Library outreach and the Italian beef sandwich – #SLA2014

I couldn’t resist this session at the SLA conference last month, with its intriguing title.

What on earth has library outreach got to do with a beef sandwich?!

We had to wait an agonisingly long time to find out the beef sandwich analogy.

The speaker, Eugene Giudice, Research Librarian at law firm Latham & Watkins, is from Chicago, where this particular style of sandwich originated and is still a classic. The point was this:

The beef of an Italian beef sandwich is cooked slowly in stock. The meat is the heart of what librarians do. The juice/stock is the outreach; it adds spice, flavour, and value to what we do.

A ‘classic’ Italian beef sandwich will taste slightly different from different places. It might have more gravy, they might dip the bread in the stock – but there’s a certain, traditional way of cooking the beef that makes it a Chicago style Italian beef sandwich. Outreach will look different in different libraries, depending on our consumers ‘tastes’, but it shares commonality across libraries, so we can learn from each other.

A moody sky over Vancouver Harbour and Stanley Park, from the conference venue.
A moody sky over Vancouver Harbour and Stanley Park, from the conference venue.

I’ve been musing on what I learnt from this session, from which there were many stories and much advice about outreach. A great write up is on the SLA First five Years Blog. There was a wealth of examples and tips, but one thing particularly struck a chord:

Inject personality, make friends, show something of yourself

On Eugene’s desk, there is an impressive trophy, won at the firm’s sports day. However, it’s not for first place. Instead, it’s a ‘dead last’ trophy. The trophy gets people asking questions, and then gets them laughing.

This was just one example of how Eugene gets people chatting and makes friends in the firm, and by extension builds a network and performs outreach. He had lots of other examples of really simple things we can do to get known out and about, like asking about someone’s photos on their office wall, or chatting about a sports game the night before. It may not feel like ‘work’, but it’s about creating connections and alliances with people who will advocate on our behalf. It’s about embracing opportunities for engaging in conversations.

On the pin board above my desk are two postcards of poppy-filled fields, which were there when I arrived. One person has asked about them, but because I didn’t put them there all I could do was agree that they’re pretty. Inspired by Eugene, I’m going to personalise my desk a bit more to have a conversation-starter, maybe a postcard from one of my own trips.

This, along with many of the other examples Eugene gave, are about find an excuse, or creating permission, to talk to your users and get yourself known. If they come to the library to chat about the football, they know where the library is when they have an information need.

At the time, I thought “this is all really basic, obvious stuff. Where’s the ground-breaking idea?”, but actually, having had some time to think about it more, I took an awful lot from this session. It also made me realise: not only is it okay to inject a little personality into your work, it can actually be a very good thing to make yourself and your service more memorable, and therefore people are more likely to use your service in future.

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