Against the Grain v34#3
Kerry Ward is the Executive Director of the American Library Association’s new division, Core: Leadership, Infrastructure, Futures. Kerry has been at ALA for over 20 years. He started in the old trustees division (now United for Libraries), moved on to LLAMA, and recently has served as director for ALCTS as well. Kerry’s career has been in nonprofit management, and he’s most interested in how associations must innovate to remain relevant.
ATG: Kerry, for those not familiar with the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award, can you tell us its origins and purpose?
KW: Sure, the awards recognize and celebrate excellence in library public relations. They are named after John Cotton Dana, a librarian who worked from the late 1800s to early 1900s and pioneered many of the innovations we take for granted in libraries today. For example, he began open stack shelving, so library patrons could browse collections on their own rather than requesting books only through library staff. He also believed that libraries should be vibrant and welcoming spaces, at the center of the community, rather than static institutions catering to a select few. As a champion of garnering community support and interaction with libraries, he was the perfect choice for an award dedicated to library public relations. Today the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award is one of the most prestigious awards in the profession, and certainly one with the highest financial support for the winners.
ATG: What is Core’s and ALA’s role in the John Cotton Dana Public Relations Awards? How did Core and ALA get involved? What about your partners, the H.W. Wilson Foundation and EBSCO? Where do they fit in?
KW: The awards have been associated with ALA since their inception in 1946, but our partners are the key to the program. The H.W. Wilson Foundation provides the financial support for the awards. In addition to recognizing excellence in public relations campaigns, each winner receives a $10,000 grant from the Foundation to further support the work of the library. With up to eight awards a year and $80,000 in grants, the Foundation has a big impact on libraries, especially as budgets have been impacted by the pandemic. EBSCO manages the application process as well the wonderful awards ceremony at the ALA Annual Conference. Core, ALA’s newest division, works with EBSCO to publicize the awards, select the award jury, and help with logistics of the ceremony. Core took over the program after the old Library Leadership and Management Association merged with two other ALA divisions to form Core. Core members are at the center of library services and management, including public relations and marketing, so Core was a natural home for the awards, and we’re thrilled to be a partner in their success.
ATG: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted library public relations campaigns? And how have libraries adjusted in getting their message out despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic? How do you think things will evolve post pandemic?
KW: Like many organizations, libraries pivoted to more virtual services during the pandemic. Especially with last year’s John Cotton Dana award winners, you see an emphasis on libraries engaging their communities in new ways: virtual story time for kids, virtual open houses highlighting services and collections, new streaming services highlighting local artists, etc. Library staff showed a lot of creativity during an extremely trying period, and it was great that we could still recognize their efforts, even though we couldn’t celebrate the awards in person last year. Post-pandemic, I think libraries will reengage the public with new campaigns and messaging, emphasizing libraries as community hubs and spaces for in-person interaction. But virtual services will certainly remain in the mix.
ATG: We notice that most of the winners are public libraries. Are there examples of academic libraries that have won the award? If so, what type public relations efforts have been successful in winning a John Cotton Dana award for academic libraries?
KW: Yes, winners do tend to be public libraries, but there are great examples of academic library public relations campaigns. Recent winners include the San Diego State University Library collaboration with the Viejas Band of Kumayaay Indians, that engaged the public with the library’s environmental collections; the Illinois State University Library campaign to bring to life the real library leader behind a well-known legend of a library ghost; and the Loyola University Chicago Libraries, which mounted a major exhibit for a local artist, including extensive public programming, that raised awareness of the library’s special collections.
ATG: In the competition for resources on today’s college campus, we think that efforts to promote the role and contributions of the library would be essential. What strategies would you recommend for an academic library seeking to develop a PR campaign and enhance its public image on campus?
KW: I think systematically tracking and reporting data is a key component of a successful PR campaign. The winning examples I noted in the previous question, and really all our winning entries, share a reliance on solid data analysis. More broadly, I would say academic libraries can think about campaigns that raise awareness of all the resources available through the library. Many folks, even students, still think of only books at the library, but we know they offer so much more – special collections, art and artifacts, virtual services, faculty support, a social community, etc. And of course, they will always be a place for research and discovery.
ATG: What advice do you have for someone interested in applying for the John Cotton Dana award? What separates an award-winning library public relations program from a merely good one?
KW: As I noted, a solid approach to data collection is important. The jury members, award winners themselves, look for clear measurements of outcomes versus stated campaign objectives. But beyond just the things that can be measured — library visits, card signups, donations, increased public awareness and perceptions, etc. — I think the jury looks for creativity, like turning a campus ghost story into a successful community relations campaign. Or using text messages to share learning activities with parents preparing their kids for kindergarten, as Ypsilanti District Libraries did. Or when needing to renovate, creating new public spaces for collaboration and connection, as the Vancouver Public Library did with their rooftop garden campaign. Finally, I think juries note campaigns that support underserved and vulnerable communities, like those without internet access, or that have been disproportionately impacted by library policies, or campaigns that make connections with immigrant communities. There are many good examples of this work from winning entries.
ATG: Kerry, thank you so much for talking to us today and telling us about a program that does so much to recognize the outstanding public relations efforts of libraries.
KW: Thanks so much to you, Tom and Katina, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this great awards program.