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Vol. 14 No. 1 • January/February 2000
• How-To •
Using a Character for Library Publicity
by Larry E. Eckholt

Smart ALECMeet Smart ALEC. He’s a bit of a nerd, with droopy ears, oversized glasses, and baggy pants. A pocket protector filled with pens is his only fashion accessory—unless you count the old-fashioned black tennis shoes that grace his feet. Some think he looks like a young Bill Gates. Smart ALEC has appeared in newspaper advertisements, newsletters, library journals, and other publications; he’s also been on refrigerator magnets, mouse pads, T-shirts, balloons, doorknob hangers, lapel buttons, posters, annual report covers, and the World Wide Web. He’s obviously a media junkie.

Smart ALEC is the Iowa City Public Library’s (ICPL) mascot for electronic library resources. ALEC stands for A Library Electronic Connection. He was conceived at an ICPL public relations committee meeting and soon will celebrate his second birthday. Little kids think he’s cute; some teenagers think he’s a bit twisted; most adults have found him to be very helpful. He’s become somewhat of a local personality since we introduced him to the Iowa City community in early 1998.

About 2 years ago, ICPL director Susan Craig challenged the library’s public relations committee to develop a publicity campaign that would introduce a new service that would soon be offered. The State Library of Iowa had selected the Iowa City Public Library as one of three in the state that would receive federal funds to install electronic information kiosks in their communities. Early in the discussion, the ICPL publicity committee decided it would be a good idea to “name” the kiosk. During a classic brainstorming session, the name “ALEC” emerged as the staff started putting letters of the alphabet together and creating acronyms. “Smart” was added to ALEC’s name for the obvious reason. The next step was “fleshing out” the character.

Introducing ‘the Nerdy Guy’
Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa, and has also been home to several well-known political cartoonists over the years, including Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad and Bloom County creator Berke Breathed. Currently, both Non Sequitur’s Wiley Miller and nationally published editorial cartoonist Joe Sharpnack reside in the community. Wiley’s characters tend to be a bit on the vampish side, while Sharpnack has a knack for creating goofy-looking but thoroughly engaging folks. Our library PR committee offered Sharpnack the opportunity to create the visual image that would become the cartoon character “Smart ALEC.” The concept was to place Smart ALEC in a series of cartoon-like newspaper advertisements promoting the new, soon-to-be-installed electronic kiosk.

Sharpnack took on the project with gusto. Smart ALEC’s persona grew out of Sharpnack’s very first conceptual drawings: The image of a relatively young (he could be a precocious teenager who’s gotten a head start on college) computer “nerd” seemed to be appropriate. After getting the go-ahead from the PR committee, the artist developed the rough sketches of ALEC into a series of images that could be used on promotional items. The plan was to introduce Smart ALEC over a period of time. The phrase “Who is this nerdy guy?” appeared, along with ALEC’s smiling face, in the library’s monthly newsletter, The Window, a couple of months before the scheduled installation of the information kiosk at a local shopping mall. Soon our staff started sporting Smart ALEC T-shirts, and “Smart ALEC Knows ALL!” buttons were offered to the public—even though the public had no idea who Smart ALEC was.

Craig had allocated $5,000 for the entire Smart ALEC campaign—more than is generally available for this library’s PR efforts, but a relatively modest amount for such an ambitious effort. After paying the artist (who gave the library all rights to use his image at no extra cost), the committee had about $3,800 to spend, including $1,800 for a series of ads in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, which were scheduled to start running 2 weeks before the kiosk was unveiled. In addition to the T-shirts and buttons, plans included creating three “life-sized” cutout images of ALEC that could be displayed anywhere. We also engaged the services of a local graphic design firm to help create the newspaper ads.

Searching for a Font of Information
Early in the creative planning process we decided that the fictional Smart ALEC would embark on a journey throughout Iowa City to find a “new source for information” that could answer just about any question imaginable. Twelve cartoon panels were created; the challenge was to make sure that each advertisement could stand on its own while the 11-part series told a story that would culminate in the disclosure of where this new “font of information”—the electronic information kiosk—was located. The timing of the newspaper ads was crucial since the last ad had to appear in the paper on the day the kiosk was available for use.
On June 23, 1998, Smart ALEC was on hand at the Sycamore Mall when Iowa City mayor Ernie Lehman and library board president Jesse Singerman presided over the ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the kiosk’s debut. Smart ALEC had, it seemed, fulfilled his mission—but he wasn’t going retire just yet! By this time, we had decided Smart ALEC had a bigger job ahead.

