Exhibiting Awesome Outreach

Posted: April 29, 2013 in Uncategorized

While on twitter one late evening I stumbled upon a call out for submissions to a project called “Show me the Awesome.” The aim of this project is to highlight some of the awesome things that we librarians are doing out in the world. I thought to myself, “Hey, why not participate and talk about all the exhibit work that you do?” So, here goes. I am a Research and Instruction Librarian who loves programming and outreach. I have worked at several different types of libraries– public, a big 10 university, and now, Wellesley College, a small liberal arts college for women. While the patrons are all slightly different at each institution, one thing remains consistent, the need for effective outreach. But not just any outreach but the kind that gets patrons excited and through the library’s doors. A good reason to give up some of their time and spend it with you. This is the challenging part because our patrons have lives and things are happening in those lives every single second. Competing with that noise is difficult but not impossible.

One way I like to do outreach is through traveling exhibits. These are wicked fantastic.  No, really, they are. My advice to anyone who is interested in bringing a traveling exhibit to their library is to sign up for the Programming Librarian PPO program through the American Library Association. Every so often, ALA will email you with upcoming traveling exhibits with a chance to write a grant to receive the exhibit for its first run. Why is this important? Because the first run often comes with money! Yes, free money that you and your institution can use to bring in speakers and guest lecturers to draw in bigger crowds. Some exhibits are designed for specific types of libraries like public but more often than not, they are open to anyone. The grant writing process is challenging but not so difficult that it should stop you from attempting it. The first exhibit I ever received was Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine.  This was my first time ever writing a grant. It proved to be a very useful lesson in not only grant writing itself but learning how to partner with organizations outside your library, department, and/or campus.  These partnerships are a requirement for the grant and after doing my first exhibit, I see why. It’s amazing the types of programming that can be accomplished when more creative minds are involved! For Harry Potter, I partnered with our local library who ran programs such as movie festivals, cake decorating, and potion-making classes. I partnered with our local zoo who brought a selection of reptiles to show and discuss with our audience under the theme, “Modern Day Dragons.” How about Quidditch? Well, it turned out my university had its own Quidditch team and were overjoyed to participate in the exhibit by teaching kids how to play the game. These partnerships ended up being long-lasting as I brought several more exhibits after Harry Potter which allowed us to work together time and time again.

I cannot stress enough how awesome the traveling exhibits are through the American Library Association and the National Library of Medicine. The first run of traveling exhibits usually require a grant proposal and application because they come with a monetary award but after their first run, they are open to anyone. All that is required is payment for shipment which averages anywhere from $250 – $500 depending on where it is being shipped to and from. The exhibit stays with you for 6-8 weeks and for the most part, is really easy to put up and take down. Another good place to look is with your state’s historical society as they sometimes have traveling exhibits as well. I used to live in Indiana and our historical society had wonderful exhibits that only cost a $100. The best part was they not only delivered it but did the entire set up and tear down. If you have a big budget (I’ve never had this luxury), the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress have traveling exhibits as well but the price is not for the faint of heart. A quick Google search can pinpoint other traveling exhibits out there that might meet your interests and budget restraints.

So, you have secured an exhibit, now what? It’s time to plan your programming. For me, this is the best part because it is a chance to forge new friendships and partnerships. It all starts with an introductory email on who I am and what I am doing with this crazy exhibit that is coming our way. I also research my prospective partners. No matter what type of library you work at, there is always someone in the community who is an expert on something. If your exhibit is on Abraham Lincoln, find out who is a Lincoln scholar or a Civil War reenactor. Talk with your local college or university to see who might be willing to give a talk. I promise, there is always someone out there. Also, focus on different age groups. If you work for a college, your target audience will of course be the college students but think more broadly. Think about the community that surrounds the library and how you might entice them to attend a program. And don’t forget the little learners. While they are not your target patrons, one day they could be, so take this opportunity as a way to get them excited about learning, attending college, and the library in general. Work for a public library? No problem. Reach out to your local college, community centers, and daycare facilities. You might be surprised who is willing to work with you. I mean, who doesn’t want to see their community members engaged in active learning?

My best piece of advice? Ask your captive audience! If you work at a college, you certainly have student workers. Ask them what types of programs they would like to see. Also, have them help! Every exhibit I’ve ever brought in has had a book display to accompany it. The student workers at my current job love to be involved. So let them!  Let them run with their ideas as they know more about effective marketing for their demographic than the outsiders do. If you work for a public library, ask your pages and shelvers. They know your target audience because they are a part of it. All this asking will certainly land you with ideas and suggestions you never dreamed of. That’s the point as collaboration is key. Just as research does not live inside a bubble, neither does effective programming. You might be surprised just how many people want to participate and help out if you only ask them.

