Diversifying the Portfolio: Expanding the Patron Base of Branch Libraries

By Joel Roberts
Music Librarian
University of Memphis

This essay began as a discussion about the increase in traffic that my branch academic library, which is a music library, experienced between 2016 and 2019. The catalyst for this increase was implementing events and programming that were marketed towards all students, not just music students. The decision to write this up was the result of feedback I received from a poster session that I gave at a conference at the beginning of 2020, a year that proved to be a transitional year for everyone. As a result of how that year progressed, I came close to abandoning this project because I began to view a discussion about the potential for events and programming to create an increase in traffic as irrelevant in an environment where gatherings were ill-advised. Furthermore, reopening after the initial COVID lockdown revealed that far fewer patrons were visiting my library compared to before the pandemic. During the 2021-2022 academic year when students were back on campus in full, our daily traffic average was lower than it had been before COVID. Thus, the gains in traffic that I had witnessed had been eliminated by the pandemic.

However, after a great deal of thought, I decided that this discussion is more relevant now than it was in early 2020. With my library’s daily traffic averaging what it was in 2015, before my library hosted programs and events, I decided that this discussion is, in fact, worthwhile because other libraries might also be experiencing comparatively sluggish traffic. Perhaps revisiting—or visiting for the first time—events and programming geared towards new patrons could benefit more libraries than just mine. While I refer to music libraries and their patrons, the thoughts herein are applicable to all libraries: deliberately targeting individuals who are not regular library users can have a positive impact on daily traffic, provide library staff a more robust day-to-day work environment, and ultimately serve a larger community of patrons in a more effective way.

Libraries and Social Capital

Over the last several years, social capital has become a topic increasingly discussed in relation to libraries. Libraries create social capital by fostering social exchanges that both community users and the library want and choose to provide.[1] Social capital benefits the library and strengthens the communities it serves; and consequently, there exists the possibility of creating a cycle of contributing to the public good.[2]

Generally, it is public libraries that are part of discussions about libraries and social capital because they are the libraries accessible to most people. While there are many definitions of what social capital is, they all presume that it is a resource available to all members of a social network.[3] With this in mind, the connection between public libraries and social capital is relatively easy to understand. Hillenbrand outlined the ways in which libraries create social capital,[4] and they all relate to a sense of building community in some way (e.g., delivering programs that bring citizens of different demographics together, making information freely available to everyone, engaging in partnerships with other community organizations, providing a neighborhood resource and meeting place, facilitating local dialog, and providing a public space that encourages community participation). Is it possible, then, that academic branch libraries have the potential to offer benefits that build community and transcend the normal day-to-day transactions?

While public libraries might have an inherent advantage when it comes to their role as a facilitator of information, services, and assistance in the community, all types of libraries have the potential to invest in their inherent position as community resources. In the case of academic branch libraries, considering ways to bring in patrons of all demographics allows them to become a greater part of the campus community and invest in the growth of their own role in the creation of social capital. After all, social capital is beneficial not only to individuals; it is beneficial to societies as a whole.[5] Academic libraries engaging with individuals who are not regular patrons, whether these are students who are not library users or members of the community, is similarly beneficial to the community as a whole, even if it is merely the local university community that is being impacted.

The position of academic libraries on college campuses parallels public libraries and their position in the community. If public libraries contribute to the effective function of a community, then it could be argued that academic libraries contribute to functional campus communities. Similarly, academic music libraries contribute to the effective function of music departments, but they are also part of the larger campus community. It has been demonstrated that libraries in communities have generated feelings of pride in their neighborhoods.[6] Likewise, academic branch libraries have the potential to contribute to positive communal sentiment.

The importance of positive feelings about academic libraries in relation to their universities cannot be overstated. It is not a foreign concept to academic library personnel that the value of the library can be misunderstood by university leadership. Scott Carlson’s 2001 Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Deserted Library,” was much discussed at the time of its publication. And it caused at least one college administrator to tell its library director that libraries were not needed.[7] Moreover, one study has shown that provosts grasp the important role that libraries play on campus, but they also feel that libraries face a barrier in that the campus overall does not realize the library’s potential.[8] In addition, even though libraries can have a positive impact on student retention, it has been shown that library administrators often do not have the best strategies for communicating their importance to university leaders.[9]

It was not too long ago that the student newspaper at the University of Buffalo published an article about its music library that caused much discussion in the music library community.[10] It painted a picture of a branch library that was facing dwindling resources and an uncertain future. To be fair, the University of Buffalo’s music library has not gone away as the article might have implied, but the concerns referenced in the article over gate count statistics and “reimagining physical library spaces,” which often insinuates a reclamation of library space, are undoubtedly not unique to that institution.