Earlier in 1998, the Iowa City Public Library had received two grants to enhance its electronic services.  With so many new services soon to be offered at the library, the PR committee decided that Smart ALEC should become the permanent mascot for computer-based services as they came online during the months to come.

Smart ALEC Connects @ ICPL
Reaction to the Smart ALEC campaign had been very positive, although word filtered back that some local teenagers thought his “nerdy” look was somewhat derogative to young people. Youngsters, especially, seemed to relate to ALEC’s presence, especially in the children’s room when an ALEC cutout was put on display. So the notion of keeping ALEC “alive” for an indefinite period of time seemed to be a good idea. Images of Smart ALEC were used on several library publications during 1998 and 1999, including the cover of the Welcome Window, a special edition of the newsletter distributed to all Iowa City and rural Johnson County households, the cover of the library’s annual report, and a special section of the ICPL Friends Foundation’s annual report.

The library’s new automated system and the enhancements to its electronic reference resources were introduced in April 1999. Playing off the American Library Association’s National Library Week 1999 campaign—Read! Learn! Connect! @ the Library—we created our own poster featuring Smart ALEC espousing the same message.

With the new automated system came a somewhat controversial new service: We started printing checkout receipts with due dates, rather than directly stamping items with due dates. To help patrons hang on to their checkout receipts, the familiar image of Smart ALEC was reproduced on 20,000 refrigerator magnets that were given out at the circulation desk. We also printed our URL ( and phone number for call-in and log-in renewals on the magnets.

Interestingly, this second Smart ALEC campaign actually cost more than the first one. Library director Craig had earmarked about $6,000 of her FY99 promotion budget—which comes from sources not related to the tax-generated general operating budget from the city—to promoting the new automated system. In addition, the $60,000 grant from the Carver Trust included $5,000 to inform the public about the new services to be introduced with the new computer system. Consequently, there was about $11,000 to spend on the various efforts behind the “Read! Learn! Connect!” campaign.

The 20,000, four-color refrigerator magnets cost just over $6,000. The library also purchased 300 colorful Smart ALEC mouse pads, using them for our workstations, for purchase, and for promotional purposes as well. A variation of the images used on the magnets and mouse pads was used on the 1,000 color posters printed for the campaign at a cost of $1,500. Newspaper ads—also using the “Read! Learn! Connect!” message—were placed during the 2-week period following the installation of the new computers, and that cost $1,500, including design.

Smart ALEC Takes a Rest
As an incentive to get the public to sign up for training on the new system, we sponsored a major giveaway promotion. A local computer store donated a personal computer, a year’s worth of free Internet service, several software packages, and other items—valued at over $1,500—to the library. People who signed up for training classes or who attended an all-day library open house featuring classes and one-on-one training sessions could register to win the free computer. Local personalities videotaped 20-second testimonials promoting the Iowa City Public Library that aired on the library’s cable television channel during the month. Throughout the entire campaign, Smart ALEC’s smiling face was everywhere. Some may have thought it was overkill.

That is why Smart ALEC is currently “on vacation.”  He has been the center of a very busy 18-month-long publicity campaign and needed a rest. The library staff is busy, too, working out the kinks that always accompany the massive conversion to new computer-related services and systems. His next project has not yet been determined, but he will be back.

The word is that Smart ALEC is on a shopping spree to improve his wardrobe and, perhaps, he’ll get a new haircut. After all, even Bill Gates had a makeover last year.

Larry E. Eckholt has been the Iowa City Public Library’s development director since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and served as a Des Moines Register staff writer for 8 years. He was the arts fundraiser for the University of Iowa Foundation for 12 years and was director of communications and development for The Ohio State University‘s Wexner Center for the Arts. His e-mail address is

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