For the cost of a latte a week, your library brings you the world
In a perfect world, everyone would have a library card, and the library would serve as both a real place worth spending time at and a virtual information center available 24 hours a day. The library would be the top-of-the-list destination for information and pleasure seekers alike. Unfortunately, in the real world, the public library may rate closer to number 11 as the chosen place to seek information (that’s according to a 2001 survey at https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20011214041331/http://www.keen.com/documents/corpinfo/pressstudy.asp). The truth is the library isn’t on the radar screen of many people who think of themselves as information literate.
Despite all our real-time reference, web sites that rock, and exemplary programs, libraries are still missing the hook that will change our public’s perception of what we have to offer. It isn’t enough simply to tell potential patrons what is available at their library. What was the last Madison Avenue ad campaign you saw that just told what the product offered?
The hook is selling the value of the library in real bottom-line terms.
The curse of history
Libraries are a beloved tradition in America, commanding respect, pride, and even a willingness to support the occasional bond issue. Yet, for an institution that has been around this long, the library has simply faded into the background for many in the general public. Librarians struggle to demonstrate that they are the information cognoscenti.
Most customer satisfaction surveys regarding library services indicate a high level of satisfaction with basic or traditional roles. The primary expectation is that libraries offer books for lending and provide programming for children, but they do not contribute to more sophisticated information needs. Adjusting such an entrenched reputation would not be easy in the best of circumstances. In this day of downloads from Kazaa, “Live Journal” communities and “blogs” with names like “Snoop Doggy Blog,” libraries have to fight for the attention of our users, and we are losing the battle. In trying to cast a new status for our institutions as information central we face the new and, for many librarians, uncomfortable position of being in competition. In this environment, we must tell our users—who are also our funders—what they get for a dollar spent by the library.
Borrowing from the competition
Librarians do not promote library services well and often are reluctant to borrow from the private sector, although that may be the only thing that will guarantee a viable future. This observation isn’t new. In fact, more than 50 years ago Pelham Barr wrote, “There is general rejoicing if some lipstick, love, and lingerie magazine says a kind word about libraries” (Public Relations of Poor Relations,” LJ 6/15/46, p. 884ff). Things have not changed much. Too often, we wait for others to notice that we are doing a good job.
Try as we might, we have not come up with the ultimate marketing message. “@Your Library” is a terrific idea as far as it goes, but despite the best intentions and great public service announcements (PSAs) starring Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, three problems stand out. Just when we are trying to prove our relevance in the digital age, too often the implication of the campaign is that people must actually enter a building to use the rich array of resources libraries have to offer. We can market librarians as information-savvy and tout libraries as the place to find that recipe or research that car, but if the message is still about the library as the place, ultimately, we will lose out.
Second, as respected as Sarandon and Robbins are by baby boomers, their message may not hit Generation X or Y. These are the generations least impressed by the traditional array of services.
And, most importantly, the campaign takes an essentially passive stance: We have something you might like, stop by if you have the time. Selling the library on its value, on the other hand, is about letting people know what their libraries already own. It is about presenting information as a commodity that librarians can deliver at discount rates.
Databases vs. the web
Libraries should be valued and viewed as an essential community resource. People should react with delight when they’re presented with options for service and delivery. The first step is letting them know options exist. The next step is letting them know the comparative value of library products and services.
One area that is truly undermarketed is our electronic resources. Many users have no concept that they’re different from “the Web”. We know they are unique, content-rich, authoritative, and not free. Again, too many of our information literacy initiatives are passive. We ask people to sign up for a research class and then teach better search methods. Information literacy needs to include teaching happily oblivious people about the dangers of bad information and the costs of good information.
Like almost everything else in the library, databases are not a “free” service to the public, but they represent a great value compared with other available sources. The same marketing strategy can be applied to other areas of the library.
Staff as marketers
So, what is the value of a library card? What is the value of a library? Access to unique resources? The help of trained professionals? While some of us want to tip the balance in favor of providing electronic resources for the serious user, it is still the human connection that makes the difference. As highly touted, purely electronic tools like Questia fade into history, we should remember to market the value of what is the largest percentage of most library budgets—the staff.
The staff in turn need to sell the value of the library. When Starbucks was a small, local coffee company, its staff knew coffee, and, more importantly, they knew their customers and understood that their service and our satisfaction were integrally linked. As customers we developed high expectations. While Starbucks has lost some of that personal touch, there are few among us who do not envy its brand, which literally helped change our tastes.
Like Starbucks, librarians can use the personal touch to build a brand and change user tastes. The reader who comes into the library every week to talk about what’s new and what’s good has high expectations about whatever the librarian is going to suggest. It’s the service that our public receives that helps them perceive the value the library brings.
The staff need to be smart and offer expert knowledge, but, in fact, it is the personal encounters that hold value, whether they are face to face or virtual. Each encounter is an opportunity to share our expertise, our resources, and ourselves in a way that allows our customers to savor the experience and go away wanting more.
The marketing of libraries is the responsibility of all of the staff. If we can do it with reader’s advisory, we can convince our users of the worth of electronic resources and our ability to help them make the best possible use of them. We will know we have succeeded when a customer asks what new databases has been added this week.
Marketing your worth
While the idea of advertising library services isn’t new, we must exploit it more than ever. We need to talk about “having the world in your pocket” with a library card and stress that you don’t have to be inside a library to use it. I hope some library somewhere is doing radio spots featuring “inside the mind of a librarian” scenarios that target diverse user groups. Even better, how about a whole show devoted to information? If the Satellite Sisters can be syndicated, why can’t a group of creative and zany librarians who respond to reference questions as though they were car repair issues?
Whatever the creative avenues your team can come up with to spread the word about what the library has to offer, don’t forget that these services aren’t free. Simply put, thanks to librarians, the public has access to resources more easily, quickly, and cheaply than would otherwise be conceivable. We know that; now we must let our public in on the secret.
By Rivah K. Sass
Rivah K. Sass is Reference & Information Services Coordinator, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR.
Five things libraries can do to market their worth
- Have a real budget for advertising, like St. Louis Public Library. It budgets $120,000 a year for radio ads, billboards, and bus cards, targeting some of its low-use neighbourhoods to encourage people to use the library and understand its value. Somewhere travelling around St. Louis is a bus with a sign that reads, “Want to be healthy, wealthy and wise? Use your library!”
- Develop creative PSAs aimed at Generations X and Y that are designed to be broadcast during late-night television. “It’s the middle of the night and you’re working on a paper? Did you know that your library card will get you into the library’s databases all night long? They’re better than Google, and you can cite them, too!”
- Develop catchy placards for the inside and outside of buses that highlight the value of the staff at the library. Use some of the more unusual questions librarians have been known to answer next to pictures of local staff members: “Have you ever wondered can you poach a salmon in the dishwasher? Ask a librarian!” In the Information Age, it’s good to know there are true information professionals ready to assist with any question.
- Joe Jarnes of the University of Washington iSchool says, “Be where people are.” Janes was the inspiration for Multnomah County Library’s “Knowmobile,” a rolling reference cart that allows staff to answer reference questions, make library cards, and promote library services at everything from baseball games to farmer’s markets.
- Work with database vendors to develop strategies and promotional collateral to market electronic resources and get the word out. Product-specific marketing materials about electronic resources would be a huge benefit to users and give librarians a chance to highlight the specific cost of building their collections.