Scott Carlson’s “Deserted Libraries” demonstrates that almost twenty years ago, the shift in library use was a hot topic of discussion. But years later, there are times when it seems that not much has been resolved. I find my current institution still very concerned with statistics. Frankly, if one is objective and rational, this concern with statistics and gate counts is not something that can be faulted. Space on college campuses is usually at a premium, and the potential for libraries to be viewed as underutilized space should be frightening to all of us in the profession.

There have certainly been others who, like me, did not anticipate that as librarians we would be focused on numbers aside from call numbers. But I am also likely not alone in having regularly looked at gate count statistics in order to determine some sort of trend. When I began my job as a staff member at the University of Memphis Music Library, my supervisor lamented the continuing decline in foot traffic. I think for many libraries, the decline in traffic has simply been accepted as part of the digital age. However, Reale suggested that a slight shift in types of services could make a difference in traffic. By coming up with different types of services, libraries keep their books but do other things to put students in proximity to physical resources and librarians.[11] Relatedly, we should try to not only think of new services that put students in proximity to library resources and librarians, but we should also think of ways to put “new” students in proximity to these things.

Attracting new students can be challenging for branch libraries. For example, the first challenge music libraries face when expanding the size of their communities is getting outside their traditional patron base—the music students and faculty. Reaching outside the departments and schools of music that they serve requires appealing to patrons who are not formally associated with the campus music programs. Music libraries’ usefulness to their primary base of patrons is already known since performance majors always need scores, and many institutions require graduate students to take some sort of research methods course that is library intensive. Thus, most music students and faculty are already aware of what music libraries have to offer, and many of them are already regular users. But there are other potential users on a college campus who have not set foot in the music building, much less the music library.

Naturally, focusing on new patrons and bringing in new demographics requires planning. Taking cues from events that have become commonplace in public libraries, it is obvious that events and workshops can be an excellent vehicle for bringing new people into libraries. Library personnel must consider many factors when making decisions about events and workshops—not the least of which is subject matter. But the specific nature of branch libraries simplifies the planning process somewhat. In other words, any event planned for a music library would at least tangentially relate to music, just as a health sciences library would likely plan events that relate to health, wellness, nutrition, etc.

Before it seems that a focus on new clientele is solely about numbers, it is worth noting that while bringing in new patrons has the obvious correlation with increased foot traffic, there is more to be gained than gate count statistics. The previously cited cycle of contributing to public good is of great importance because this public good extends to both the patrons and the organization. A library’s impact on its users is a tangible concept: new patrons potentially benefit from any services that a library offers. Thus, the social capital flowing in this direction is relatively obvious.

But social capital goes both directions, and it might be less obvious that new patrons benefit library personnel by expanding the scope of their interactions. Interactions with non-music students by music library personnel, for example, develop the music library staff’s skillsets because these interactions—even when they pertain to music—inherently differ from those with music students. Whereas a music student might need help finding a specific edition of a piano concerto, a non-major might want help finding assorted recordings to help them better understand piano concertos as a genre.

Thus, these nontraditional transactions often force library staff to approach their jobs from a different angle. Ultimately, the staff become better equipped to handle their primary job duties by having had a diverse array of professional experiences. Also, it is worth considering that after over two years of many libraries offering services remotely, again dealing with patrons face-to-face is good reacclimatization to an eventual post-COVID world.

Expanding the Patron Base in Practice

The University of Memphis Music Library serves the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, which offers doctoral degrees in music. As one might expect, most of its patrons are music students. Before the pandemic, the library had seen an increase traffic between 2016 and 2019. Some of this increase resulted from an influx of patrons who were not music students following the implementation of events that were advertised across campus.

