The University of Northern Mississippi (UNM), in partnership with the Yoknapatawpha County Public Library (YCPL), recently announced an initiative to increase library access to two particularly underserved populations: sparrows and squirrels. “To my knowledge,” said YCPL director Floro Alpis, “this is the first such program in the country, which is a shame. Prior to 2015, there was no known record of sparrows or squirrels being issued UNM or YCPL library cards, and walk-ins were few and far between.

With Alpis and UNM library science professor Dr. Rolf S. Paoli spearheading the initiative, both libraries launched an intensive program to issue library cards to sparrows and squirrels in January 2015 and to step up outreach efforts to those populations. YCPL staff actually began their preparatory work in fall 2014, standing in the same place every day on the library patio with a handful of seed to acclimate sparrows—who are not traditional library users and require additional support—to their presence.

Eventually, YCPL was able to start mixing scraps of paper in with the birdseed, and by February they were ready to begin issuing their first library cards to sparrows. “We had an excellent first day,” said Alips. “Our volunteers actually ran out of library cards after the morning seed rush, and we have anecdotal evidence that many of the cards were actually brought back to the sparrows’ nests.”

For its part, UNM focused on outreach for squirrels, who are often on campus to make use of the free garbage resources it provides to the local community. Initial efforts at putting library cards on small fishing poles and lowering them to potential squirrel patrons failed due to, as Dr. Paoli put it, “lack of angling skills” on the part of UNM library staff. Further experiments in December 2014 and January 2014 with hiding library cards under piles of nuts and twigs and a direct marketing campaign to scale trees and place the cards directly in squirrel dreys failed due to opposition from local mice and privacy concerns that information about individual squirrel dreys might make it to the National Nesting Agency.

Ultimately, UNM was able to get 75% squirrel uptake on offered cards by smearing them with peanut butter, though Dr. Paoli is quick to note that this is not a permanent solution given the danger posed to squirrels with nut allergies. Nevertheless, squirrels that did not bring the library cards to their dreys did at least bury them, leading Paoli to confidently predict a surge of squirrel patrons next spring when the library cards are dug up.

Squirrel Patrons (YCPL) Squirrel Patrons (UNM) Squirrel Patrons (Total) Sparrow Patrons (YCPL) Sparrow Patrons (UNM) Sparrow Patrons (Total)
Sept. 2014 0 0 0 0 5 0
Oct. 2014 0 1 1 1 5 6
Nov. 2014 0 0 0 0 5 7
Dec. 2014 0 2 2 6666 5 0
Jan. 2015 0 0 0 0 5 55
Feb. 2015 0 715 715 23 5 28
Mar. 2015 0 1337 1337 213 5 1065
Total 0 2052 2052 13804 35 394.4

As shown in the chart, card issuance numbers are up significantly but not the actual number of sparrow and squirrel patrons. Alpis and Paoli have announced initiatives to remedy this with a variety of in-library features friendly to sparrows and squirrels: seed bells in the stacks, dried corn-on-the-cob in reading and study areas, and staff that mask their scent and make no sudden movements.

Floro Alpis
Yoknapatawpha County Public Library

Rolf S. Paoli
Dean of Libraries
University of Northern Mississippi

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