Monday, August 13, 2012

Speak Their Language

There is a story in my family about my husband's great-grandmother who lived well into her 90s. At the end of her life on the western border of Virginia, she often courted a house full of relatives. One day, while the family visited and chatted, Mamaw interrupted the conversation to yell, "SPEAK MY LANGUAGE!"

While this can easily be left as a funny story about a family matriarch trying to take back control of the conversation, I also think of it as a good example of what we all need to do as cultural heritage and information professionals. It is not enough to want to help out patrons. It is not enough to just reach out to them. It is important to reach out in a way with which they can related. Unlike Mamaw, our patrons will not always tell us what they think or want. They just will not return to our institutions.

Whether you are working in a museum, archives, or library, always consider your audience. Why do we do the work that we do? We need to make clear that our resources can be used, enjoyed, and learned from. I have been thinking about this a lot as I prepare my new library for an audience that differs from the one I have been addressing for the past ten years as a consultant.

Consider your audience:

  • How old are they? What is their ethnic background? What is the socio-economic background? What is their education? What is their "sense of place?" How does this affect their view of what you do and their understanding?
  • How can you direct your work to begin the conversation in a place that feels comfortable to everyone? For example, on what grade level should your label copy and brochures read? What might seem obvious to you that needs further explanation for non-professionals? What background and context do you need to provide to make sure all the people with whom you interact understand what you are trying to do? Consider how quickly you can move from the basics to a deeper conversation so that everyone can be engaged.
  • How can you open your ideas so that they reach multiple levels and help people expand from a core discussion? While you may have one idea of what your work is trying to achieve, you can leave room for individual exploration and for people to relate the conversation to their own experiences.
  • What visual, sound and textual clues can you give to offer an enriching experience in your facility?
Even the way you present yourself
can help your audience feel engaged,
or...not so much
   These techniques are probably most familiar for those employed    in museums, but what about other areas of cultural heritage and    information. For example, when you help a researcher, are you speaking on his level? Are your finding aids self- explanatory to everyone? Does your signage adequately explain your collections and services to those who may not be familiar with your type of institution? Does your furniture arrangement encourage people to stay or leave? Does your placement in the room encourage people to engage with you or to try to avoid you? Are your facilities inviting or "elitist?"

   Can all audiences relate to what you are trying to do? Or will audiences see you as a guardian of resources whom they must get through to get what they want? Be open and honest about what you are trying to do.  Whether you are asking people not to eat in your repository or your are sharing online resources for complicated searches, explain your reasoning and how your perspective may differ from theirs. Explain what it means to be an information or heritage professional and the role you serve for patrons. Give your audience some control and let them be part of the conversation about your work. Be an interpreter rather than creating language and context barriers.

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