Public libraries are an integral part of American communities - offering not just books, but free Internet access, programs for toddlers and teens, meeting rooms for local organizations, and more. But, like other publicly-funded services, they are facing hard times. Libraries across the United States hope a glossy, multi-million dollar ad campaign will help boost their image and funding.
Paula Baker stands near the front desk at the public library she directs in Rutland, Vermont. She says that while they still check out plenty of books and movies - they also offer electronic books and so called e-book equipment, and lots of downloadable stuff - audio files and full text databases that can provide help on anything from homework to finding a job. She says it's interesting to see how people react when she explains that.
"The eyes light up and click, it happens, 'I didn't know you had this,'" Baker said.
And that's the problem. Because when people in a community don't realize all the things services their library has to offer - they're less likely to adequately fund it.
"For this library, we've run at a deficit for the last two years and next year we're looking at a larger deficit amount," explained Baker.
Funding shortfalls are affecting libraries across the United States. Jenny Johnson is Executive Director of Marketing for the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). It's a nonprofit organization that helps libraries around the world. Johnson says that while there have been a lot of marketing campaigns aimed at promoting library usage, none have focused on increasing funding for libraries. So, with more than six million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the OCLC set out to change that.
"We believed from the get go that it couldn't be something as you know - pictures of kids in libraries reading books and isn't this lovely," Johnson noted. "We knew from the research that we had to get people to think about the library differently."
They hired advertising firm Leo Burnett to do that. Charley Wickman, part of the creative team who worked on the campaign, says first they had to blast through all the stereotypes.
"Oh a library 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," said Wickman.
To jar those thoughts, Wickman says they paired dramatic photographs of library users with a quirky new catchphrase Geek the Library. The noun, Geek has been used for years as American slang, to describe bookish, socially awkward people. But Wickman says today, the word has taken on a more positive spin and describes what people are passionate about.
"You might put geek and library together - as yeah, the library's a place where like, geeky people go. But when we broke that mental synapse and said no, no, no, the library is a place for cool people to go and get their geek on and that's the thing that made it jump off billboards and jump on posters - that's the way it got people to think about the library different and it got the really quick reaction," Wickman explained.
"It's always exciting when someone takes a word like geek and turns it into a verb," said Lisa Miser, a librarian in Proctor, Vermont who has several Geek the Library posters on display. They show charismatic faces on inky black backgrounds. The words 'I Geek Mythology' appear under one face. Another face has the words, 'I geek barbecue.' Still another photograph shows the face of a grinning young boy - who geeks worms.
"I mean growing up in the 1980s, Geek - we know what geek was," Miser recalled. "But for someone to 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 you want to hit everybody."
OCLC officials agree. When the posters were displayed at libraries in southern Georgia and Iowa last year, public recognition of the campaign far surpassed expectations.
At the public library in Rutland, administrators were so impressed with the free campaign they personalized it and incorporated photos of well known local residents. Malaina Elliott stopped at the front desk to check out a book and glances at one of the posters, a school official who geeks penguins.
"It gets your attention - you're like, 'Geek what? I'm sorry, excuse me?' It's really neat I think it's great the library is pushing so hard to get people back," said Elliott.
Library Director Paula Baker hopes the added attention will generate more action from voters and more letters to local officials saying:
"We need more hours from that library," said Baker. "We need more children's programs from our library and we want you to do something about it.
And the next time the library appeals for donations, she hopes locals will be more likely to 'geek' their checkbooks.