Public Relations in Small Libraries
The Courage to Cooperate

Dirk Wissen
Dirk Wissen | Photo (detail): © private

The services and products available in small libraries are often not perceived in the right way by the general public. In this interview Dirk Wissen talks about how the services and products available at libraries can be presented more effectively as part of a city's educational and cultural scene.

Mr Wissen, why are public relations especially important for smaller libraries?

While large cultural institutions often have their own public relations departments, in smaller libraries it is not only the money and trained staff that is lacking, but also the courage and self-confidence to embrace public relations. There are, however, many wonderful opportunities to implement projects without high running costs and additional staff and still ensure they are noticed by the media and talked about in the networks. Public relations must not necessarily involve costly advertising campaigns, so much can be achieved with just a few nice, little interpersonal activities. One of the focuses should be on cooperation.

100 days – 100 tea lights

Can you give me a few examples of some of the successful activities you have experienced in your professional practice?

In my first 100 days as the new manager of a municipal public library, I invited 100 personalities from the city’s educational and cultural life to a cup of espresso and a chat. They ranged from the city’s mayor to the caretaker. All kinds of collaborations and network links emerged from the project. On the 100th day I held a public reception. I had already invited many journalists as part of the project, so the media were both involved and informed right from the start. This ensured that the reception would be reported on in a positive way.

Another example of a successful public relations promotion would be the time I coooperated with a light artist, who had used tea lights as decorations for a village festival. I asked her to use tea lights to decorate the front facade of our library. We placed tea lights on all the library’s outer window sills. As we were working with open fire, a group of volunteers took on the task of ensuring public safety. We invited photojournalists and there were some great photos of the whole event that had real PR-impact. The event was reminiscent of a flash mob: “Why don’t you drop by, something might happen tonight.”

Cooperation is a public relations instrument

How can the library itself contribute to public relations?

Only by cooperating with others. Regardless of whether it is an event, a press release or a campaign, the library should always look for partners. By observing the way other institutes operate, you can learn so much, gain so many new insights and make use of the typical synergies that evolve from cooperation. In this way, a library does not stand as an isolated entity in the public eye, but emits a cooperative signal to the outside world. Then, when you back up the event with artists, photographers and a team of volunteers, the event will be framed in the right setting.

What other public relations options do small libraries with limited means have?

If you have little or no budget for public relations, you can hold a small event as part of a campaign that has been organized for example by a parent library association. Then your local event will be reported on within the framework of the larger campaign. I think it depends on the idea at first, then the courage to be creative and motivated and finally to implement the concept. In order to find the right partners, you have to communicate your plans and goals in a way that ensures they will be understood. Such partners might be officials from the fields of education and culture or persons from the realms of administration and politics. You can offer them the opportunity to hold their next club meeting or their next committee meeting in the library. A mixture of individuals and institutional partners such as schools, community colleges and daycare centres is good. It is also important to frequently attend receptions or functions organised by the city in order to come into contact with many people. That can be strenuous and it means a lot of communication work, but it is worth it.

At the International Book Fair in Guatemala you will be holding a workshop on public relations for smaller libraries. What are some of the topics you will be dealing with?

At the workshop in Guatemala I intend to develop a module for designing public relations projects, using the ideas I am given by the participants of the workshop. An environmental analysis will probably be the first thing we will work on – what possibilities does the library have locally, for example, and what is the library’s budget and administrative structure? Each individual library has to be dealt with in an individual way.
Dirk Wissen, born in Münster in Westphalia, studied in Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. He attained a doctorate in Vienna in 2007 with a thesis on “The Future of Bibliography – Bibliography of the future”.From 2008 to 2015 he was in charge of the Stadt- und Regionalbibliothek Frankfurt/Oder (City and Regional Library of Frankfurt/Oder) and while he was there he introduced a new concept of public relations. Wissen is currently a lecturer at various universities, including Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne.