Public Libraries: New Served Agencies?

A long-used term by the American Radio Relay League, the National Association for Amateur Radio, is “served agency.” Almost without exception, it refers to a government agency or non-governmental organization that provides vital response support in times of disaster or, at least, in times of public service. In fact, the ARRL has official memos of understanding with many key agencies to which they promise their members or affiliates will “serve” as this screenshot from the League’s website details.

There is also an “educational outreach” page on the ARRL website. It lists programs, brochures, videos, suggestions on how to speak to youth groups, and small grants for educational outreach. But nowhere does it get the urgency, importance, or strategic planning that the “served agency” page does.

Recently, the ARRL Board approved a Life Long Learning Program, focusing on “offer[ing] a variety of learning opportunities for new, current and prospective amateur radio operators.” It mentions “youth and school resources” with ready-made presentation slides, videos, and associated materials, including a budding array of online courses. But only through school resources are libraries mentioned. Yet, the Gallup survey organization identified one leisure activity as “the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far.” That activity is visiting a public library.

The average 10.5 trips to the library U.S. adults report taking in 2019 exceeds their participation in eight other common leisure activities.…it’s the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far.”

Gallup Survey Organization

Schools and their teachers are already the foci of the League’s attention for outreach. And, from teachers whom I know who have been among the dozen or so each summer who attended the Teacher Institute, it’s a good thing. It uses the well-oiled “train-the-trainer” model of subject matter material propagation. I don’t know if there has ever been an evaluation of the program, following up and documenting how many new hams got licensed or even how many students got exposed to amateur radio after the teacher-trainer returned home. If so, I’ve just missed it. But until that happens, we just do not have common measurable outcomes on how effective the Teacher Institute is for getting students into the amateur radio hobby.

Gallup survey data recently revealed that U.S. adults attend the library on average about 10 months out of the year. This is more than they attend movies. And far more than parks or casinos. Women visit libraries twice as much as men. Hmm. That’s a population segment that amateur radio largely misses out on. And, young adults aged 18-29 attend public libraries more than any other age group. Isn’t the League trying to gain penetration into the youth market segment? The 30-49 age group is just behind the younger age group in library visits but this tapers off after age 50 onward until the typical retirement group of 65 years and beyond.

Women visit libraries twice as much as men. Hmm. That’s a population segment that amateur radio misses out on. And, young adults aged 18-29 attend libraries more than any other age group. Isn’t the League trying to gain penetration into the female and youth market segments?

Frank K4FMH

They are there, at the public library, but will we hams come? I’m reminded of the famous quote by the notorius bank robber, Willie Sutton. “I rob banks because that’s where the money is,” Willie Sutton supposedly said to news reporter Robert M. Yoder. Women and young people are at the library more than any other single public place.

Should the priority of educational outreach as one of the National Association for Amateur Radio’s goals include key educational outreach organizations as “served agencies”?

Here is a small look at the potential to reach young people in public libraries, taken from the latest Public Library Survey data available (2017) and only for the four states in the Delta Division (AR, LA, MS, TN). Over a year’s time, the 365 public library systems (actual outlets like branch libraries and bookmobiles total far greater but aggregate to the system) report these levels of traffic inside their brick-and-mortar locations, shown in the table below. The 9 million registered borrowers contribute to over 55 million visits during the year which also include unregistered borrowers. Over 5 million attend formal programs at these libraries, comprising over 3.3 million at children’s programs and a half million at young adult programs. This totals about 4 million persons in the youth market in just these four states alone. In addition, a total of 10.7 million wireless Internet sessions were utilized by patrons. This potential market traffic comes into the doors of brick-and-mortar public libraries. They reflect a clear and present target audience for the ARRL’s stated educational outreach audience. And, far easier to reach than via the school setting.

