little Bird and DCA that individual branches are assets to the neighborhood they serve.
“We realized that these locations truly are neighborhood community centers, each with its own area of expertise and influence,” said Doug Carpenter, principal at DCA. By capitalizing on that expertise, neighborhood branches can raise awareness of their own programs as well as those of library system as a whole.
A student enters Tween Haven at the Whitehaven branch library. (Renee Davis Brame)
Whitehaven continues to meet community needs at its newly established Teen Haven, a place for middle and high-schoolers to congregate after school. Modeled after the Cloud901 teen center at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, one of the goals of the Teen Haven is to provide Whitehaven teens with tech expertise and a safe space.
At Teen Haven, students can record music, play video games, interact with Wi-Fi enabled technology as well as read and learn.
Vishunda Rogers, Whitehaven librarian, says Teen Haven offers “a way [for teens] to creatively express themselves.” The program, which began in August 2017, was so successful that there was an immediate demand to provide something similar for younger students. Thus, Tween Haven, a place for students aged 10 to 12 years old was created less than a month after Teen Haven began.
A recent visit to the Whitehaven branch just after school showed students gathered around a smart board and video games and also practicing for an upcoming dance team audition.
Efforts such as those being made at the Whitehaven branch are capturing community attention in new ways thanks to MPL’s new communication plan. The launch of the Start Here campaign coincided with National Library Card Sign Up month, and by the end of September over 2,600 new library cards were issued. A place where the #StartHere presence was definitely felt was on the MPL Twitter account. In the first 28 days of the plan, twitter impressions increased by 89.8%.
In addition to the communications plan that is now in full swing, library users can also expect some exterior improvements at the Cornelia Crenshaw Memorial Branch in South City and the Randolph Branch in Highland Heights.
New signage encourages Memphis Public Library patrons to start at their library's information desk.
The Memphis Library Foundation received a $132,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to implement an initiative called Libraries Inside/Out that will allow for these improvements. According to Diane Jalfon, executive director of the Memphis Library Foundation, the purpose of the Libraries Inside/Out initiative is to “transform these library exteriors to better serve and reflect the hopes and dreams of their surrounding neighborhoods.”
This transformation is accomplished by gathering input from the branch community, turning that input into design sketches, getting those approved by the community and then hiring artists to turn those designs into reality. MPL will use the Center for Transforming Communities to help plan a series of events, meetings, and focus groups for the purpose of talking to each branch community about library exterior designs that would best represent their neighborhood. These will all be design changes to the exterior of the two branches. No structural changes are currently planned. The entire initiative is planned to be complete by fall 2018.
By highlighting the individuality of each neighborhood branch and not shying away from political and social issues of the day, MPL has staked its continued relevance to the Mid-South community.
“Our face-to-face service and guidance is truly one-of-a-kind in today’s day and age,” McCloy said.