Everybody talks about the work they do. It’s a staple topic of conversation over meals, at meetings, during sporting events, in hallways, on airplanes, between classes, and yes, sometimes in elevators. Most librarians realize that they should have an “elevator speech” about their work, but few actually do.
The origin of that phrase is simple: When you’re in an elevator with someone, and you’re riding together for a few floors, what can you say to make an impression in that brief time? Ideally, you should have a few well-crafted sentences to share; a practiced way to answer a question such as “So, what’s going on in the library?” or “What do you do at work?”
Sure, you can just stumble through an answer, but then you miss out on a teachable moment. It’s important to remember that a majority of people don’t really know what librarians do. Too many folks think we just read all day, check out books, and fix printer jams. This lack of understanding is part of the reason that we have to fight for funding and to constantly assure stakeholders that the internet did not (and cannot) replace library collections and their highly skilled caretakers.
If you work in a library, you’re probably not in a high-rise building with lots of non-librarians. Besides, nowadays, elevator riders usually stare at their shoes, their phones, or, if they’re lucky, a news screen. Few people want to start conversations between floors anymore. But you can easily find other opportunities to deliver something akin to an elevator speech.
In direct conflict with what your parents taught you, I encourage you to talk to strangers—about the goodness of libraries, at least. As a library marketer and advocate, I do this all of the time. I could be waiting in a line or talking to sports teammates between games. One of my favorite targets, though, is cabdrivers: They’re often talkative, and taxi rides offer great opportunities for one-on-one conversations that are brief but not so short that you can’t get a point across. This is how I do it.
Here’s What I Hear Too Often
I travel a good bit, and I always try to bring up the topic of libraries wherever I go. I especially like chatting with taxi drivers, because once they’re on the road, they often ask, “What brings you to town?” I usually tell them that I’ve come to attend a library conference or to do training for librarians. They almost always respond with surprise. Here are some of the common replies I hear:
“Wow, librarians have conferences?”
“So I guess your job won’t be around much longer, eh, since libraries are all going away?”
“Too bad ebooks are killing all the libraries.”
“I haven’t been to a library in years!”
“So now that everything is on the internet, I guess libraries will be closing.”
To anyone who works in LibraryLand, these responses can be annoying, hurtful, or downright aggravating. To me, as a library marketing expert, they’re terrifying.
These responses scare me so much because they prove just how little the general public knows about libraries and how seldom they use or think about them. The fact that so many people from all walks of life think that libraries are dying could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because when someone asks them about making a donation, attending a library event, signing up for a card, or voting for a budget increase, they’ll think it’s totally unnecessary.
And Here’s How I Reply
Because of all of my experiences, I’ve learned to make sure I can reply with something short, memorable, educational—maybe even stunning. Here, again, are the questions I get, now paired with some of my favorite answers:
Driver: “Wow, librarians have conferences?”
Me: “Oh my gosh, yes, there are lots of librarian conferences, all around the world. They have so many things to discuss and keep up with: computer technology, social media, copyright laws, web design, tons of stuff!” (Note that I didn’t mention books.)
Driver: “So I guess your job won’t be around much longer, eh, since libraries are all going away?”
Me: “Oh, libraries aren’t going away! In fact, people are using them more than ever. I mean, libraries offer computer classes, homework help, events and activities for teens, free classes for adults, free ebooks, and tons of other things. Some even loan things like garden tools, games, guitars, and more. If anything, libraries need more staff and more funding to keep up with public demand.” (Note that I mention funding and demand.)
Driver: “Too bad ebooks are killing all the libraries.”
Me: “Not at all; libraries loan ebooks too!” [Driver often gives a look of disbelief.] “If you’ve been buying all your ebooks online, you should check out your local library’s website. You can probably download some from there, for free.” (Note that I say “free.”)
Driver: “I haven’t been to a library in years!”
Me: “Gosh, you should go back! You won’t believe how much libraries have changed. The well-funded ones are full of computers and technology. You can borrow movies and music along with your books, or ebooks. There are all kinds of computer classes; some even have concerts. I’ll tell ya, it ain’t your grandma’s library anymore.” (Note that I say “the well-funded ones,” partly so they’ll realize that not all are like that, and partly so they’ll understand what needs to change if they don’t have the good stuff at their own libraries.)
Driver: “So now that everything is on the internet, I guess libraries will be closing.”
Me: “That’s not the case at all! First, only a fraction of the world’s knowledge is available for free on the internet. The best info is hidden away in databases that experts build. Libraries pay tens of thousands of dollars to subscribe to those databases so people can access them for free. Also, you know, you can’t trust everything on the internet. Librarians know where the trustworthy info is, and they can find it for you really quickly.” (Note that I explain what databases are; many think they’re the same as Google.)
