What Library Displays Taught Me About Effort, Good Intentions, and Failure

There aren’t a ton of articles on this topic here at HLS, so today we’re going to talk about failure. More specifically, my failure. I’ve been serving on the display committee at the library where I work for almost a year – we put together monthly displays with timely themes to feature certain books and materials. This kind of work is right up my alley – it involves a certain amount of research and organization while still being creative. At first I felt like I was absolutely thriving, but more recently I’ve come to realize that my efforts might not be as good as I thought.

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Doing library displays makes me feel like a regular Vanna White. However, Vanna White is much better at her job and unlike me, she does not usually wear this pained smile. Image in the Public Domain courtesy of Pixabay.

My first display went up in May, and I inherited its theme from a previous member of the committee – urban gardening. When I saw that on the schedule, I’m pretty sure my brow might have actually, physically furrowed. Urban gardening? It’s hard enough to grow things in Colorado as it is, let alone in the city. To my surprise, however, putting together the display was actually fun – the library had lots of relevant books, I got to use some of my minimal graphic design skills putting together a poster, and I learned a lot about a new topic. This display also started a trend where I went a bit overboard with extras – a habit I have since been unable to kick. I created a flyer that showed the e-resources that were available and another that featured local agencies that have programs to aid gardeners.

My next display was on summer in Colorado (complete with a calendar of local music concerts), followed by one on left-handed authors (displayed in a gallery style with a feature on each author). I had some success with these displays – my coworkers were very complimentary, and the patrons seemed to like the extra information I compiled to go with them.

In November, I took on a display about a topic close to my heart – Native American Heritage Month. In college I took a service trip to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota with a really great professor who taught us a lot about Lakota culture, customs, and the way Indigenous peoples are represented in literature. Based on these experiences, I wanted to create a respectful and eye-catching display on contemporary Native American authors in order to show our patrons that Native Americans are still here, writing, creating and saying some really smart and funny things. I designed bookmarks for each author, hoping to feature their backgrounds, accomplishments, and to add a face to the name on the book.

But I didn’t stop there. Oh no, of course I didn’t. After I compiled my list of books and a couple DVDs, I thought about how it would be great to feature some Native American artists. I made interactive posters featuring contemporary art and profiles on the artists. Then, of course, I thought about all the Indigenous musicians I admire, and wracked my brain for a way to include them in my project. I created little business cards with a QR code that linked to a YouTube playlist of songs. When November 1st rolled around, I put out all of this paper, kicked back, and expected the patrons to come flocking to the display. I started keeping stats and monitored the stacks of QR codes and bookmarks to see if they were being taken.

While I didn’t keep stats on any of my previous displays, I can still say with confidence that this was my least successful display. A total of six library materials were taken from it over the course of the month. To this day, my carefully curated playlist has only gotten 5 hits. I felt completely ridiculous as I tossed a bunch of extra bookmarks and business cards in the recycle bin – I’d never seen anyone else on the committee make accouterments for their displays, and I was starting to see why.

Maybe I just tried to hard, or let my passion for the subject get away from me. Perhaps my designs weren’t compelling and my poster uninspiring. I don’t know exactly where I went wrong, but I’m still experimenting. For March, I’m putting together a display on the 1920s. It’s tough, but I’m trying really hard not to make any extraneous things. Consequently, my poster, the one thing I can make, is starting to look entirely over the top. Maybe it will work with the theme, maybe it won’t. I won’t know until I try.

Have you ever worked on library displays – what was your experience? Was there a time that you failed at something you really cared about – how did you face it?

12 replies

  1. Perhaps you could make your poster(s) into a series of guides that could be used in the library, even after the display was taken down. Your efforts and creativity would get a longer life and have a better chance of filling a user education niche. Or perhaps team up with some programming folks elsewhere in the library or university (depending on your setting) to partner your displays with someone else’s efforts.

    Don’t let “failure” get you down – lots of creative efforts have to go by the wayside as you find the things that succeed. And who is to say that you didn’t succeed with the 5 people who loved your playlist? We don’t always have to please everyone!

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    • Thanks for the encouragement, Beth – it’s absolutely true that the display might have been really important to just a few people. I’ll definitely keep in mind your advice about making my materials available longer than just the display period. My library is in the process of getting LibGuides, so that might be a platform to look into!

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  2. August 29, 2015 was the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina here in New Orleans. I jumped on the chance to creat a display. Of importance to me was not just non-fiction books, but kids books, poetry, short story collections. I grabbed everything I could from all genres. It was quite successful. Every other day I’d arrange the display to keep it from looking messy and I was always pulling books from the back to add. My failure? I wanted to get a 3D print of Katrina as it moved over the New Orleans area. There was an un-licensed file available, but I never could get the money to get it printed. I thought it would be affirming for patrons to be able to touch and feel this thing which is so intangible.

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    • Wow, Emily, that sounds like an awesome display! It is disappointing when there aren’t enough resources to bring the image in your head completely to life, but it sounds like you were able to serve your patrons successfully anyway. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  3. I have been almost solely responsible for my academic library’s displays for 2 1/2 years, and I also like it because I get to learn new things and be creative at the same time. I don’t receive feedback other than an occasional “I like that,” so I choose the materials I think will be best. Unfortunately, our students rarely borrow items from displays, so that purpose is almost always a failure. My personal best was Banned Books Week 2015, with the title “Celebrate Your Freedom to Read Dangerous Books,” when 2 or 3 items were checked out. Even when two of my coworkers created a display entirely consisting of Halloween movies, students only borrowed 3 DVDs. I wish I knew how to increase interest.

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    • If Halloween movies didn’t even get their attention, I’m not sure anything will! I bet it’s a lot harder to appeal to students, as they’re usually in there to cram for big projects (or, as I remember, socialize 🙂 ) and aren’t exactly looking for extracurricular materials. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

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  4. Oh, Jennifer! Your display was inspired, and I know how earnestly you worked on it. I don’t know anything about the science of library displays, but I wonder if it looked *so* good that patrons didn’t want to disturb it…??

    I also have some thoughts based on my experiences in literary studies. A lot of times, non-Native people hesitate to read Native-authored books because they somehow think it’s not written for them. (This, in turn, reminds me of the argument in Hollywood that movies starring people of color don’t do well at the box office because most viewers are white…)

    There’s also the perception that non-Native readers will be put in a position of feeling guilty, which certainly isn’t attractive. Some people worry about being appropriative, or not knowing enough about Native issues to be a good reader. I am always trying to get people outside the academy to read Native fiction, and it only works sometimes. Perhaps this will change when Louise Erdrich wins the Nobel Prize. 🙂

    So, I think there may be complex reasons for the apparent lack of engagement you saw that have nothing to do with your talent. I hope your further adventures are more satisfying. Because you’re pretty awesome.

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    • KAREN! Thank you so much for this lovely comment. These very well could have all been factors – especially about it looking too good to touch! 😉 In all seriousness, I think you’re on to something here, which is also pretty disheartening, especially considering how often I get reference questions about “Indians” for school projects and the like. When Louise Erdrich gets that Nobel Prize, we’ll get her a display of her own – maybe people will pay attention then! Again, thank you thank you thank you for your continued support and wisdom and all of the help you gave me during this project. I’ll keep trying!

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  5. This is a lesson I to am trying to learn! My displays are not nearly as complex as yours but still I struggle with pay off = time/energy spent. It did look like there was some presentations about displays happening at PLA in April. I was going to see if I could attend some of them. May be worth checking out.

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