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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > September/October 2005

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Information Today
Vol. 19 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2005
Cover Story

Off the Soapbox and into the Derby Car: Librarians Go Racing
By Judith Kirk and Brad Dennis

There they were: The dean of the libraries, staff, faculty, and our student workers doing something completely unprecedented—working side-by-side to create an entry for the ­university’s annual Soapbox Derby.

The soapbox derby is a 30-year-old tradition at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalama­zoo. Several of the entrants are serious competitors from the engineering departments and student engineering organizations. Of course, many more entrants are from various student organizations and social fraternities just having fun. At first, the Library Staff Advisory Board proposed the idea as a fun event that could potentially bring library staff, faculty, administration, and students together on a collaborative project. Only later did we realize that it was also a great opportunity to mingle with students and to change the perceptions that students often have of their traditional university library.

How We Got into Derby Racing

The first Western Michigan University Libraries Soapbox Derby car was created in the fall semester of 2003. Our theme that year was "Where's Waldo?," named after the first president of WMU (circa 1903) and namesake of the main library on campus, Dwight B. Waldo Library.

We figured we’d be no match for the engineering students, who often dominate the ­winners’ circle. But we did have some practical expertise in spouses and friends of staff and students, and an entire arsenal of library resources at our command. Starting with student knowledge in automobile mechanics and professional knowledge of plastics manipulation and toy science-fiction death-ray gun design, the enthusiastic team of workers got underway.

The pit crew members of 2003 were Amy Proni, special format cataloger, and her husband Tulio, who were lead engineers with Bryon Vlier, who actually is an engineer. His wife Eri Vlier, special format cataloger, is also an artist and created team T-shirt designs for library employees in 2003 and 2004, in addition to working on the car. Jim Dexheimer, rare book and fast cataloging coordinator; Michael McDonnell, associate professor and head of government documents; Satit Chamigra­nont, government documents evening supervisor; John Winchell, university archives curator; and Chad Biddix, our gov docs student assistant all lent some elbow grease to put the car together. Brad Wistinghausen was pressed into service as the car’s first driver, as well as another mechanic.

Faculty, staff, and students spent hours in employees’ garages discussing, designing, and finally constructing the derby car. Aerodynamic principles figured prominently into the design of the vehicle, and the team took great care to create a functioning steering mechanism and, more importantly, a brake.

Gratitude is due dean of libraries Joseph Reish who personally funded a good portion of this venture, and who also took great pride in baiting his fellow deans about the prowess of our derby car before it had even been tested. The pressure was on!

Once the car had been built, the Decorations Committee, headed by Judy Kirk, authority control coordinator, took over. Since 2003 marked WMU’s centennial celebration, we wanted to highlight the past 100 years with our car, and to also poke gentle fun at Dwight B. Waldo with our car’s theme. For several months, cataloging department staff saved book jackets, which were cut apart and attached to the inside of the car. Several university landmarks and personages figured into this collage as well, including former president Waldo, dean Reish, and the current university president. We also included many images and ideas from the recent Where’s Waldo? books.

For a finishing touch, we added an old Michigan license plate that read 131 WMU. We even ensured that the derby car could park legally on campus by obtaining a current faculty/staff parking sticker.

How the Soapbox Derby Works

Usually the Derby Day is held on Friday of homecoming week, the first or second week in October. Derby Day 2003 was hot and humid. Enthusiasm was running high. The test runs we’d made with the car were promising, and everyone was eager to see how we’d hold up against the engineering students. Many faculty, staff, and students wore their T-shirts to the race to support us.

The derby traditionally works like this: Com­petitors’ names are drawn out of a hat and placed in brackets in pairs on a big tournament-style chart. Every driver races at least twice. Those who win their first race are placed in a bracket to race other first-place winners. Those who lose their first heat are placed in a bracket against others who lost. Cars have to be less than 6' long with axle lengths between 3 and 5 feet. There are also some other crazy rules like mandatory helmets, no glass windows, and no added weight to the car to make it go faster. The University Police help by blocking cross traffic for a short 1-minute run on a curved campus road known as Gilkison Avenue. The engineering students measured the lanes and discovered that the outside lane is 8' longer than the inside lane. But the starting blocks are not staggered, so, for obvious reasons, the outside lane is bad luck.

