Monday, March 12, 2012

Who is your audience? Strengthening Community Ties with an Audience Focus

Sometimes cultural institutions get caught up in the things they do and forget about for whom they are doing them. Today's post discusses the value of keeping audience in mind when performing work in a cultural heritage institution. Later this week, I will introduce a guest post from the ladies of the "Library as Incubator Project." They will share their ideas for targeting artists as an audience from a library perspective. I thought before I put up their piece, it might be nice to take a step back and consider a wider audience for museums, libraries and archives.

Each institution must consider it's potential audiences based on the institution's function, but also on the unique profile of the community it serves. (A description of this community should be part of the organization's mission statement.) Each institution should make plans to reach the groups that will be best served by their materials and activities. Strengthening ties to community in this way makes cultural heritage institutions a more visible and viable part of these communities.

Each person who attends a library, archives, or museum has different informational and entertainment needs that may be based on their interests, circumstances, ages and backgrounds. They will be receptive to what we offer them based on these factors. Quite basically, a child in a library will not be served in the same way as a senior. Yet, while it is easy to consider age -- which is a set factor that contains clearly recognizable groups of children, teens, young adults, adults and senior -- other categories are more difficult to define. Our work is often successful to the extent that we can tailor our work to attract diverse interests.

  • Examine your resources and determine what potential groups can be served by your diverse holdings.
  • Examine the large community you serve and determine what smaller communities exist within it. 
By identifying your resources and your communities, you can then target your outreach to reach the audiences who will have interest in them. You will likely have the potential to aim your outreach efforts at more audiences than you have time to focus on each. Using your mission and collection policy can be an ideal way to start the ball rolling by determining where your strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, do you have a very strong collection of materials related to the Civil War? Do you have a local reenactment group? It would make sense to show them how your materials suit their interests. Alternately, if you know you have a strong reenactment group and your collection related to their interests is weak, you can ask them how you can better serve their needs and call on their support for your efforts.

Think about your "audience" as active participants in the work that you do.

"Our audiences are not passive spectators. They increasingly expect museums to offer them participatory experiences and that should be reflected by the way in which the modern museum approaches them.
Don’t think of the people who walk through your doors or interact with you online as audiences, think about what you can do for your participants." - The Audience is Dead. Let's Talk Participants Instead

In a way, archives and libraries have always had this point of view. They have more direct interaction with their "audience" or their "patrons" through reference services and more opportunity for a give-and-take relationship. But these encounters are not always used effectively by librarians and archivists to strengthen ties with their communities. We often serve up information without retrieving feedback about whether patrons found what they want or need. We often make plans for collection growth and programs without outside input, even when we have an audience willing to give us beneficial feedback - IF we just ask.

Encourage general comments by putting out a suggestions box or placing an online feedback button on your web or Facebook page, but also target specific groups and ask them very pointedly if your institution is serving their needs.

Targeting specific audiences for your institution and requesting feedback can change the dynamic of your work. Strengthen community ties by evaluating what you do internally, seek feedback externally, and tailor your work to match the desires and needs of specific groups you can serve.

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