Libraries Work To Boost Image, Funding

A splashy new campaign moves to update the image of public libraries. "Geek the Library" isn't just aimed a patrons but at potential funders. It shows off the many services libraries offer to many kinds of patrons.

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A jolly green giant has convinced generations of Americans to eat their peas, and a caveman has at least tried to make auto insurance hip. Well, now, public libraries are hoping that a catchy national ad campaign can change their image.

Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports.

NINA KECK: Most of us can remember a song or a jingle our libraries used to get us to come in and check out more books. The Online Computer Library Center is a nonprofit organization that helps libraries around the world. It says what libraries really need is a marketing campaign designed to promote better funding. So with more than $6 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the center hired advertising giant Leo Burnett.

Charley Wickman, who was part of that creative team, says, first, they had to blast through all the stereotypes.

Mr. CHARLEY WICKMAN (Executive Vice President, Leo Burnett): Oh, a library. Well, it's that quiet place, and the newspapers are on those long wooden poles, and there's rows and rows of books and whatever. They kind of have this thing in their mind.

KECK: To jar those thoughts, Wickman says they paired sophisticated photographs of library patrons with a quirky catchphrase: Geek the Library.

Mr. WICKMAN: You might put geek and library together as, yeah, the library is a place where, like, geeky people go. But when we broke that mental synapse and said, no, no, no, no, the library is a place where cool people go to get their geek on about whatever it is they geek on, and that's the thing that made it jump off billboards. That's the thing that made it jump out of posters. That's the thing that made it change the way people thought about the library, and it got a really quick reaction.

Ms. LISA MISER: It's always exciting when someone takes a word like geek and turns it into a verb.

KECK: Lisa Miser, a librarian in Proctor, Vermont, has put up several Geek the Library posters around her town. They show charismatic faces on inky black backgrounds. The words I Geek Superheroes appear under one face. Another face has the words I Geek Barbecue.

Ms. MISER: Growing up in the '80s, geek was kind of, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MISER: ...we know what geek was. But for someone to like say, hey, that word can be hip, there's something very cool about that - the faces, the way the posters are done - and I think it's cool to lots of different people. And that's what you want to do is you want to hit everybody.

Unidentified Woman: You know, they did one in Missouri, where they went...

KECK: In Rutland, Vermont, a huge 10-by-4-foot poster of Lenny Montuori, a popular hotdog vendor, hangs outside the library. He geeks photography. Library officials were so impressed by the geek campaign, they asked about a dozen well-known locals to appear on posters.

Rutland resident Malaina Elliott glances at one while she checks out a movie.

Ms. MALAINA ELLIOTT: It gets your attention. You're like geek what? I'm sorry? Excuse me? It's really neat. I think it's great that the library is pushing so hard to get people to come back.

KECK: Library director Paula Baker says she hopes the buzz will generate more action from taxpayers and calls to local officials saying...

Ms. PAULA BAKER (Rutland Free Library): We need more hours from that library. We want more children's programs from that library, and we want you to do something about it.

KECK: And next time their library appeals for donations, she hopes locals will be more likely to geek their checkbooks.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vermont.

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