UVA Library communications director Charlotte Morford on the value of being an outsider

The internet introduced me to Charlotte Morford via a design blog.

One of my first charges after I arrived at the library was to put together the annual publication. In my research, I discovered the amazing University of Virginia Library annual reports. Have you seen them? They’re gorgeous and informative and inspired.

Charlotte is the Director of Communications at the University of Virginia Library and among many other things, hired the design firm Design Army to produce the publications. Luckily, she’s been very kind in sharing her experiences with me, and now, with you.

What do you do at UVA Library and how long have you been doing it for?

I manage a great team of web professionals: programmer, developer, and editor. We oversee the website, online and print publications, and main social media channels. We are the liaison to the university’s central communications office, and we also create the library’s corporate identity, styleguide, and annual report to donors. I also handle media inquiries, public relations, communications strategy overall and writing projects for the University Librarian.

I’ve been here ten years–I never thought it would be that long. Or this much fun.

I’m a big believer in fun. What are some highlights?

I love that when you work in a university library you’re in the belly of the beast. The sheer variety of activity and experiences that go on are what make it fun for me. No day is ever the same!

My favorite question is, “What’s happening at the library?”

Some highlights:

  • Seeing what the students do with the library on their own: and the video a class from the business school made about us; the Harlem Shake in our notoriously quiet McGregor Room; the flash mob that took place in our undergraduate library.
  • Doing cheeky experiments: what if we chopped our website by 99%? Would anyone object? (We did and they didn’t.)
  • Wrapping my mind around all the funky digital stuff going on in the Scholars’ Lab.
  • Having a student knock on my door and ask to buy an exams-week poster our editor made (I gave it to him).
  • The “hexicopter” built by our communications programmer that an environmental sciences professor is using to teach climate forecasting.
  • Trying to figure out how to make preservation, one of the library’s priorities, sound sexy and important. The word still says “formaldehyde” to me, but I’m working on it.
  • The requests we get every Halloween for information on our two resident ghosts.
  • The variety of staff skills coming in to help run the operation — special collections curators, web developers, programmers, user experience librarians, lawyers, digital humanists, data experts…
  • Watching and learning how other research libraries are marketing their services.
  • The fact that we had three out of ten spots on a local paper’s “best places to do it in Charlottesville” list, and that our old stacks were a finalist for the alumni magazine’s “creepiest place on Grounds” (what the UVa campus is called).

What was your background before your current role?

Checkered! Grants administrator for the National Endowment for the Humanities, director of corporate advertising for the Nasdaq Stock Market, senior marketing manager for Nextel Communications, owner/operator of a cut-flower farm.

2008 UVA Library Annual Report

UVA Library 2008 Annual Report

My bio in six words:

ocean

books

business

fantasy

reality

books

I love the six word bio… books times two! What are you reading right now?

I usually have several books going at once. Currently it’s Jaques Pepin’s autobiography, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, a history of the U.S. highway system, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raising Chickens. Oh, and P.G. Wodehouse. Always something by P.G. Wodehouse.

What about your professional background is most useful to your work in the library?

Being an outsider. It forces you to look at marketing from the standpoint of the person you’re trying to reach because you don’t have the built-in knowledge and lingo of the profession. When you’re immersed in that, it’s too easy to assume that people understand your acronyms or objectives … and that they care about them. That’s fatal for marketers.

Coming to Nasdaq’s marketing group sporting an MA in English rather than an MBA in marketing meant that I was freakish, but also that I had to work hard to understand–at the most basic level–what it was we were selling, and what the benefit to the customer was. Moving on to telecommunications meant another learning curve, and then on to a research library yet another.

Curiosity is also important–I love learning about how things work and why they’re cool. That really helps in being able to find and articulate why the customer should care about it. And it’s a big part of the fun of marketing.

I agree about curiosity and fun, but I don’t think of myself as a marketer. But that’s a discussion for another time!

So, how do you stay an outsider? Or rather, how do you balance knowing enough about libraries with knowing too much (so that you can stay fresh)?

That’s a great question. It’s one I think about a lot now that I’ve been here for 10 years. The sheer size of the challenges facing research libraries–rising collections costs, growing student enrollment, declining state support, aging buildings, faster and faster communications, the fact there are never enough technical people around, and they’re expensive to hire and retain, the mountains of digital stuff being produced for which libraries are racing to find a way to preserve, the technical solutions that are so important but so dry to describe–these things fascinate me.

Because I’m not a librarian I don’t have the in-depth knowledge that lets me immerse myself in them, but because I have to present them–and make compelling stories about their value–that keeps me always learning and thinking, “OK, how am I going to make this irresistible?”

I know this feeling. Never quite being the prescriptive fit for something, yet having a lot to offer because of it. Do you find that the places where you’ve worked appreciate that or …

You’re exactly right. It’s not an easy starting point. I’ve usually had to earn the respect of colleagues, especially at Nasdaq (where they wondered what this arty little academic was doing in their midst) and at the UVA Library (where they wondered why this feral marketing type was bringing down the scholarly culture).

2011 UVA Library Annual Report

UVA Library 2011 Annual Report

What is the coolest thing about the UVA Library?

Hmm. I think a lot of libraries are really cool. Like yours! I’d say the fact that it’s so old–it opened in the Rotunda in 1826 — and yet is always changing, experimenting, and trying new things. The spaces are so beautiful but there’s nothing staid or static about them. It’s cool that people are continually surprised by how lively a library can be. It’s fun to surprise them.

University libraries are starting to hire communications professionals. You’ve been doing it for ten years. What are your thoughts on this trend?

I think it’s a great trend and I love having professional company now! No matter how squeamish academics feel about marketing, it’s not a four-letter word and it’s something everyone does.

Any time you want to effect a behavior in someone you’re marketing–you’re hoping to make a compelling case, whether you’re trying to coax students to ask reference questions or persuade a tenure and promotion committee to make you permanent.

And given the challenges and questions facing higher education in general, telling a compelling story is essential. That’s what communications professionals do.

Yes, we are storytellers! That’s something I love about the work. Okay, what was difficult and exciting about being on the early edge of this movement?

What was difficult in the beginning was the internal culture–people were always calling me “the spin doctor,” and there were some really unkind anonymous comments made in the annual staff surveys.

I think there was a perception among some people that I was taking a job from a librarian, and they didn’t understand the purpose or benefits of having a professional marketer in the house.

When we started putting out publications that got a lot of attention and made the library look fun and interesting, and when the attention and awards and copycats started rolling in, things changed for the better. Most important: I have great people who are not only talented but charming, so that helps break down the barriers.

I also felt things shift as people saw that the word was getting out about our awesomeness. What about the exciting part?

Being on the early edge of the movement, it was a totally blank slate. We were free to construct a corporate identity program–even though we had to work hard to persuade staff to adopt it. My boss, University Librarian Karin Wittenborg, gave me a lot of freedom and support. I vowed early on only to hire people who had hustle, web skills, a big sense of humor and insatiable curiosity.

We have a great time trying new things: a mobile app, a visual identity system, social media guidelines, and collaborations with improbable partners like the university’s Facilities Management and an undergraduate class from the business school.

There are so many overlaps with what we’re busy doing, too!

Now we’re exploring what Google Glass and Google Maps could mean for communications, and how to make fundraising communications go beyond the annual report in a way that will intrigue people and loosen their purse strings.

And now it’s totally exciting to have professional colleagues in other libraries that I can converse with and learn from.

//

Yes!

You can see more images from the 2011 UVA annual report on chasematt.com.

Featured image at top is the UVA Library 2012 Annual Report.

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