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A Storyteller’s Guide to Library Branding

Let’s open the floodgates to today’s topic with this quote by branding guru Scott Bredbury:

“A brand is a story that is always being told.”

This quote literally stopped me in my tracks. A story! Of course. What a beautiful and succinct way to express my beliefs about school library branding. I believe that a school library’s culture, and thus its branding, is reliant on a positive overall school culture—and that culture is made up of stories.

In this article, I offer my vision for school library branding. I will talk about what branding means to me and where I began in my current project. Then, I will connect library culture and school culture to what I have done so far. Finally, I will close with what I have learned about branding.

Begin at the beginning

To put it mildly, I was chomping at the bit to start learning about Edward R. Murrow, the man and high school, when I accepted their library media specialist job and it was a done deal. I have years of practical experience in library design, but this was the first branding project I began in an environment with an already firmly established school culture and tone.

I view culture in general as a collection of stories that when combined characterize its people. The first step in branding a school library is understanding the dually-occuring stories of the school and the library. Some questions I asked myself were: What is the story of Edward R. Murrow High School? What is the story of the Murrow Library? How do their stories intersect?

I was hired in mid-June, 2018, and spent the next nine weeks researching the school’s history, poring over its website, data and public reports, and walking around the neighborhood to get a feel for the environment surrounding it. I then turned my attention to the library, checked out the current state of design, its catalog, digital resources, and its ordering history. I cannot say that I sought any of this information in order to brand the library, but I see now how invaluable it has been in the branding that was to come.

What emerged from my research was an image of a strong school with deep roots. More like a small city, Edward R. Murrow High School has 4,000 students and over 250 faculty and staff members. The school was founded in 1974 by Saul Bruckner and was (and still is) a very progressive school for New York City. As an insider, I can say that I have never experienced a school with such a rich and established culture as Murrow. The culture is both palpable and ambiguous, yet layered with 44 years worth of history and tradition. Murrow was built on a solid foundation and has been well maintained.

This information gave me a foundational understanding of the philosophies, goals, and attributes of the school as well as demographic and instructional/academic data. Foundational understanding is necessary, but practical understanding experienced by being in the environment is equally, if not more, crucial.

However, the hard data was only half of the school’s story. Research and data only go so far in qualifying the feeling inside the building. Next, I needed to collect soft data; data that only interacting with the environment could offer. Being new to the school and one of a trio of librarians, my focus was to learn as much as I could about the school and build my knowledge about it by initiating conversation around the topics of school and library culture.

Living in the environment to be branded is key. The culture of the library as well as the culture of the school in which it operates must be experienced firsthand. After each class I taught and at points throughout the day, I jotted down notes about things that happened between students, things I noticed, people I had met, and conversations we had. This soft data is more important in creating a positive library culture and brand than some of the hard data, in my opinion. Although hard data is valuable, practical experience (the soft data) is paramount.  The interactions I had with students and teachers added texture to the school environment and allowed me to interpret the best ways to use the hard data. Interactions are memorable. Data is not (sorry data).

Bringing it all together

The soft data is important because a brand is a story that is always being told. In a school library, those stories are your library’s culture. I envision culture to be an invisible web that totally surrounds one’s organization and is made up of all the impressions, perceptions, feelings, stories, and experiences of everyone that acts within it. This blog post from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism talks about a symposium held in Virginia to rebrand the United States Navy. Presenters like Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life discussed ways to potentially refresh the Navy brand through effective storytelling.

I was most interested in Glass’s assertion that “stories need to be about people, not events. By telling stories that make listeners feel something, and that help them relate to a specific person, we can better connect and resonate a universal idea.” Equally interesting to me was the position of Dr. Bruce Strong, a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  “Effective storytelling begins with a compelling plot that eventually leads to the transformation of a person. All transformation comprises an emotional core, which, in turn, produces an unalterable emotional connection with the audience” (2015).  

At this point, I took stock of my observations and data and crystallized them into keywords, or tags. For each experience I was involved in or casually observed, I assigned it a tag in my notes. I assigned tags while reflecting on my observations and began to recognize patterns. Patterns are a signal to me that something noteworthy is happening. Patterns point to culture.

Tags included: diverse students, academic minded students, collaborative teachers, accepting, honest kids, curious, rigorous instruction, independence, diversity, and strong culture. These keywords helped me to gain a more global view of who the patrons are.  They are the main ideas and the many observations and points of data are the supporting details of the story. Now the real work could begin!