A new program that I described in a recent blog post describes one attempt by the Delta Division to leverage a current ARRL deep-discount sales program to begin raising public libraries to “served agency” status. This is the Plant the Seed! Initiative. It will be followed by the Sow the Future program, described below. The League has only recently begun using demographic data analytics to identify, understand, and reach out to desired market segments. While it’s just being rolled out to the Delta Division of four Sections in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, it is scalable to the all Divisions. Here’s how it works.

The ARRL has a set of 10 key books, including the two popular ones (Handbook & Antenna Handbook), for sale at a flat fee of $200 which includes shipping. They are only for library donations. Hence, the product is called the ARRL Library Book Set. For many clubs, the per-member cost of this set is less than $5.00. It’s less than a slice of pizza at a ham club lunch. The issue is that hams vary widely in their familiarity with their local library, although some might even be the Library Director! So what is the “social ecology” of where amateur radio clubs are located versus local libraries?

Public Libraries and Nearest Amateur Radio Club, Delta Division

I extracted the ARRL affiliated clubs in the Delta Division from the ARRL Find a Club webpage. There were geocoded to varying levels of accuracy (some at the city level). The Public Library Survey that is produced annually was used as the database for library systems (branches and bookmobiles are note used here but could be). The 2016 data are the most recent available. A script to conduct a spatial search for the nearest club to each library, within each Section so all clubs and libraries are within the section boundaries, was created and executed using GIS software. The results placed over a basemap is shown above.

A couple of things emerge from this spatial representation. Some clubs are the closest one to many public libraries. In one case (Bossier City, LA), there is no library for which that club is the nearest. This is due to a nearby one in Shreveport that just happens to nose it out, so to speak, in terms of the geocoded club locations and the libraries. So, the clubs and communicate between themselves, perhaps in concert with the Section Manager, to use this map and a master list of public libraries and clubs in the Section, to determine which libraries should receive the book set donations from each club. Similarly, in another city (Starkville MS), one club is nearest to a public library several counties to the west while the other is closest to several nearby. Again, club officer communication along with the Section Manager, uses these results as they were meant to be: just a guide to the local area terrain for libraries and amateur radio clubs.

Delta Division Director David Norris K5UZ has communicated to each Section Manager with a “challenge” to see which Section can serve the most libraries. Right now, Mississippi and Malcolm W5XX is in the lead, mainly because my club, the Central Mississippi ARA, has taken delivery of two ARRL Book Sets for donation to libraries in Rankin County (Central MS Library System) and Madison County. We’ve communicated with the President of the Jackson ARC who will take the lead on the Hinds County (Jackson) Public Library System. Checking the online catalog of ARRL book holdings is an important act. The Central MS Library System had several titles but all were more than a decade old. Madison County, which has the highest median income in the State, had almost none. Surprising but that’s why we should always check a library’s online catalog of current holdings beforehand.

Getting the library’s Director involved in the donation is also vital. Don’t just “drop off” the donation at the check-out desk. Easy for the club official but terrible for the library staff. Library’s just don’t work that way regarding collection development. This “drop off” may well just get the blister wrapped donation of 10 books placed in the next sidewalk sale of the library. Take the time to get the Library Director involved. Get that person in the public relations photo and narrative as welcoming the donation so their acceptance is in the public view. Execute due diligence in this strategic investment for amateur radio. More work but far greater pay-off.

David K5UZ and I also provided an online Dropbox folder system for the “paperwork” to facilitate the implementation of this Plant the Seed! Initiative. Sub-folders include the logo, the map of the spatial ecology of clubs and public libraries (see above), a narrative document which both announces the Initiative, gives a description of the Dropbox file system and the link to it, and recommendations for Section Managers to implement the program within the Section. Finally, and this is a key to facilitating the Section Manager’s job of both encouraging and managing the roll-out of the Initiative in his Section, we created four spreadsheets. Two are the master list of ARRL affiliated clubs and public libraries in each Section. A third is a list of clubs with nearest public libraries. This gives the Section Manager an overview of the Section and helps in advising clubs on libraries to serve (see discussion above). Finally, separate spreadsheets for each club in the Section were created. This allows the SM to just email a single spreadsheet to a given club using the email contact within that individual.

