Hey Milwaukee, You’re Doing it Wrong!

Milwaukee Public Library billboard

Milwaukee Public Library is running an interesting billboard campaign right now. See the image above – that’s the billboard – it’s being displayed on digital billboards “throughout Milwaukee County at no cost” (from their press release).

My three thoughts upon seeing this:

Thought #1: “Yikes! They’re showing their print book bias.”

Thought #2: Looks to me like the public library is telling Milwaukee social media users that they’re doing it wrong. In essence, they’re saying “reading books is better than what you’re doing.” It’s sort of a negative message.

Thought #3 (a bit more here): Two of the three messages don’t really make sense, and one seems format-specific. Here’s what I mean:

  • Putyourfaceinabook and 140 characters? try millions (book vs. Facebook/Twitter): these two don’t really work for me. Twitter and Facebook are online social communication tools; books are, well … things you tend to read by yourself. It’s an apples to oranges comparison. Reading a book is great – but not if I want to chat with a friend, or do some work, or, say, run a revolution in the middle east (all things that people do via Twitter and/or Facebook).
  • You Could Be Reading (book vs. Youtube): To me, this message makes the claim that one form of content is better than another – i.e., books are better than video-based content. Books certainly work well for some content, but a book isn’t always the best choice! For example, books aren’t the best choice when I want to watch the new Van Halen video, figure out how to install a storm door, or watch a full-length movie (all things I can easily do via Youtube).

I get that the billboards are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and that many online types think they’re witty and clever. And I think books are wonderful – no problems there. But I also see a lot of libraries taking wistful looks into the past, rather than actively planning to navigate our emerging digital content future. To me, these billboards are looking into the past.

Things aren’t going to go back to the way they were, no matter how many times we tell people they should be reading a book instead of watching a Youtube video or hanging out on Facebook. Is this the message you want to send to your community? I’m not convinced it is.

Then again, I could be way off my rocker. What do YOU think about these billboards?

Update – Check out Will Manley’s post for a historical perspective on a very similar issue … with the same library, no less (ok, and I’m blushing a bit, too – thanks for the kind words, Will!).

  • Linda J.

    I thought at first that your headline (the post headline, not anything with the ad) was a spoof. Boy, was I wrong. This is a brilliant visual campaign and I think it succeeds as a marketing tool as well as generating even more love for the Milwaukee library. And since it’s gone viral, it’s spreading the library love everywhere. It shows that we’re book-smart, creative and world savvy. Well done, Milwaukee. And right on to David Olson.

  • Misha

    How can promoting books and reading make us irrelevant? I think the opposite is true. Books and reading is an important BRAND for libraries and is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. Why must we denigrate this very important mission and call it old school? This kind of thinking is maddening to me. Yes, libraries are more than this, always have and always will be. But books and reading is what brings them (patrons) back again and again. And thinking and saying otherwise is shooting ourselves in the foot. Information retrieval is not the wave of the future for libraries–readers’ advisory IS. I am a little fearful of the strain of thinking where books must be abandoned in libraries in the quest for “cool”–it comes off as short-sighted on the one hand and self-serving on the other.

  • Anonymous

    It’s clever, but who are they marketing their services to?  It’s assumed libraries have printed books, unless otherwise stated.  Why not advertise something… you know… other than print books?  

    Also, this ad campaign *would* be funny if libraries weren’t struggling so much to deal with the changes Social Media services have brought about.  

  • http://shelftalk.spl.org/ David Wright

    I entirely agree with many of the commenters here, including
    my colleagues Misha and Linda (who are both excellent ‘cutting edge’ librarians,
    by the way), that anyone who views books and reading as “the past” or “old
    school” is clearly, seriously, deeply out of touch with what is going on in the
    world and in libraries. This campaign works because it is not only funny, but
    it is not so much about old media versus new media, or books versus tech: it
    resonates because it is about how people spend their time, and as someone who
    is both a lifelong reader and a Facebook addict, I suspect many others have had
    said to themselves, as I have, “Jeez, I just wasted yet another hour on some
    pretty mindless BS.” This campaign resonates with that, and suggests that there
    are other satisfying ways to lose yourself than just chain playing Words with
    Friends (guilty!).