The assortment of entries was amazing and reflected all levels of expertise. One in particular attempted to imitate the black Lincoln Continental from National Lampoon’s Animal House, sporting a gleaming silver skull with lit red eyes on the hood. A group of students decorated a grocery cart, which promptly fell over at the beginning of its first heat. Undaunted, their team posed around it while friends took pictures. Other cars had wheels pop off and steering wheels break, and some entries just disintegrated entirely (but no serious injuries occurred).

How We Fared in the Races

The library team had reporters on the scene who used their cell phones to call in the results to the administrative secretary, who e-mailed Race Bulletins to everyone in the library. More faculty, staff, and students came out during their lunch breaks to cheer us on.

Almost unbelievably, our car kept winning ... and winning! One by one, the student cars fell by the wayside (or just literally fell off the starting ramp). It was becoming clear that age and experience were overcoming youthful enthusiasm. Some of the students began enthusiastically supporting our car, and one student crowed jubilantly, “The library’s kickin’ ass!”

Finally, there were two teams left—ours and the indomitable Society of Physical Engineers (driving a tried-and-true car from past years). In a final, exciting heat, we were nosed out (by 1 lousy foot!) at the very end. But coming in second was a tremendous rush for everyone. No one was more surprised than we were! We made such a splash that Library Journal mentioned us in November 2003 for the creative marketing idea. The local campus newspaper also mentioned us.

Finishing a close second inspired us to enter again in 2004. We made some basic repairs. (We replaced a top panel that had cracked and replaced the wheels with a second set of official Soapbox Derby wheels.) The team also removed the 2003 decorations and held a contest to create a new slogan. Brad Dennis, education librarian, joined the pit crew and led the contest where all staff, faculty, and students employed by the WMU Libraries were encouraged to think of slogans and to vote. Our new slogan was “More Than Books @ Your Library.”

Derby Day 2004 was overcast, and much cooler than 2003. We held a pep rally (and had also planned a post-race pizza party). Once again, however, there were three engineering entries. Pride was a major issue for them; there was no way they would be defeated again by “some bunch of librarians”!

Once again, the savvy of the driver (this year it was Nick Dombrowski, central reference student assistant) and the aerodynamic design helped the University Libraries’ entry move its way up the ladder. Luck of the draw often put our car in the outside, longer lane. Despite this, we still held our own until the quarter-finals, when we were finally defeated by the entry that went on to win the Derby itself. That car had been created by a pair of honors engineering students as part of an independent project. So for the second time we didn’t win, but we’d lost to the car that eventually did.

What the Derby Entries Have Done for Us

We made a lot of admiring friends of the students who enjoyed seeing us out there playing right next to them. We had made a great opportunity for the Western Michigan University Libraries to meet with students and to show them that we are not a bunch of “stuffy librarians,” but rather, approachable people who like to have as much fun as they do. It was a gamble that paid off, this marketing tool. It also brought faculty, staff, and students together in the library in a way that hadn’t happened before, and it bodes well for future endeavors. (We do plan to enter the derby again this fall.)

We even took the Western Michigan University Libraries Soapbox Derby car to ALA and displayed it at the Swap & Shop in Chicago. Now, the derby car continues to promote our library and our refreshed image. It sits in the rotunda of Dwight B. Waldo Library, visible to all patrons who enter.

Our library, like yours, is indeed “more than books.” Ultimately, it is a service and it is real people working hard, both behind the scenes and in public service areas, creating new and innovative ways to bring the library to the guests that we serve.


Judith Kirk is the authority control coordinator at Western Michigan University Libraries in Kalamazoo. She has a English and library science from WMU. Her e-mail address is

Brad Dennis is assistant professor and education librarian at WMU. He is also the chair of the University Libraries marketing committee. Dennis has a B.A. in history from WMU and an M.L.I.S. from Wayne State University. His e-mail address is

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