Two Birds, One Stone: Library Contest Increases Patron Activity and Staff Morale
by Melanie Barker
It was a lot like Christmas in July. Boxes hot off the UPS truck attracted acrowd of smiling library employees eager to tear through the packing tapeand bubble wrap. Here at Longwood College Library the contents ofthe boxes were greeted with more enthusiasm than the newestHarry Potter book. Inside the boxes were the latestadditions to the second annual Battle of the Books, a concept that quickly blossomed into a full-scale war to bring back reading as a popular pastime throughout the Longwood community.
The summer of '99 was devoted to shaping the Battle of the Books contest into a reality. Hoping to increase circulation statistics, participating library employees selected ten books that they believed would be popular with college students and members of the Farmville community. Battle participants, armed with paper and pens, began the first phase of the contest by perusing the shelves of Barnes & Noble for hot, popular,and interesting books. Back at Farmville headquarters, the potential contest books were checked against Longwood College Library's online catalog to avoid duplication, and books that were not owned by the library were ordered, processed, and held in the cataloging office until all contest books were ready for the September debut.
Selecting Battle books was only one element of the contest; it also needed to be publicized. Staff members soon developed advertising concepts that rivaled those of Richmond's touted Martin Agency. Signs similar to ALA's "READ"posters were created, featuring such Longwood "celebrities" as anthropology professor Dr. James Jordan and Dean of the School of Education and Human Services David Smith. Weeks before the contest began, empty shelves were placed near the library's entrance and decorated with streamers, toy soldiers, and signs hinting at the Battle to come.
The contest officially began in the first week of September with 190 books and nineteen eager staff participants. Luckily the staff did not have to wait long before the months of planning, ordering, cataloging, and processing paid off.Filled with the staff's best choices, the Battle of the Books shelves attracted the attention of patrons coming and going through the library's entrance. Noting the contest's popularity after only a few weeks, Dr. Calvin Boyer, director of Longwood College Library and mastermind behind the Battle of the Books idea, asked each Battle participant to order five more books for the contest, bringing each participant's entries to a total of fifteen. For inspiration and appealing titles, soldiers browsed the Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble web sites. At the end of the fall semester, staff members retired five books, usually those with few to no checkouts,and replaced them with fresher titles.
The changes among the Battle shelves were noted by library patrons, who were not only avid readers in the Battle of the Books, but active participants as well: they reviewed contest books for chances to win prizes in special drawings. The library provided patrons with review slips with spaces for the reader's name, phone number, and e-mail address; the title of the book; and a brief review of the book. Many patrons critiqued Battle books and submitted their review slips by placing them in a designated box near the contest shelves. Each semester two review slips were selected from the box, and the reviewers were awarded various prizes,including gift certificates from Amazon.com. In addition, the review slips were displayed near the contest shelves,providing guidance for readers in search of a good book. From the active participation and positive feedback the library received, it was evident that patrons enjoyed what the Battle had to offer.
Library customers were not the only ones who approached the contest with zeal. Throughout the duration of the contest, anxiously-awaited monthly e-mails about the progress of the contest were sent to library staff. Each month,participating staff members were ranked by the number of check-outs their fifteen books had accumulated. The most popular book was also listed each month, along with other facts like the first book that failed to return to the library. At the end of May, the participant whose books had been checked out most often over the entire year was revealed at a staff picnic. Each Battle of the Books participant was given a certificate and a superlative such as Most Competitive,Cataloger of the Year, Trashiest Title (which was bestowed upon Jerry Springer's Wildest Shows Ever!),and Most Popular Book (The Bone Collector).
The 1999 Battle of the Books proved to be such a success with both library patrons and staff members that the preliminary stages of the 2000 Battle of the Books were launched immediately following the close of the first contest. This year participants have entered titles like Laura Zigman's Dating Big Bird, Ken Luboff's Live Well In Mexico: How to Relocate, Retire, & Increase your Standard of Living, MTV's the Real world: Hawaii True Confessions, Sandra Brown's Bittersweet Rain, and Weddings for Dummies, hoping to be the reigning Battle soldier.