And lastly, have fun! Exhibits are a lot of work, I won’t lie but they are also really fun and exciting. There is nothing better than seeing a crowd of people around the exhibit you brought in. Engage with them. Strike up a conversation. Find out what specifically brought them to the exhibit and ask what they liked or didn’t like about it. Leave out a guestbook for people to sign so you can see who all came and what their opinions were. All of this will help you for the next time you bring in an exhibit. And believe me, you will. Once your patrons have seen something new in the library space, they will come to expect it. I’ve even had students inquire when the next one was coming because they enjoyed interacting with the space in new and different ways. And you know what? You will too.

Ready to get started? Take a look at the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibit page to see what is currently available.  Inquire about when you might possibly host the exhibit and start planning! There is no better time than the present and with all the various exhibits out there, one is just perfect for you. If you have any questions, you can drop me a line here. I’d love to hear what you are doing and what you are bringing to your library! If your library is near me, who knows, you might just see me in the crowd your exhibit has effectively brought in. If you happen to be in the Wellesley, MA area, stop by and check out the Charlotte Perkins Gilman exhibit I currently have at the library until May 18, 2013!

Interested in learning more about this awesome project? Check out these ladies:


  1. Kristi says:

    What a terrific lead off to this series! I love this idea and really had no clue about these exhibits. Thank you for sharing.

  2. illustratedlibrarian says:

    Thanks Kristi. I cannot stress enough how amazing the exhibits are from NLM. It is such a great way to get the entire community involved regardless of the type of library you work at.

  3. Barb says:

    Great summary of how this works! I wonder if anyone at a certain big 10 university will be after your efforts on Harry Potter and Lincoln. 😉

  4. Exhibits are a totally AWESOME idea! You all should seriously consider bringing one to your library – the one we have here now is great.

  5. Suzana says:

    Please know (if you don’t already) that you are an AWESOME librarian. Your passion for helping others to research/learn whatever they need/ want to learn comes through in every post.

    I’d love to know if – from a librarian’s perspective – you have any suggestions for artists who’d like to share art with the community through their local library?

    I’ve tried twice to connect through our local library. I could have handled things better.

    Several years ago, I asked if it would be ok to leave some flyers about mandala workshops for kids on the bench (where other community groups/ folks left similar flyers). The ‘librarian’ (yes, I know we’re all individuals and there are challenging people in every sphere of life) asked me what it was all about and even though I got a ‘weird vibe’ from her (yep, looking down at me over her glasses…) I gave a brief explanation of mandalas & the relaxation response… She then told me that I needed to “be very careful about the words you use because mandalas are of the occult and there are a lot of very religious people in this community who would find things like this offensive”. At the time I was so gobsmacked – I thought librarians were supposed to be open-minded and promoters of learning… and she was a librarian, so maybe she knew something I didn’t… and how could anyone think that I would do something that would harm/ corrupt kids… (yeah, I’ve recovered from my naivete since then) – I kind of just thanked her for her concern and left… She probably also struck a few other nerves…

    The next time, I offered to do a presentation at the library about an international peace art exchange, leaving a stack of flyers& a couple of posters (for the manager who wasn’t in at the time) with my contact details as requested. They never got back to me. Yes, I should have followed up. And yes, the first lady had knocked my confidence and I didn’t take back my own power…

    How can I present art offerings to the library in a way that librarians would find appropriate/ interesting/ valuable for their clientele?

    Would love to read/ hear your thoughts…

    • illustratedlibrarian says:


      First, I am sorry you had a negative encounter at your public library. Like you said, it every batch there is a bad egg. I work at an academic library so things are a little different than a public library. Oftentimes, especially is small communities, folks are very sensitive to anything religious in nature. There has beens serious discussion for years as to how to handle presentations and talks better within the public library sphere. It is really because the library itself is for the community, for everyone and it can never appear that the library is affiliated with one religion over another which is why a lot of institutions do not allow anything religious in nature. Political talks fall into this category as well.

      So what to do? I would say, find out who is the collection developer for the art section. The library might not have an art librarian per say but there is someone who is ordering art books for the library. S/he might be able to offer up some suggestions on how to best approach it. Also, do you have a community art group? If so, talk with them and see if you can get gallery space there or if they could collaborate with you on something at the library. And I would certainly talk to the director of the library and explain what you want to do and why.

      I hope this helps!

      Good luck!


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