If you spend any time with librarians who work for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM), you’ll likely hear about their adventures with conference exhibits. Exhibiting is a typical outreach activity for the NN/LM Regional Medical Libraries, which are eight health sciences libraries that lead other libraries and organizations in their region in promoting the fine health information resources of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and National Institutes of Health. The partnering organizations are called “network members” and, together with RMLs, are the NN/LM.
Exhibiting is quite an endeavor. It requires muscles for hauling equipment and supplies. You have to be friendly and outgoing when your feet hurt and you’re fighting jet lag. You need creative problem-solving skills when you’re in one state and your materials are stuck in another.
More than one RML outreach librarian has asked the question: Is exhibiting worth it?
Jacqueline Leskovec, at the NN/LM Greater Midwest Regional Medical Library (GMR), decided to investigate this question last October. The Outreach, Planning, and Evaluation Coordinator for NN/LM GMR, Jacqueline specifically chose to assess a particular type of NN/LM exhibits: those held at Medical Library Association chapter meetings. The question was raised at a GMR staff meeting about the value of exhibiting at a conference where most attendees were medical librarians, many of whom already knew about NLM and NIH resources.
Jacqueline decided to look at the question from a different angle. Could they consider, instead, the networking potential of their exhibit? The NN/LM runs on relationships between regional medical library staff and other librarians in their respective regions. Possibly the booth’s value was that it provided an opportunity for the GMR staff to meet with librarians from both long-standing and potential member organizations of the GMR.
Jacqueline decided to ask two simple evaluation questions. First, did existing GMR users stop by the exhibit booth to visit with the GMR staff at the chapter meeting booth? Second, did the booth provide the GMR staff with opportunities to meet librarians who were unaware of the NN/LM? In a nutshell, the questions focused on the booth’s potential to promote active participation in the NN/LM. This was a valid goal for an exhibit targeting this particular audience, where the GMR could find partners to support the network’s mission of promoting NLM resources.
She worked with the OERC to develop a point-of-contact questionnaire that she administered to visitors using an iPad. Her questionnaire had five items that people responded to via touch screen. She chose the app Quick Tap Survey because it produced an attractive questionnaire, data could be collected without an Internet connection, and she could purchase a one-month subscription for the software. The app also has a feature that allows the administrator to randomly pull a name for a door prize. Jacqueline used this feature to give away an NLM portfolio that was prominently displayed on the exhibit table. (Participation was voluntary, and the personally identifiable information was deleted after the drawing.)
Jacqueline stood in front of the booth to attract visitors, a practice she uses at all exhibits. She did not find that the questionnaire created any barriers to holding conversations with visitors. Quite the contrary, many were intrigued with the technology. Almost no one turned down her request to complete the form. Of the 120 conference attendees (the count reported by the Midwest MLA chapter), 38 (32%) visited the GMR booth and virtually all agreed to complete the questionnaire.
What Did GMR Learn?
Jacqueline learned that 50% of the visitors came to the booth specifically to visit with GMR staff, while 26% came to get NLM resources. This confirmed that the visits were more related to networking than information-seeking about NLM or NIH resources. She also learned that more than half were return visitors who had visited at past conferences, while 46% had never stopped by the booth before. It appeared that the booth served equally as a way for GMR staff to talk with existing users and to meet potential new ones. Those who were return visitors also were the more likely users of the GMR: 68% said that the GMR was the first place they would seek answers to questions they had about NLM or NIH resources. (Although one added that she would first look online, then contact them if she couldn’t find the answer on her own.) In contrast, 56% of new booth visitors said they usually sought help from a friend or colleague. Only 26% would contact the GMR. Findings do not indicate that exhibits cause librarians to become more involved with GMR. However, when GMR offers opportunities for face-to-face interactions, their users take advantage of it.
Visitors also got an opportunity to voice their opinion about the continuation of GMR exhibits at chapter meetings. There was fairly universal agreement: 92% said they thought the GMR should continue. The other 8% said they weren’t sure, but no one said GMR should stop.
Jacqueline found it was easy to get people to take her questionnaire, particularly with a smooth application like Quick Tap Survey. She also learned that, regardless of the care she took in developing her questions, she still had at least one item that could have been worded better. However, tweaks can easily be implemented for future exhibits.
Overall, she said this assessment project added depth to the typical booth assessments that GMR typically conducts. Previous assessments focused on describing booth traffic, such as number of visitors, staff hours in booth, or number of promotional materials distributed. This project described the actual visitors and what they got out of the exhibit.
Prologue: Why The OERC Loves This Project
We love this project because Jacqueline thought carefully about the outcomes of exhibiting to this particular audience and designed her questionnaire accordingly. She recognizes that exhibits at chapter meetings are a specific type of event. The goals of NN/LM exhibits at other types of conferences are different, so the questionnaires would have to be adapted for those goals.
We also love this project because it shows that you can assess exhibits. Back in the day, point-of-contact assessment required paper-and-pencil methods. It was a data collection approach that seemed likely to be self-defeating. Visitors would cut a wide path to avoid requests to fill out a form. Now that we have the technology (tablets and easy-to-use apps) that makes the task less daunting, the OERC has been promoting the idea of exhibit assessment. Jacqueline’s project is proof that it can be done!