Today we’re joined by Rich Retyi, who leads Marketing & Communications for Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). I met him during the Wondrous Strange event I ran for AADL last year, alongside other great staff like Sherlonya Turner and AADL’s director Josie Parker.
Rich is an exceptional storyteller and advocate for libraries, and alongside his comms work he has created the Ann Arbor Stories podcast and a spinoff publication, The Book of Ann Arbor.
I began by asking Rich how he came to join the team at AADL.
Working at the library has been a dream of mine since I arrived in Ann Arbor, but I’m not a librarian and there never seemed to be a position that matched my professional skills. So I did the next best thing and partnered with the library on some projects so I could work with the amazing staff there and utilize some of their resources to make cool stuff.
After 14 years in Ann Arbor, this new position of communications and marketing manager was created and suddenly my professional pursuits and my personal pursuits could merge. This job has, hands down, been the best job I’ve ever had.
What part does storytelling play in your work and what are its limits?
The library has so many stories to tell the community—from flash fiction to sprawling epics.
We might have a Bob Ross watercolor painting event, in which case the story we tell is simply, BOB ROSS PAINTING AT THE LIBRARY! BE THERE!
We might have something like our Tools collection, which requires a little more nuance: “Check out sewing machines, guitars, telescopes and four-foot tall Connect 4s!”
And then there are the stories about the special spaces within each of our five locations where people read, learn, or explore, the people who use the library, the staff who make the library work, and the lives changed by our programming, collections, and special initiatives. The limits are usually time and people.
How did the Ann Arbor Stories Podcast come to be?
I approached the library years ago about starting a podcast where I interviewed Ann Arbor-area residents who were experts in their given field.
The idea was to interview the preeminent expert on the history of booze in Ann Arbor, the expert on sports in Ann Arbor, trains, sandwiches, crime stories, etc. Logistics were a nightmare. I was able to lock down the booze expert, but all the others were too busy to mesh schedules with me. So the single episode remained the only output for a year.
Then I decided to pivot, based on a podcast I love called The Memory Palace. These were short history essays that had music and occasional sound effects and lots of personality. And, best of all, nobody to schedule interviews with. So I teamed up with a friend named Brian Peters, who handled all sound and music, and I started writing scripts for the show.
The greatest challenge has proven to be burnout. We launched the first episode in March of 2016 and maintained a pace of releasing a new episode every two weeks (with short breaks in the winter) until the end of 2017.
At that point, I’d released a book that was based on the podcast (The Book of Ann Arbor) and changed jobs (now working for the library) and all that Ann Arbor Stories got to be a little much. In 2018, the release schedule has been much less prolific—based on time and general burnout.
What role does a library have in creating content, rather than facilitating content creation by the community?
We’re fortunate that the library has a talented and diverse group of production librarians who are always looking at what content they can create that matches the strategic vision of the library, while offering something valuable to the community.
At the same time, we’re always open to ideas from the community (that’s how Ann Arbor Stories got launched) that would also benefit the community and match the library’s vision. Rarely do these clash. The production librarians and my staff are always looking for new, unique, and diverse voices to create content that appeals to a wider range of people in the community.
How did the Book of Ann Arbor come to be?
A publisher contacted me because of the Ann Arbor Stories podcast and asked me to write one of the history books that you can find in local drugstores across the country. I asked the library what they thought and they told me about their own publishing imprint called Fifth Avenue Press, and asked if I’d prefer to work with them. I jumped at the chance. So I worked with an editor at the library and a few copyeditors to turn some of the podcast scripts into written chapters.
I’m proudest of the stories that began as footnotes and grew into these crazy tales: The time a Japanese submarine captured during the attack on Pearl Harbor was paraded through the streets of Ann Arbor to raise money for War Bonds. A local newspaper holding a raffle where the grand prize was a pound of marijuana. Ann Arbor’s top 10 astronauts.
You taught physical ed and provided comms for athletic departments in the past; what part does sport play in your life & does that experience inform your work today?
I played all kinds of sports from a young age into college, but it’s only later in life that I’m truly learning the link between physical health and mental/creative health. I’ve always sought to stay active and do different things—running, swimming, yoga, weights, fitness classes, etc.—but there’s this plane of existence where physicality really enhances the feeling of being present, which (I think) is key to so much of creativity and life in general. If I’m present in my life and in my work, I’m more likely to find and appreciate all the special things around me. Exercise and using my body the way it was designed to be used definitely helps with this.
You’ve worked in the private sector and higher education as well as public libraries. What makes library work distinct or special? What could libraries do better in marketing & comms?
No offence to higher education or college athletics or major university health systems or General Motors—but the library is the only place I’ve worked where my personal goals and values match completely with my professional ones. It’s a delight to work here and know that every bit of effort I pour into this job is going towards the same goals and outcomes that I would be working towards in my personal creative life.
I won’t presume to know what libraries can do better in marketing and communications, having only eight months under my belt, but I’m so excited for all the things I can do at AADL and the stories I can tell.
Keep updated with Rich’s latest via his Twitter account @RichRetyi, and the @AnnArborStories account for the latest podcast instalment.