Friday, January 25, 2008

What a bunch of cards! Guest post from Rebecca Metzger

While at ALA Midwinter, I was lucky to meet Rebecca Metzger, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. She took part in my committee's discussion group where she shared her library's fun approach to promoting their individual research consultation service. Rebecca graciously agreed to write up the initiative for LM, which I'm copying here in its entirety (with permission, as always):

A Service and its Public Face
For the past seven years, the Lafayette College Libraries have been creating and mailing humorous collectible postcards to students as a way of publicizing PRA (Personalized Research Assistance) sessions, which are essentially individual research consultations with reference librarians. PRA cards get the faces of reference librarians out to students in a comedic format that shakes up the stereotype of librarians as stodgy and serious, hopefully making us more approachable. The service and its publicity strategy developed hand-in-hand. Before Spring 2001, private student appointments with librarians were rare, but welcome. In a meeting, the reference staff agreed that we should make appointments a more explicit service. It took one brainstorming meeting to create the PRA name, which is similar to that of the WA (Writing Associate) peer tutoring service offered through our Writing Center. The first PRA postcard came about informally. As a joke, one of the librarians mocked up a spoof of the film Conan the Barbarian and the tagline, "Make an appointment with a reference barbarian today!" It was basic humor, it was typical of the library staff at Lafayette, and it just kind of stuck.

Pop Culture Appeal
The postcards, which are mailed to all students a few weeks into each semester, feature the faces of reference librarians superimposed on movie or TV stills, thus appealing to the visual and pop culture interests of most youth. On the back of each card is a URL directing students to an online sign-up form and witty text advertising the service that plays on slogans from the movie or TV show. For example, the recent "Mary PRAppins" card reads: "We may not be able to get the chim-chiminey back in your chim-chim-charoo, but a Personalized Research Assistance session with a reference librarian can help you find the books, journals, and online resources you need for a well-researched project that will make your professor say: SupercaliPRAgilisticexpilalidocious!"

Student Input

After that initial postcard, student workers were brought on board to execute the Photoshop manipulation and layout of the card, as well as to coordinate the printing and mailing with campus Reprographic services. It's time-consuming work for them but more fun than shelving books, and it helps bridge the generational gap. Thus, us "old" librarians don't make too many mistakes with movie and TV references that 18-22 year olds don't know. The reference staff still collaborates as a group to generate the ideas and content for each card, and I'm in charge of executing those ideas and overseeing the student worker. We're lucky here to have the budget and support that allows us to move forward relatively quickly on ideas without having to go through committees.

Building Traffic

For the first few years, a surge in appointments immediately after the mailing date was a clear indicator of the cards' impact. Being a small liberal arts campus helps, since our students are a relatively homogeneous group of approximately 2400 undergraduates who talk amongst themselves. When the PRA cards hit their mailboxes, which are all located in one setting, there is a mass visual impact even if the majority of the cards end up in the recycling bin. As the branded service has become more integrated on campus, there's less of an obvious peak in appointments immediately after the mailing. Traffic to the online PRA sign-up form is steady now throughout the semester, and generated not just from the cards but from outreach during instruction sessions, reference desk interactions, articles in parent newsletters, targeted correspondence with honors students, word-of-mouth, and the library website. While it remains an ongoing challenge to reach those students who have never heard of PRAs, students have been known to put the postcards up in their dorm rooms or diverge from a campus tour script to tell visitors about them. Some favorites among students are: Harry PRAtter and the Prisoner of Research and the SoPRAnos.

A gallery of the cards can be viewed online at

Thanks for sharing your library's efforts, Rebecca! There are a couple of elements here I'm especially fond of:
1. Student involvement helps to make sure the promotion makes sense to the intended audience. 2. No committees! Sometimes, committees are necessary I guess, but promotions need to be timely so staff flexibility is key.

Got a marketing initiative you want to share? E-mail me!

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