The Possibilities of a Cape and Mask: The Value of Superheroes in Library Programing
In our first post, we discussed the idea of the generic superhero as its own brand with broad characteristics that can be modified to create a new and unique superhero. In this post, we would like to demonstrate how we have used this generic superhero idea in our library community.
Back in August of this year, Emily approached a group of three high school patrons of the Boonton Holmes Public Library for help with a special project: design a superhero persona customized for the library. She promised that when they were finished, she would create a costume based on what they designed, and become that superhero for storytimes and other library programs. With minimal guidance, the teens created “Dr. Holmes”—the Boonton Holmes Public Library’s superhero. They created drawings and an entire backstory complete with a secret identity. Emily then created the full costume, and was able to finish it in time to debut Dr. Holmes at the 2012 NYCC. Since then, Dr. Holmes has already made three storytime appearances at the library.It is clear that the Dr. Holmes character draws heavily on generic stereotypical superhero characteristics—the costume itself is a black jumpsuit with high boots and an emblem on the chest, and her backstory references a secret identity and a fight for justice against corruption. However, the most interesting part of this project was seeing how the teens went about modifying the generic superhero to specifically fit the library. It would have been simple for them to pull together a couple generic traits they thought were interesting and make a new superhero. Instead, they took the time and effort to incorporate elements that supported the concept of a Boonton Holmes Library Superhero, beginning with the character’s name itself. The costume colors were the red and black color combination used in the Boonton Schools. Dr. Holmes’s back story discusses her secret identity as mild-mannered Emma Lexington, whose disgust with corrupt journalism led to her returning to school to become a librarian. In short, it became evident that Dr. Holmes was designed specifically for a particular library.
Now, let’s take a look at the Dr. Holmes project from a branding perspective. The teens working on this project are big fans of DC- and Marvel-branded superheroes. Whether consciously or not, they understood how these individual characters are branded through their unique physical traits and stories. They recognize the elements that set them apart from each other: individual costume choices, back stories, personality traits, and emblems or logos. Thus when the teens were making choices regarding the creation of Dr. Holmes, they referenced these branding techniques. They were able to identify the broad superhero characteristics and concepts that are traditionally altered between characters to create something original. For example, Dr. Holmes needed a unique symbol for the front of her costume, so the teens created a large red D with a smaller H inside. They altered an existing brand trait for a new character.
So, why put time and effort into this program? The value of using the superhero brand for the library is twofold. First, the stereotypical superhero stands for values that the library can get behind. A picture of Superman on the cover of a book has already spoken volumes before the patron even picks it up—about truth, justice, equality, even literacy and learning. These are values that libraries would like to represent in their communities. Having your own unique library superhero can help patrons make that unconscious association. Second, superheroes are universally popular and understood, transcending age, race, creed, and culture. They are recognized by everyone regardless of what language they speak or if they have money in the bank. That universal recognition and appreciation is exactly the type of marketing every library needs. This is not to say that a library superhero is any substitute for a library’s regular marketing and branding campaigns. Instead, think of it as a fun and creative accent to whatever existing brand is already in place.
The Dr. Holmes program has brought two things to the Boonton Holmes Library. It has given the library a new superhero brand that will hopefully one day carry the same recognition in the community as other popular trademarked characters, and it has given the teen participants a real sense of being a part of the library and directly benefiting the community. This project is still a work in progress, though. Like many superheroes, Dr. Holmes’s story will continue to grow and change over time. She may gain a few sidekicks, villains, and maybe even a super-pet. She may help organize programs around the town, be a community services leader and a literacy champion. The only limit to this idea is our willingness to invest the time and energy to make it succeed.
Emily Weisenstein is the Youth Services Librarian for the Boonton Holmes Public Library in Morris County. She has her MLIS from Rutgers University and has worked as a youth services librarian since 2009. She is an active member of NJLA and currently serves on the Member Services and PR Committees.
Joseph Gasparro is the Adult and YA Information Services Librarian for the Montville Township Public Library. He has his MLIS from Southern Connecticut State University and MA in History from William Paterson University. He has been working in libraries in many different capacities since 2007. He is an NJLA Emerging Leader and does work for local historical organizations.