Greg: The Library Land Project is a 501(c)(3) whose mission is to explore, document, and promote public libraries. It started, really, as a lark. In the fall of 2017, my friend and business partner Adam Zand and I started a PR agency, SharpOrange, and needed a place to work. Rather than renting an office, going to a coffee shop, or using WeWorks, we decided to meet at the Newton Free Library outside of Boston. It was terrific. Plenty of parking, fast wifi, nice study rooms – we loved it. We loved working in libraries so much that we decided to do it again – but at another library.
That led to another and another and another.
After five or six, we started noticing little differences: this one had more parking, this one had a really nice reading room, this one was super friendly and we began keeping informal scores and notes. After a dozen or so, we decided to try to visit all of the libraries in Massachusetts. After a few dozen, we realized that libraries were doing amazing things in their communities and that most people didn’t appreciate the essential work being done by public libraries. By the end of 2018, we had visited 100 libraries around Massachusetts. It was fantastic.
Because we’re PR guys, we decided we could help tell their stories – but initially we weren’t sure what that meant or would look like. We kept visiting libraries. We came up with a more formal rating system, we took photos, made notes, and began spending more time talking with library workers.
One of the directors we met with – Jennifer Harris (now retired) of the Plymouth Public Library – suggested we attend Library Legislative Day at the State House in Boston. We decided to use that day to launch the Library Land Project with a website. It was a great opportunity to meet folks from around the state and to start to understand the infrastructure and organizations that support libraries.
We also began talking with the media. The hook was two quirky guys traveling around the state looking at libraries. The story we told was about libraries and the work they were doing – and things snowballed from there. Over the course of 2019, we went to more than 200 libraries and started speaking about what we were seeing and learning.
As 2020 started, life was good. We drove out to Bloomington, Indiana to speak at a staff training day. We had plans to speak in Missouri. I was working as a part-time substitute librarian at the Dover Town Library, and was hoping to start working on my MLIS degree. When COVID happened, all that changed. Library visits were on hold, Dover closed, I didn’t get into grad school. Blah.
We decided to use the time to convert Library Land into a nonprofit, which was a way easier process than we’d expected. I also rethought my plans for grad school (I’m now one semester away from graduating from the University of Alabama – which I have absolutely loved). We moved forward and life goes on in wonderful ways.
That was a really long answer. The bottom line was that when we needed libraries, they were there for us. Now, we want to be there for them, to help tell their stories and to reframe the ways people think about them.
Ray: Very neat! The site is full of wonderful information from stories to rankings! What do you encourage viewers to explore first?
Greg: People should read the stories first and foremost. Or the reviews. The stories are recaps of our visits and the reviews are deeper dives into specific libraries. We love libraries and really hope that comes through in what we share. We started doing in-person visits again in May and the pace is quickening. The creativity, resilience, and commitment to community we’ve been seeing during our recent travels have been amazing and we’re happy to be sharing them.
Ray: The ranking system is very interesting – how did you decide on these factors?
Greg: Ah, the rankings. Sometimes we wish we’d never created them! We’ve fielded some complaints about them, but at the same time, we’ve heard from a lot of libraries saying how they’ve used them to make the case for more resources. They’re something we spend a lot of time thinking about.
The original criteria reflected the things that mattered to us for our visits – parking, wifi, study rooms, etc. We tuned around the edges here and there – parking, for example, became transportation. We began talking to more people in the library community to get ideas and feedback. We have expanded the criteria to include things like accessibility, programming, and services. We’ve tried to make it more objective so other people can use it to rate their libraries.
That work continues and we’ve started leaning toward a pretty major change. We’re thinking about publishing a framework for thinking about libraries from the patron perspective – but without a reliance on the rankings. We think it’s important to think about libraries critically but without the stark judgement of a number. We think that could be a good compromise and could provide a way to get other people involved. We are always open to suggestions though!
Ray: Any plans to include libraries outside of the United States in the future?
Greg: There are 16-17,000 public libraries in the United States and around 250,000 around the world. We started way too late to try to visit them all. That’s why we’ve thought about ways to open-source Library Land. We think the framework will help other people participate – and that includes beyond the U.S. for sure. We’d love Library Land to be a clearing house for stories about public libraries and the work they’re doing here and around the world.
Ray: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we didn’t get to discuss?
Greg: Public libraries need to find more effective ways to tell their stories. So many are doing such amazing and impactful things, but too many people still think of them as buildings filled with books staffed by “Marion the Librarian. Now, more than ever, libraries are making critical contributions to their communities. That point gets lost or ignored way too often. Be proud of the work – and the commitment behind that work – and don’t be afraid to talk about it loudly and often!
Greg Peverill-Conti is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Library Land Project. Since 2018, Greg has visited more than 300 libraries around the U.S., with many more to come. He is also a principal at SharpOrange, a communications consultancy. Greg has been helping organizations tell their stories since 1992. He has his B.S. in American Culture and Communication from Emerson College in Boston and is currently working on his MLIS at the University of Alabama. Greg lives in Medway, Massachusetts.