Secrets of a Public-Savvy Website

How the American Library Association built a site that benefits the public while successfully promoting the power of libraries.

How do you raise public awareness of the value and good work of your association's members? The American Library Association decided that the best approach was to launch a website that has nothing to do with libraries but everything to do with what's in them.

ALA began the "@ your library" public awareness campaign in 2000 in response to a survey in which members asked the association to do more to educate the public about the value of libraries. Until last year, the web presence for the campaign was largely aimed at librarians and supporting their local public relations efforts. But in 2009, a new website, www.atyour library.org, was launched to bypass that usual route, providing information of broad, general interest to consumers while constantly highlighting additional information and services that readers can find at their library.

The www.atyourlibrary.org site includes four main sections: Family Life, Career Development and Job Searching, Teen Spotlight, and Kidding Around. The decision to zero in on those four areas came out of the process of preparing a grant request for start-up funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Through market research, including focus groups conducted early in the planning process, these four categories rose to the top as broad enough to reflect the full spectrum of materials and services available at a good library while still targeting specific audiences.

The timing of the career component of the site was particularly fortuitous: Statistics show a sharp rise in library use across the United States, especially in the area of job seeking and self-improvement to compete in the job market. This year, based on traffic reports and brainstorming, ALA will expand coverage in the areas of healthcare and financial literacy.

The biggest challenge for the association was to keep itself out of the way while developing website content that speaks clearly about the topic at hand, with a subtle push to the library and a resource list in every piece. To set the tone for the site, ALA worked with partner Imagination Publishing. Imagination utilized a proven digital-media process to identify the goals and objectives of the project, set user personas and a strong content plan, create content that speaks effectively to a wide audience, integrate social media efforts, and track the success through metrics reports.

The implicit (and often overt) message of www.atyourlibrary.org is simple: Visit your library often, in person and online. Other associations trying to develop resources for the public would be best advised to assemble a working group that can think like consumers and create targeted messages firmly rooted in the organization's raison d'être.

Leonard Kniffel is editor-in-chief of American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association. Email: [email protected]