Lucid Press put it best when they said that “a brand exists only in the minds of your customers. Simply put, a brand is the sum total of all the impressions a customer has, based on every interaction they have had with you, your company and your products” (Wells, 2016).  Replace “customers” with “patrons” and “library for “company,” and it is clear that through branding we should aim to think about what we want patrons to feel when they think about the library. Those feelings come together to create the library’s culture, and in that way it is the library’s culture that is being branded more than just the library itself.     

It is with these feelings in mind, coupled with hard and soft data, and conversations with my library colleagues, that we decided on a design direction for the library logo. Even though branding is so much more than a logo, a visual representation or symbol that calls upon these feelings is a hallmark of a solid brand. Using the tags discussed earlier, I searched Adobe Stock for inspiration and after much deliberation and editing, decided on 3 variations of a design. I mocked up all three using Adobe Illustrator, and presented them to my colleagues and my Assistant Principal. The colors in the final design pictured here represent the diversity of the school community.  The multi-colored books represent our community, and the community is enmeshed in a continuous spine in the shape of a lowercase m for Murrow.  The typeface honors and hearkens back to the journalistic background of our school’s namesake Edward R. Murrow.

The logo was very well received and its recognition is growing every day. For a number of years, the library was not operating to its fullest potential for a variety of reasons. It is very exciting to be part of a ground-floor effort to reimagine the school library, amplify the library culture, and establish branding that is already showing its benefit through increased circulation, standing room only capacity levels, and a general feeling of happiness among students and faculty through conversations and word of mouth.

It’s all about the culture

We (my librarian trio) have a shared vision and are working hard to build the culture in the library. We’re doing this by:

  • greeting all patrons
  • getting to know the students and learning their names
  • establishing and maintaining relationships with students
  • establishing collaborative relationships with faculty
  • creating programming like  book clubs, author visits and a MakerSpace
  • maintaining a social media presence  

In addition, all that is publicized about or from the library bears the logo as does library signage, school LibGuide and email accounts. We want the symbol of our library to be synonymous with the feelings and qualities we are cultivating. Although those feelings are hard to define, they are made up of individual experiences, or impressions. Impressions build branding and those impressions are part of the library’s culture. Impressions make up the way a patron perceives you, so a question that I continuously ask myself is, “How do I want the library to be remembered?” Currently, I want it to be a remembered as a safe place to learn, explore, and just be.

What I have learned so far

Three months in, I feel that I have learned more about branding than I have collectively in my entire life. Branding is not a checklist, that can be ticked off like a shopping list. It is a living process that must be thought about in circular arcs rather than linear paths. A library’s brand has everything to do with the library’s culture which is complemented by the school’s culture. It is not possible to have one without the other. They are inextricably intertwined.

I have learned that branding is certainly a big picture issue and relies almost completely on what the library has to offer in terms of culture and services and how those offerings are perceived by its patrons. The logo helps reinforce this by acting as  a symbol that reminds patrons of the feelings that the library invokes for them. The branding process should be approached as a designer, thoughtful and methodical—not motivated for the simple thrill of seeing a design come to fruition.

Stories, like culture, and like branding, are connected with the heart and the mind and it is through our reflection on those stories that we cultivate and sustain our brand. Ira Glass asserted that stories make listeners feel something.  I feel the same can be said for library patrons. It is the stories they have experienced that make them feel something while the logo stands for it.

It is not a logo or some letterhead that brands a library, but all the impressions and perceptions that create those stories.  In branding the school library, it is the “transformation,” that Dr. Strong discusses in the USC article, that we are after. In order for transformation in patrons to occur, we must lure them in with a “compelling plot” in the form of programming, but not just the programming itself. More important are the stories that are woven through that programming. Those stories will elicit feelings.  Branding a school library takes time, effort, and a consistent eye toward the elements that invoke in patrons those feelings of recognition. The stories are where the culture is and thus there resides branding.


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References

Adobe Stock. (2018). Retrieved from https://stock.adobe.com/

Dawn. (2015, August 9). Brand storytelling… “A brand is a story that is always being told.”– Scott Bedbury. Retrieved from http://buytheway.ascjclass.org/brand-storytelling-a-brand-is-a-story-that-is-always-being-told-scott-bedbury/

Edward R. Murrow High School. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ermurrowhs.org/

Sykes, T., & Patel, D. (2018). Branding definition – Entrepreneur small business encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/encyclopedia/branding

Wells, R. (2016, August 3). What is branding, and why is branding important? Retrieved from https://www.lucidpress.com/blog/what-is-branding-and-why-is-branding-important


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