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Library Thinker Series: How do we get non-users to become users?

This post is a part of the Library Thinker Series where we examine some of the larger questions that we struggle with in librarianship and try to come to some insights together.

This week we’re examining the question “how do we get people who don’t use the library to actually use it,” which Steven Bell posed in the comments last week. This is a difficult question. How do we make non-users into users and convert those with library apathy into library enthusiasts?

Here’s my take:

The most useful strategy that I have found for turning non-users into users is two pronged.  It consists of getting out of the library and talking about it a lot. This is key in making people more aware of the library and what it can do for them. First, you are not going to reach non-users by only hanging out in the library and hoping that they’ll come to you. It’s a dead-end strategy. You need to go where non-users are. If you are at an academic library, go eat lunch in the student union or cafeteria periodically. Hang out in other public places and go to campus events and parties. If you’re in a public library the same thing is applicable. Go to community events and hang out in public places. Being visible and creating relationships in the community are the first steps.

The next step is talking about the library and what it does. But when you talk about it don’t just mention the obvious stuff. “We have a lot of books.” People know that. Most people don’t realize all the other awesome stuff that your library does because it’s not on their radar. Talk about the author who stopped by last week or the chili cookoff you recently had. Talk about the collaborative workspaces where people can have group meetings. And don’t forget to listen when you are talking with people. If you hear that someone has a certain need or desire, perhaps there is an easy way for the library to meet it. Connecting the library to something that a non-user values will make them much more likely to take notice and try out the library.

In my opinion relationships are one of the most powerful weapons that you can have in promoting your library. I’m sure there are other things we can do though? How else can we make non-users into users?

Andy Burkhardt

7 Comments

  1. It’s all about relationships and listening to your community. In this vein I’m currently reading “Brains on Fire: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements” by Robbin Phillips et al.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation Deb! I’ll have to check that one out. Word of mouth sounds like another great strategy for getting people into the library. Bringing in ideas from marketing could likely be really useful to make folks aware of what we have to offer.

  3. I do this a lot. I’m telling people about free computer access, audiobooks and the free meeting rooms just about any chance I get. I think a lot of people in the public range, around here, are people who used to be users and then either had a bad experience or are sure they “owe money” or something similar. Sometimes those people need a handhold or a personal guide back in to the place. We’re sort of lucky in town in that we’re one of the only places that is open and warm and quiet at night so we get people who are regulars stopping by to read the paper or just bring a laptop. I feel we need to do more in terms of outreach to our populations that frequently turn over [students mostly] so they know it’s there while they’ve still got time to use it.

  4. I like how you describe the library as warm, quiet and open at night. Not everyone needs that environment. But that sounds like a really inviting place (it kind of makes me want a fireplace in our library). It’s a place that is not work and not home, but a different place where you can either undertake work or leisure. Sometimes simply changing your environment can change the way you feel and think. There’s a student here who I talk to that goes to the library because he lives with five other guys and the library is the only place he could get work done.

    I never thought about people who used to be users but no longer go to the library because of a bad experience, but I’m sure that is true. I think it’s important for us to try to minimize those bad experiences so we don’t drive people away. Whether it is changing policies or having people who are friendly and like helping others working at the library.

  5. Thanks for this post, Andy. I definitely agree that outreach is a huge way we can get non-users to become users.
    Here’s my two cents: Most universities and colleges have a required course with a required library component for undergraduates. At the University of the Pacific, ours is called PacSem. I like to think of each PacSem library session as a great opportunity for me to reel in the non-users. This can obviously be tricky when I’m supposed to cover a ton of info in a small amount of time, but I think if the overarching theme of the class is “look at all the different ways you can use the library,” then maybe we can recruit some more users.

  6. Veronica, you make a great point. In some instances (like library instruction) we get the chance to reach every student. So what we do with this time is really important. I know when I am teaching first semester freshmen, the most important thing I want them to walk away with is that there are librarians and they are friendly and eager to help you succeed. If they don’t remember specific library resources it’s OK. In my opinion, we need to make these classes interactive and fun so students remember them and think well of libraries and librarians. I think you are right on though; instruction is a golden opportunity to turn non-users into users.

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