These procedures reduce but do not eliminate confusion over the suggestions made to clubs. Imagine, however, just advocating that clubs donate to their libraries. Here’s the link to purchase at Go to it, clubs. Check off that box. Done! Wow. That would be worse than stepping on an unseen covey of quail! More importantly, it would be destined for failure in terms of making a systemic impact on getting amateur radio material into public libraries.

It would also not create an ongoing relationship between the club and the library itself. The follow-up effort is called the Sow the Future portion of this Initiative. Offering programs on amateur radio at the local library leverages the initial book donation and benefits the library staff who are charged with creating programs for the public. This activity by ARRL affiliated clubs “serves” the public library in a very beneficial way. But it doesn’t happen without systematic planning. Planning the spatial ecology of linking national organizations like the ARRL and one or more of their Divisions to their Sections and their Sections to affiliated clubs is critical. It’s the return on the investment of the $200 set of books to get a continuing “served agency” relationship of giving programs on the amateur radio hobby at that recipient library.

Remember, Section Managers report to the Field Services Coordinator in most day-to-day matters. Getting the organizational links among the League, Division Directors (who comprise the governing Board for the League itself), Section Mangers, loosely affiliated Clubs, and individual ham operators is far from being a well-oiled or even well thought out machine. Hams who are not League members may be members of an ARRL-affiliated club. Or no club at all. So the final link in this chain is only a part of the ham radio operator market. But it’s the market that the League deals with most of the time. The need to use demographic data analytics like this becomes crucial in a loosely-coupled organizational ecology that is the case with amateur radio in the United States. The approach outlined here is just one example of using them to plan a new set of links in this ecology.

We hope that this Initiative will be met positively by clubs and their members. It’s a nominal financial commitment by clubs on a per-member basis. Doing the final leg-work on establishing an ongoing relationship with one or more local libraries is as important as the $200 donation of books. David Norris K5UZ is investigating whether it’s feasible to get the digital version of the new On the Air magazine available to recipient public libraries to leverage the wireless Internet access by registered borrowers. We will see how that materializes.

Public libraries are the dominant local community organization through which to consistently reach both women and youth, from the recent Gallup report’s findings. Libraries should be viewed as “served agencies” for educational outreach much as the League advocates ARES teams serving critical organizations in times of emergency. Or a bike race, which is more often the case. Because libraries are where the “money” is.

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

2 Responses to “Public Libraries: New Served Agencies?”

  • John Adamec NV4L:

    Thanks for the info on the ARRL Library Book Set. The Palm Bay Amateur Radio Club (PBARC) holds its meetings in the De Groodt Library in Palm Bay FL. We’ve maintained excellent relations with the Library staff and recently received permission to put up a display on Amateur Radio in the library lobby.It’s a PowerPoint display on a flat screen TV with examples of Go Kits, HF station and HT’s.And an explanation of Ham radio and how to become a Ham.
    While I was waiting for the Reference Librarian to coordinate our display I decided to look a the “card catalog” (of course it’s now on a computer) and I searched Amateur and Ham Radio. Outside of a QST subscription I came up empty. That prompted me to personally donate a 2020 ARRL handbook to the library. I’m hoping that our display generates some interest especially for women as we don’t have a female member yet.

    John Adamec NV4L, President PBARC

  • Frank Howell K4FMH:

    Thank you, John, for that feedback. Sounds like the PBARC should be the “poster child” for the PTS Initiative! You could consider petitioning your new Division Director to get involved with this initiative as the Delta Division has already done. I can create a similar set of maps and spreadsheets for your Division, too, if your Director requests it.

    One thing about this approach is that we have a ready-made potential impact metric as the Public Library Survey tracks children, young adult, and total program attendance in each Library System, something I’ve not found for the Teacher Institute or many other activities.

    Keep up the great work in Palm Bay!

    73 de Frank K4FMH

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