    But to seriously suggest – as some have done here – that old
    and new media are at odds here (which this campaign doesn’t do) is really
    pretty mindless and clueless. Books are not anti-social media. Millions of
    readers and thousands of good librarians know this. It isn’t as though the ads
    mock e-Reading (something that is itself mock-worthy: http://goo.gl/JmsmX ).  The humor and humanity of this campaign have
    here served to show just how unfunny and out of step are many in our profession
    who have aligned themselves wholly with the latest medium, and lost sight of
    the message altogether.


    Let’s cut books and reading from our public libraries
    altogether. And see how many of them exist after that, and how much worse our
    society is for that fact. The past? Nah – the future, kids.

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    I pretty much agree. You mention some here saying that old and new media are at odds. My post didn’t say that – just that we need to embrace the new (not throw out the old). And i’m not seeing that idea in any of the comments, either.

    My post was talking about a library’s billboard campaign – NOT books and reading. The only time I mentioned books specifically was when I said “books are wonderful.” (I did mention a “print-book bias, but that was in relation to old-school librarians and a format – not about the books themselves).

    Help me out here – where are you getting that?

    Either way – thanks for sharing! All views are welcome.

  • http://www.madisonpubliclibrary.org/ Tana Elias

    As another MPL in Wisconsin, we’ve been hearing positive things about it from customers.  Wish I’d have thought of it first!  It works for traditional customers who really do prefer print over electronic because it validates how they feel, but it works for customers who use social media, too, because it is witty and shows Milwaukee is aware of social media.

  • Rachel

    You can’t read too much into this or take it personally, I think that’s when it might start to sound elitist or judgmental. They’re not really meant for us to meditate on like a piece of art, they’re meant to catch a driver’s attention for a second while they’re zooming by.

    Besides, you can’t deny that there’s plenty of timewasting going on in these sites– not everyone uses them to work or start revolutions! Some of us are just giggling at the latest “Sh*t ______s say” video.

  • Burnsy1217

    I actually love these ads – very clever and hitting the right market.  Way to go Milwaukee Public Library!  Now we just need live exhibits at the Museum and we are ready to go!

  • Angela Katterhagen

    I guess it depends on the way you look at it.  (David, I’m guessing your cup of java was late unless you were going for the attention grabbing headline…similar to that of MPL…..)  If they were going for PR- (and I think they were…) BULLS eye!  EVERYONE is a buzz.  Most of the feedback is positive and I’d be interested in the increase of web traffic.  I checked their website and social media sites out when I first saw the ads (I personally love that they made me double take…then I investigated…another PR point for MPL.  ) and clearly they support social media.  As eBooks are another form of reading characters I’d say they could have been referring to those eBooks/eReaders as well.  I know I’m rambling but as I do I’m calming down, thinking that my favorite library blogger was not seeing the big picture…he was merely calling attention to a great campaign…yeah, that’s it.  Whew, you scared me for a minute David.  

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    You’re very kind – thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt!

    Let’s see – yes, definitely going for the attention-grabbing headline. No, I really didn’t like the billboards – I find them short-sighted. But that said, it’s obviously a very mixed bag here. Some people love them, others not so much.

    PR – they got people talking. Good on them!

  • Jeff

    Facebook is soooo….ten minutes ago.

  • Jeff

    Whatever. The campaign seems to have worked.

  • Katie Weiher

    I live in Milwaukee and I personally love these billboards!  I think it’s a good reminder to read rather than spend hours watching YouTube videos or surfing FB or Twitter.  Also, I don’t see a print media bias in them.  They’re just saying to read, not how to do the reading.  Plus, the MKE county library system has a pretty good balance of paper books, e-books, and audiobooks available.

    I actually am surprised and disappointed by how few people actually use their library system.

  • Katie Weiher

    David – I love these billboards!  They make me laugh every time I drive by one of them.  I hope they get more people to use our library system or even just spend more time reading.