Published on February 1st, 2016 | by Thomas Maluck
Outreach – Let Your Library’s Geek Flag Fly!
Outreach events are always fun for me. It is easy to get absorbed in a “bubble” by being in the library full-time, so spending time with the public in other locations tends to energize me as I hear from people who may not use the library that much. Even better, the pop culture conventions that take place in my city are open to library outreach, meaning I get to spread the gospel as well as let my geek flag fly. Lots of both took place at this year’s BanzaiCon in Columbia, South Carolina, as I assembled a team of like-minded people from Richland Library to stump for the library’s resources over the three-day weekend event.
First things first: getting into the show. I contacted BanzaiCon’s organizers through the event’s website, and they offered us a table and asked how many free passes we would need (ticket prices ranged from $15-45, depending on which days). I sent an email to my library’s teen services mail group as well as some anime-friendly coworkers I knew, and wound up with a total of seven participants, including myself. The convention organizers said they could offer four free passes. I made it clear to the group that no one should have to pay to perform outreach, and I distributed the passes according to which four people could cover the table for the most time.
Some friends and coworkers advised that we simply hand off our passes as people come and go so that everyone could volunteer, but I wanted to stay honest in case a convention staffer caught us red-handed and blacklisted my library from future events – or worse, told other conventions that we disrespected their rules. Despite my straight-laced policy, when I arrived on the first day, I was asked “How many passes do you need?” and no one checked on us or tried to narc on our activities. Granted, BanzaiCon is a smaller convention in the scheme of things, with attendance around 2,000, so your mileage may vary for your local cons.
Outreach provided handouts, pencils, stickers, oversized library cards, and tablecloth, but this was no middle school job fair. My biggest goal in performing outreach at an anime convention for a weekend was anything but a passive, quiet operation. When asked if we would be allowed to cosplay during outreach, I gave an emphatic YES! My key conspirator and organizer toward this end was Amanda Holland, who brainstormed activities with me and did all the work so that they would be at the show. In other words, we are at the part of the article where you hear how great a job we did and steal our ideas! Wooooo!
As a piece of passive outreach, the trivia board worked great. Our table was located not too far past the registration table and entrance to the convention, meaning we got 100% of the eyeballs on their way in. Our trivia questions tested all kinds of pop culture knowledge, from YA fiction to manga, anime, Walking Dead, comics, and facts about the library’s collections. The trivia board seemed to appeal most to people who wanted to prove their knowledge, especially if they were wandering the convention floor with friends or family. Convention attendees are often the sort of people who want to participate and prove themselves, and this was a low-key way to do so. Next time we do this, however, we will make sure to stock up on more questions so we can refresh the board each day.
As chaotic as some conventions may seem, there are still fairly predictable elements to the events and cosplays that will be found. Amanda and I made up a list of things we expected to see at BanzaiCon and she uploaded them into a bingo card generator/randomizer at bingo.seksena.net. These were great to hand out to people who wanted some loose idea of “the convention experience” or even just something to do while they waited for a specific panel. Once these bingo sheets were out in the crowd, we would hear people squee when they spotted certain things that completed their bingo, like certain hair colors or outfits.
The picture says it all, doesn’t it? We were happy to see such a variety of responses, from earnest to snarky to wordy to illustrated. It’s also a great takeaway for the outreach team to show off as a metric of success – look how people at this event feel about the library! And nobody drew genitals on it!
Oversized Library Cards
Richland Library has different library card designs that are ostensibly for children, teens, and adults, with the phrases “Play Freely,” “Think Freely,” and “Access Freely,” respectively. In the context of a convention, we looked for opportunities to match our oversized cards to certain characters. Anyone from a videogame was a natural match for “Play Freely,” for example, and we would offer to email each photo to the cosplayer who posed for us. I flipped out upon meeting a group of cosplayers embodying the cast of the Earthbound (Mother in Japan) series of videogames, and posed with them.
Incentives: Family Fun & Sweet, Sweet Candy
Were people interacting with the library out of sheer interest and civic responsibility? Heavens, no! Plenty of people waltzed by without responding at all to our greetings or smiling faces, and that’s fine. However, each activity performed was rewarded with a small printed token, which could be redeemed for fun-sized candies at a rate of two tokens per candy. As many conventioneers would prove that weekend, it’s hard to stomp around a convention center for several hours day without a sugar boost. We also represented a family-friendly attraction that didn’t rely on specialized knowledge of a specific franchise (as many panels did) or a means to separate attendees from their cash (as the artist alley, vendors, cafe, and flea market did).
If you have any reservations about representing your library at a convention, I would say you have nothing to worry about. Everyone in attendance paid to be there (or got a free pass from volunteering/presenting), and you will inevitably run into power-users of your library who will tell you all about the dozens of manga they read thanks to your collection. As an added bonus, conventions are the perfect environment for the geekier folks within your organization to mix personal and professional interests, which does a world of good for making a good impression on passerby. Ideally, the crowd will win you over, too, and you’ll have a whole new kind of outreach to look forward to and generate stories.