Library Outreach on a Shoestring: Advice from the Christian County Library

The Christian County Library in Missouri couldn't fix their underfunding, but could get free publicity.
Ozark, Missouri
Katy Pattinson

Katy Pattison is used to making do. Christian County Library, in the heart of Missouri's Ozark Mountains, gets about two-thirds less funding than an average Missouri library. That's why Katy had to find innovative (and inexpensive) ways to keep her library relevant and in high demand.


Katy started out seven years ago, checking in books at the circulation desk. She is now assistant director of the Christian County Library, a two-branch, 20-employee system serving a population of about 75,000 in one of the fastest-growing counties in Missouri. The area became more affluent and suburban due to booming growth in the nearby Springfield/Branson metro area in the early 2000's.

It's not entirely a poor area either. Median income is about the same as the U.S. average. Voters in the county have consistently turned down all measures to increase library funding over the years. As a result, the Christian County Library is still being funded at the same level as when it was an exclusively poor rural library.

Katy and her fellow librarians had to get creative.

Tooting Their Own Horns

Katy says, "Fortunately, I was given the freedom to try new things during my time at the library, even when I was at the circulation desk. My director was really open to innovation. We decided that one of our biggest needs was to toot our own horn, to tell people how well we're serving the community."

One of the ways she accomplished this was by writing for local newspapers. Getting started was surprisingly simple, she says:

"It was intimidating for a circulation person to go to the editor at the Springfield News-Leader newspaper and ask to write a column. They didn't hesitate. They wanted me to do it. We would have written a column a long time before that had we known. Now marketing our library is natural to me."

What Katy Covers in Her Columns

Katy now does a news column twice per month for the Springfield News-Leader, and also once a month in their more local paper, the Christian County Headliner.

She uses the columns to help get the word out about what the library is doing: "My position is that I don't care who you are, we have something you'll like." For instance, her Summer reading program draws hundreds column helped get families interested in the library's children's services.

Katy says that her 'why libraries are important' pieces are also popular. She says, "I cover that topic once or twice a year. I tell people what we're doing with public money. We're a good value. The money that goes to our library from property taxes on a house in our county is $25 per year. I know our patrons are very interested in how their tax money is being spent. I also talk about how libraries are governed by a volunteer board of trustees – normal people who are mostly retired. My columns are a good place to let everyone know all about that." See her column, library board of trustees seeks candidates.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask!

Katy's recommendation for other libraries who want to make community connections is simple: "Don't be afraid to go to your papers and ask to do a column. If you get to do a column, don't be afraid to ask for things: donations, money, and labor. I find that hardly anyone says no. Lots of people love libraries."

Other Ways to Spread the Word

As the library's de facto marketer, Katy also started a newsletter to share information about upcoming classes and events.  

The newsletter is posted on the library website. There is also an email version that is sent out through Constant Contact to over a thousand people in the county. To encourage people to sign up for the email newsletter, the library added a 'want our newsletter?' checkbox to library card applications.

To ensure that patrons without Internet access get the newsletter, the library also distributes printed copies at library branches and at local community centers.

Connecting Patrons with Library Services

Even though Christian County Library now serves a more affluent population, it still serves the rural poor people who had long been its traditional patrons.

Most rural parts of the county don't have access to broadband Internet. People can only get dial-up or expensive satellite Internet. The main Christian County Library has eight public access computers that are heavily used. Wi-Fi access is also available.

Katy said that rural patrons come to the library from several miles away to get Internet access and also to get help applying for county services.

The library does have a mobile computer lab, a bookmobile with some public access computers, but it's hard to find broadband in the countryside.

Katy said that they are working on partnering with schools and senior centers across the county to get better Internet access to rural patrons.

A "Magic Library" in a Gas Station

One of the more unusual things the Christian County Library does to serve rural patrons is to offer materials at country stores and also at a gas station. At these locations, clerks hand out materials and collect paper checkout slips. A library outreach worker drives a van around the county delivering and picking up materials and checkout slips.

At a gas station the library has installed a LEID locked drop box, which was originally designed for dropping off evidence at rural police departments.  

"We call it the magic library. Patrons order online or by call, we deliver materials, and people scan their card and get their materials. It costs over $20,000 for the automated system, but it's much less expensive than opening a branch."

Improving Support for Community Needs

After the library hired a new director recently, they wanted to know what people in the county expect and want of the library.

Katy's newspaper column, Library seeks to survey Christian County residents, helped to get over 300 survey responses over the last few months. They plan to analyze findings and make changes and improvements after the new year.

Here at TechSoup for Libraries, we talk a lot about community assessment. Understanding community needs is a critical component of library planning and strategy. Given our enthusiastic support for the Edge Initiative (which helps libraries measure and improve public access technology to better meet community needs), we're always happy to see libraries doing thorough community assessments. The library's survey is very comprehensive.

Though Christian County isn't an Edge Initiative participant, the library is doing very similar work to align services and public technology with community priorities.

Images: Christian County Library