Concerns over library use and gate statistics, along with reading about social capital and libraries, were part of what led me to planning my first events. I had read that formal programming helps students form relationships with people who can support their academic and professional goals, and informal connections can also help build social capital.[12] I was intrigued by the possibility that many library events can allow for both professional and informal connections to be made. But if I am honest, my primary motivation was that the addition of events to the library’s offerings would bring in more patrons, which turned out to be true. My inaugural event was a songwriting workshop hosted by a local songwriter. Patron data from my first event, which was obtained from a survey handed out to each attendee, revealed that it attracted high numbers of non-music students. While some community patrons who were not affiliated with the university attended, most attendees were students from other departments across campus. I had never considered engaging non-music students prior to this realization, but I witnessed some of these students from other disciplines become regular patrons once they had initially set foot in the Music Library.

The realization that non-music students sometimes became regular patrons spurred me to further develop different types of programming. After that first event, I hosted a series of open mic nights. Initial feedback from these events suggested that I should host multiple open mic nights each semester. While I have yet to do that, I held one open mic night each semester for four semesters until COVID forced gatherings of this type to cease. On average, the open mic nights that I held brought in thirty people—both spectators and performers—and with only one exception, none of these were music students. I also made the songwriting workshops a regular event. Over the course of a few semesters, these brought in an average of twelve attendees each, and only one was a music student. Therefore, almost all Music Library events primarily attracted students from the general student body outside the School of Music.

This appeal to non-music students is significant. Students from the general population represent an untapped resource for academic librarians at branch libraries. Using music libraries as an example, there are plenty of musicians in the general population of students. Interest in a field of study besides music is not indicative of a lack of musical knowledge or talent. Feedback from some of my event attendees provided ample evidence that they enjoyed the workshops, and I have gotten emails afterwards praising the library for hosting the events. Therefore, each new academic year, there are new library users who only need the right event to introduce them to the library. It is on us as librarians to plan a variety of events to find out what works at our individual institutions.

Lessons Learned

Not everything that I thought would be interesting and engaging proved to be attractive to students. Technical workshops like a workshop on how to digitize LPs and another on using music notation software, although attended primarily by non-music students, were sparsely attended. It is also important to consider the scheduling of events. When dealing with the entire student population as potential attendees, one must remain hyperaware of what is going on. Do not, for example, schedule an event for which you hope to have large attendance on the night of a rivalry basketball game.

I have also learned that social media is a tremendous ally. Polling of event attendees revealed that almost unanimously, students heard about my events from social media posts. Specifically, Instagram was mentioned most frequently, revealing that it was the most successful means to reach students. Posters and flyers, it seems, were a waste of time and resources, as no one mentioned them as being what informed them about the events.

I think it is worth stressing that every institution will be different. Although technical workshops have been unsuccessful in my situation, there is no reason to think that would be the case everywhere. Experimentation with different types of events is key to not only finding what works at a given institution, but it is also key to keeping the events exciting for both students and library personnel.

My biggest surprise from hosting events was that a few patrons from outside the campus community attended almost every event that I planned. The most far-reaching encounter that I had was the attendance of a Brazilian musician who saw one of our open mic nights posted on Facebook. He was touring the United States with the goal of performing in every state. He had not yet played in Tennessee, so seeing the advertisement for the open mic night drew him in to check Tennessee off his list. While community members are not the usual target of academic music libraries, they represent an opportunity for the creation of social capital. For one, community members themselves can become the disseminators of information at a later event. But they can also become donors. At one of my events, a community member asked where our reel-to-reel tape players had gone (she had been a student thirty years ago). When I told her that they were all broken, she told me that she would like to donate hers. Consequently, I now have a working reel-to-reel player.

In an era during which all libraries are facing the task of reinventing themselves in order to remain relevant, nontraditional traffic represents a tremendous opportunity to keep patrons coming through the doors and create social capital, which is beneficial to both patrons and library staff. We are also still dealing with COVID, which to this point seems to refuse to go away. Therefore, there will come a point for many library professionals when they have to be deliberate about trying to bring patrons back after a couple of years of them not coming into the library regularly. Workshops, events, and programming are not new to libraries. But workshops and events that target patrons who are not regular users, or fall outside the regular patron base, are a consideration that can potentially benefit any institution. With a bit of creative thinking, librarians can come up with event ideas that will bring in people who would otherwise never have walked through their doors.

Works Cited

Blanchet, Benjamin. “Music Faculty, Students Concerned with Music Library’s Future.” The Spectrum, December 6, 2018. https://www.ubspectrum.com/article/2018/12/music-faculty-students-concerned-with-music-librarys-future.

