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Commentary – SMK
Where do I begin? First and foremost I want to thank Rod Wagner and Mike Foley for agreeing to appear on the program. I definitely wanted to hear both sides to a very unique case. Many lessons can be taken from this matter.
What lessons can be learned from this? That question deceptively sounds simple. There are many things to learn from this case.
This episode shows a clear and present danger to libraries. Libraries need not worry about community censors or evil “corporate” shills. The clear and present danger to libraries is the failure to communicate in an effective manner so that people outside the profession can understand.
As the auditor noted in his interview, he could care less about games in libraries. He cares when video appears on YouTube that appears to show state employees shovel-leaning on the state's time. While librarians may feel that nothing wrong was done by the librarians testing recently received equipment, public perception was not anticipated adequately. Without any disclaimer that the video was a promotional piece or what it was about, what could a reasonable taxpayer lacking any sort of context think?
The explanation we were given from the Nebraska Library Commission should have been out in the open before the auditor became involved. As for marketing an effort and explaining why tax dollars are going towards it, this could not in good conscience be called a good faith effort. This sort of corner cutting presents a tremendous danger in all libraries especially including ones that rely on voter-approved tax levies. In such libraries, any online expression like this would be institutional suicide during campaign season. While it might seem like an “inside baseball” matter of esoterica to staff involved, the use of social media tools normally results in it being public knowledge instead.
Librarians are masters of information, not the universe. Librarians cannot do it all. This incident highlights the importance of having a publicist or other public relations professional on-staff. They may not be librarians but their purpose is to help you navigate the world outside the library's walls. Most learn fairly quickly so they can integrate themselves into your organization and be able to represent you to the world outside.
Such a person should be an essential position in any library budget and they most certainly should not have the title of “librarian” regardless of any feelings of hyper-egalitarianism that may be possibly present. Media organizations understand what a publicist does but are utterly baffled when it comes to some of the more exotic librarian job titles that exist today. Hire a publicist, not an External Relations Librarian or worse.
Today's turbulent economic times are not going to be easy for libraries as they might have been previously. Taxpayers, the people who pay the bills that keep most libraries running, are scrutinizing expenditures in their own lives and by entities that act on their behalf. Whether librarians like it or not, the paradigm of acting like cloistered monks who are trusted without fail is no longer viable.
Get out there. Tell people what you are doing loud and clear with a minimum of jargon. Do not be discouraged if nobody seems to listen. Keep your clippings file up to date so, at a minimum, you can at least point out if questioned that you did attempt to keep the public informed. Interacting with the community around you in an appropriate way bringing credit to your institutions is the right way to go.
Please take a look at the YouTube channel of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. A local public relations professional in the Las Vegas Valley created it for the SNWA. Such is a good example of acting online appropriately.
Above all else, please do not listen to this episode passively but rather actively.