Inevitably, these “cabbie chats” turn into longer conversations. Once I’ve piqued the drivers’ interest, they ask further questions. Then they’re more likely to hear and remember what I say.
So you can see how easy it is to educate your average Joe. (I can only recall having two female cabdrivers, ever.) One reason I recommend talking with these drivers is that you have much more time than you would during an elevator ride. So while you still need a good initial response to the stereotypical question “Aren’t libraries going away?” you can really have a meaningful 5- or 10-minute conversation after that.
How to Prepare for Taxi Chats
While this is a pretty simple thing for anyone to do, it works better with a little preparation. Here’s how to do it really well.
1. Choose your pithy responses ahead of time. These can come from many places. If you don’t already have your own favorites, write down ideas that you like. You can get useful facts and quotes from ALA at ala.org/offices/ola/quotablefacts/quotablefacts. I also have a whole chapter on this in my book, The Accidental Library Marketer (tinyurl.com/not4bzf).
2. Make sure your chosen comebacks are free of library lingo. Saying “Our circulation is through the roof, and people use our programming more than ever” is not clear to outsiders. (Circulation? Isn’t that what my blood does? Programming? Isn’t that what makes my computer run?) Speaking the way your listener does is key to ensuring that he understands you, plus it improves his chances of recalling and repeating what you said.
3. Once you have one or two attention-getting or shock-inducing phrases, practice them aloud. Seriously. This will make a huge difference in your delivery. Practice in front of the mirror or with family or friends. (Better yet, make this a librarywide exercise or a staff meeting topic.) You need to memorize your phrase and make sure you can say it without stumbling over words in order to have maximum impact. Also, visualize yourself doing this to build confidence.
4. Be ready to answer queries such as “What do librarians really do?” with big-picture, pie-in-the-sky responses. Rather than saying, “In addition to checking out books, we offer classes, do storytimes for kids, and manage computer systems,” you want to say truly impressive things like these:
“Librarians ensure that anyone can get free and equal access to vital information.”
“Librarians save lives by providing education, hope, job-search help, medical information, and more. We serve all of our community’s information needs.”
“Libraries are the cornerstones of democracy.”
“Librarians organize, preserve, and share all of the world’s information.”
Then, if your listener is curious (or suitably impressed), he’ll ask just how that happens. That’s your chance to share more details.
For extra credit, learn a little about the libraries in the town you’re visiting. If you’re heading to a major conference, there may be an event planned in the host city’s library, and info will have been provided to you. Or just check out the website. You can impress people by telling them something about their town that they didn’t already know. I’ve found this to be true with cabbies especially because they like to be experts on their areas so they can make recommendations to out-of-towners. So you may be able to say, “Did you know the library system here has some of the highest usage in the country/state?” Or maybe, “I read that your library has a Makerspace, and I’m eager to go see it.” (He may not know what a Makerspace is, so there’s another entrée to show how high-tech libraries can be.) Maybe, “The library here has become rather famous for ____.”
And by the way, you don’t need to wait for the driver to ask you a question. Feel free to start the conversation. Comment on the city, ask the driver how long he’s been a cabbie, mention that you’re excited to be in town for the library conference, or ask where the local library is, since you’re eager to visit while on your vacation.
What Not to Say or Do
While I’m telling you how to do this well, I should also mention a few things that you definitely should not do.
1. Don’t get defensive or snarky. While it may be infuriating to hear someone say, “I have no use for libraries; I use the internet,” remember that the person isn’t being rude; he just doesn’t know any better. Sometimes I’ll slide into my talking point with, “Well, that’s a really common misconception. But the truth is that ...”
2. Don’t argue. Simply inform. If the person doesn’t believe what you’re saying about how much libraries are used, have an emergency comeback at the ready. One of my personal favorites is “If libraries no longer mattered, then I doubt that Bill Gates, one of the smartest men in the country, would still be supporting them with millions of dollars.” Or flip the conversation with something like “Well, that may be true in your experience. But in my community ...” Agree to disagree if you must. You can’t win ’em all.
3. Never, ever go into a diatribe about how busy your library is, or start listing all of the individual tasks you do: “People use my library all the time! In a typical day, I answer 30 reference questions, fix the computers 10 times, do a storytime for a bunch of loud kids, and teach two classes.” This is the quickest way to lose someone. It’s difficult to accept, but really, nobody wants to hear how hard you work or how many times you had to clean up messes in the restrooms. Leave people with positive feelings.
Changing Minds One at a Time
Of course, these tactics are good for more than just cabdrivers. No matter where I am, people’s reactions to my saying I work for libraries are almost always the same: They wonder whether libraries will be around much longer.
It’s essential to be able to counter these doubts with facts. It’s vital to be able to answer questions about why libraries matter in the internet age. If librarians, trustees, Friends, and advocates can’t communicate the value in casual, individual conversations, then who can?