“And On Your Right Is One Of Only Five Cruse Large-Format Scanners In Texas”: Tips From the Tour-Guiding Trenches

If this picture were a movie title, it would be The Men Who Stare at George W. Truett: Former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards receives a demo from Eric Ames and Darryl Stuhr during a tour of the RDC.

Since opening our doors in October 2008, the Riley Digitization Center has hosted dozens of groups for tours, demos, information sessions, mingling, and general collegial carousing. Baylor presidents, regents, library fellows, donors, academics, provosts from other universities, students (graduate and undergraduate), former congressmen, football players – the list is almost endless.

Over the course of five years we’ve learned a great deal about what makes for a good tour, from knowing your audience to staging the scene and providing informative handouts. Below, we’ve outlined some tips for other digitization and archival colleagues who might find yourselves hosting a get-together.

Tip One: Know Your Audience

What’s true for marketing is true for tours: know whom you’ll be addressing before they arrive. That means going beyond the basics (how many? are they affiliated with a particular group? any special interests?) and into advanced work like inquiring after any special considerations regarding physical access, past giving habits or other philanthropic work, hobbies, political affiliations, even whether they recently went on a trip somewhere special (that happens to relate to items from one of your collections!).

If you suspect the tour may lead to a possible gift or other collaboration, be sure to do some research into what kinds of parameters they may have set on past contributions. For example, if you suspect a potential donor may be interested in providing funds to support an ongoing project, be sure to have plenty of examples from that collection available for perusal and schedule some time for in-depth conversation as part of the tour. It also pays to have someone available on your tour team with expertise in your visitor’s interest area. This person can serve as a confidante or intermediary during the tour and help guide conversations toward ways they can help support the project.

Tip Two: Set the Stage

What do selling a house, putting on a theatrical production and providing a tour of a digitization center have in common? They all require attention to appropriate staging. Odds are, your visitors have never been in a place like this before, so it’s up to you to make them feel comfortable and welcome in a situation that may be far outside their comfort zones.

As much as possible, arrange your work area to provide plenty of room for people to move about comfortably, and be sure to do the little things like tiding up a workstation or vacuuming the floors. Be sure doors are unlocked (unless they’re keeping a restricted area off-limits for the tour) and replace any burned-out light bulbs. Wash windows, water the plants – the usual things we do right before an in-law or realtor comes calling.

When it’s time to choose physical items to display, look for eye-catching examples that are safe to be handled by staff as well as visitors. Visitors love to hold items you’re digitizing, so only put things out for display that won’t be negatively impacted if someone asks to hold them. It also pays to have a “show-stopper” piece to display at some point during the tour. Superlatives like, “oldest,” “biggest,” “only one in the world” and “rarest” are always attention-grabbers and can revive flagging interest (if the tour has been going on a for awhile) or seal the deal when it comes time to make “the ask.”

Tip Three: Practice Makes Perfect

Maybe you only give one tour a year. Maybe you’re brushing the dog and currying the pony once a week. Either way, it pays to practice what you’ll be presenting to your visitors in advance. Our team has done the standard “nickel tour” of the RDC so many times we can probably do it in our sleep, but we always try to get together beforehand and discuss anything that might be new, different or challenging about that day’s tour. High-level visitors – a major donor, the Board of Regents, the Boss (our dean, not Bruce Springsteen) – warrant more practice time, of course, but even if you can only carve out five minutes to get together beforehand, it will pay off.

Tip Four: The Little Things That Thrill

After you’ve done your groundwork, staged your office and practiced the spiel, true success on a tour can come down to the use of some “small touches” that really speak to your audience. Some of the things we’ve seen make a big impact include:

–       Creating a sign to welcome the group by name. Nothing excites a tour group quite the same as a sign that says, “Welcome to the Riley Digitization Center, Cat Fancy Magazine Subscribers of Central Texas!”

–       Wear a tie (or a coat, or a jacket, or all three). Even if your usual workaday attire involves an ironic t-shirt and black Converse tennis shoes, take the time to spruce yourself up for a tour. They’ll notice if the team is all wearing their Sunday best – and, alternately, they’ll notice the one guy that didn’t get the memo, so don’t be “that guy.”

–       Have a sense of humor. I can think of only a couple of tours where the visitors and subject matter were so serious that a joke or two would have felt out of place. Most people love a good laugh, even if it’s at a corny “because we’re a Baptist university we save these files ‘forever and ever, amen’” kind of joke. Often, you’ll find a group has its own corporate sense of humor, and tapping into it can lead to a bond that would be missed otherwise.

–       Wear your nametag. Even if there’s only one of you. People need reminders.

–       Be flexible. Some people get really hung up/excited about one particular piece of equipment or want to know more about one project at the expense of spending more time looking at something else. This is okay. In fact, it can be helpful to explore those interests further, as it may lead to gifts, loans or other support.

–       Prepare your handouts. Flyers, posters, trinkets, whatever: people love a takeaway, and if it happens to provide them with the URL for your digital collections or your Facebook page, all the better.

–       Have a good anecdote or fact ready at all times. Know the stories hiding in your collections and be ready to tell them when one of your visitors uses a key word that can serve as a segue. For instance, any time someone says the words “my grandfather went to Baylor,” I can take them to a computer, open the Baylor University Lariat collection and do a keyword search for their grandfather’s name, and more often than not, he’ll be there.

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These are just a few things to keep in mind the next time someone takes time out of their schedules to come learn more about what you do. Remember: you’re doing them a favor, but they’re doing you one, too. Anyone who walks in your door could turn into your next major donor, advocate or employee, so give them plenty of reasons to remember their visit fondly.

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