Carlson, Scott. “The Deserted Library: As Students Work Online Reading Rooms Empty—Leading Some Campuses to add Starbucks.” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16, 2001. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-deserted-library/.

Hillenbrand, Candy. “Public Libraries as Developers of Social Capital.” Australian Public Libraries and Information Services 18, no. 1 (March 2005): 4–12.

Johnson, Catherine A. “How Do Public Libraries Create Social Capital? An Analysis of Interactions Between Library Staff and Patrons.” Library & Information Science Research 34, no. 1 (January 2012): 52–62.

Martell, Charles. “The Ubiquitous User: A Reexamination of Carlson’s Deserted Library.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 5, no. 4 (October 2005): 441–53.

Murray, Adam L., and Ashley P. Ireland. “Communicating Library Impact on Retention: A Framework for Developing Reciprocal Value Propositions.” Journal of Library Administration 57, no. 3 (April 2017): 311–26.

Murray, Adam, and Ashley Ireland. “Provosts’ Perceptions of Academic Library Value and Preferences for Communication: A National Study.” College & Research Libraries 79, no. 3 (2018): 336–65.

Ostrom, Elinor. “What is Social Capital?” In Social Capital, edited by Viva Ona Bartkus and James H. Davis, 17–38. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2009.

Ramsey, E. 2016. “It’s Not Just What You Know, But Who You Know: Social Capital Theory and Academic Library Outreach.” College and Undergraduate Libraries 23, no. 3(2016): 328–334.

Reale, Michelle. The Indispensable Academic Librarian: Teaching and Collaborating for Change. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2018.

Schlak, Tim. “Leadership and Social Capital: What Library Leaders Need to Know about Trust, Values, and Bridge Building.” Journal of Library Administration 62, no. 2 (February/March 2022): 235-42.

Svendsen, Gunnar Lind Haase. “Public Libraries as Breeding Grounds for Bonding, Bridging and Institutional Social Capital: The Case of Branch Libraries in Rural Denmark.” Sociologia Ruralis 53, no. 1 (January 2013): 52–73.


[1] Tim Schlak, “Leadership and Social Capital: What Library Leaders Need to Know about Trust, Values, and Bridge Building,” Journal of Library Administration 62, no. 2 (February/March 2022): 240.

[2] Schlak, “Leadership and Social Capital,” 240.

[3] Elinor Ostrom, “What is Social Capital?” in Social Capital, ed. Viva Ona Bartkus and James H. Davis, Social Capital (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2009), 17.

[4] Candy Hillenbrand, “Public Libraries as Developers of Social Capital,” Australian Public Libraries and Information Services 18, no. 1 (March 2005): 9.

[5] Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, “Public Libraries as Breeding Grounds for Bonding, Bridging and Institutional Social Capital: The Case of Branch Libraries in Rural Denmark,” Sociologia Ruralis 53, no. 1 (January 2013): 55.

[6] Catherine A. Johnson, “How Do Public Libraries Create Social Capital? An Analysis of Interactions Between Library Staff and Patrons,” Library & Information Science Research 34, no. 1 (January 2012): 59.

[7] Charles Martell, “The Ubiquitous User: A Reexamination of Carlson’s Deserted Library,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 5, no. 4 (October 2005): 442.

[8] Adam Murray and Ashley Ireland, “Provosts’ Perceptions of Academic Library Value and Preferences for Communication: A National Study,” College & Research Libraries 79, no. 3 (2018): 359.

[9] Adam L. Murray and Ashley P. Ireland, “Communicating Library Impact on Retention: A Framework for Developing Reciprocal Value Proposition,” Journal of Library Administration 57, no. 3 (April 2017): 316–17.

[10] Benjamin Blanchet, “Music Faculty, Students Concerned with Music Library’s Future,” The Spectrum, December 6, 2018, accessed September 22, 2020, https://www.ubspectrum.com/article/2018/12/music-faculty-students-concerned-with-music-librarys-future.

[11] Michelle Reale, The Indispensable Academic Librarian: Teaching and Collaborating for Change (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2018), 79–80.

[12] Elizabeth Ramsey, “It’s Not Just What You Know but Who You Know: Social Capital Theory and Academic Library Outreach,” College & Undergraduate Libraries 23, no. 3 (July 2016): 332.

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