Thursday, May 19, 2011

What do libraries do? Transforming our Image.

Recently I attended a PLA webinar featuring Valerie J. Gross titled Transforming Our Image.  She discussed that image is key in the perceived value of an object.  Her example was bottled water.  Generic bottled water cost approximately $2.00 for a six pack.  However, Evain bottled water which has a nice graphic and is natural spring water from the French Alps sells for about $6.00.  In addition, their current add implies that drinking it will keep you forever young.  Ohhh...ahhh....

This implies to me that libraries are currently generic bottled water, and that we need to find a way to transform ourselves into Evian.

Valerie does this by stating what is it that libraries do.  "We deliver equal opportunity education to everyone in our county."  Ohhh...ahhhh...  I am impressed.  I want to go there.  In addition, all this wonderful education is at no cost. 

She bases the redefinition of public libraries on three pillars. 
1. Self-directed education.  This is where books and electronic resources come in.
2. Research Assistance and Instruction or the artist formally known as reference desk and librarians.
3. Instructive & enlightening experiences or in common library parlance - programs.

This philosophy transforms librarians into research specialists, programmers into instructors or teachers, and programs into classes.  I am starting to feel a bit like a bottle of Evian water.  Oh la la.  Maybe I should get a French beret.  All this without doing anything different than what we are currently doing except using different verbage to describe it. 

Her main point during the webinar was to use this language to educate the public, politicians in particular, as to what it is the library actually does.  This education is achieved by using this language everytime we write or speak about the library.  For example, when sending a thank you to your local politician for attending the xyz event you can use the following: "Thank you for tremendous support of public education for all" instead of "Thank you for your tremendous support of our library."  Which will get that "Ohh" response?

I realize that this essentially all boils down to marketing, but there is a reason that marketing is a big business.  Good marketing can change people's perceptions.  Case in point is the aforementioned bottled water.  Why do we even need to buy bottled water when several studies have shown that it is not much, if any, better than tap?  Despite the studies, bottled water is big business.  News stories show that libraries are not faring quite as well.  If you doubt me, ask the L.A. school librarians.

What Valerie barely touched on was the effect that this language would have on the library staff.  I have heard from many librarians who are frustrated.  They don't know why they bothered to obtain a masters degree, they don't know what they are going to do when ebooks replace print, and I have even heard a librarian tell a possible recruit not to bother going to library school because there wouldn't be libraries much longer.  Say it isn't so!  It is hard for these librarians to justify their positions to the public when they can hardly justify it to themself.  It is the 'warehouse mentality' that libraries are simply warehouses for books.  When/if print books disappear (this is a debate for another post), what will librarians do?

By stating that libraries provide an education for all, this redefines the purpose of libraries.  It gives staff a sense of purpose and helps boost morale.  Which would you rather be called?  Circulation clerk or customer service specialists?  How many library users understand circulation clerk and circulation desk?

I am torn about renaming librarians to research specialists.  When Valerie first mentioned the term, I thought "Ohhhh..I am special."  However, there is some nostalgia for being called a librarian, and we shouldn't change just for the sake of change.  Still, she has a point when she states no one will ask a research specialist if she sits around and reads books all day.  I also bet that no one has a mental image of said research specialist with a bun, horned-rimmed glasses, and a tweed skirt shushing everyone.

Let's go back to the thought of reinvergerating the staff.  As Valerie was discussing changing the term programs to classes and programmers to instructors or teachers, I was mentalling running through how we could support this image with our 'classes'.  What classes can we offer to educate the public?  I was getting excited.  I had just had a customer in a few days before looking for a reading class for her soon to be pre-k granddaughter.  She had a flyer from a local university for one that cost almost $300 that would teach her child and attending adult the basics of reading.  My response was all we have is the summer reading program.  Thinking back I just cringe.  No, we don't just have the summer reading program, we have a series of summer reading classes for children through teens designed to introduce them to literature, music, and culture.  All for no charge!  How great is that!

If I look at the first pillar of providing the opportunity of self-education, ebooks are just another tool that I, the research specialist, can help our customer navigate.  If all print books disappear (excuse while I pause a moment to learn to breath again) that is ok because libraries are more than just warehouses.  They are places, and we provide equal opportunity education for all.  Don't have a computer?  No problem, we do, and we will even teach you to use it.  Why?  Because we provide equal opportunity education for all.  See how it becomes a mantra? 

This creates an effective mission statement that staff, customers, and yes, even politians will quote.  An effective mission statement will drive the organization, give the staff purpose, and lend itself to design of 'classes'.

eBooks Are Winning the Race!

Amazon announced today that Kindle book sales have surpassed all combined print book sales.  That's right people!  eBook sales are outpacing print book sales.  Good or bad, ebook are here to stay!  This is in addition to the recent announcement that Kindle has worked a deal with Overdrive to make Kindle books available for libraries to lend to their customers.  Please note that this is not Amazon adapting the Kindles to read the DRM ePub format, but that Overdrive will offer the Kindle format, AZW, in addition to DRM ePub.  The good news is that libraries will not have to purchase additional copies. Overdrive will automatically make the Kindle version available for all previously and future titles purchased by the library. The bad news is that the library users now have one more choice to make when they download a book.  For our tech savvy users this will not mean much except, perhaps, a minor annoyance.  However for our less than tech savvy users this will add to the already confusing process of downloading an ebook ~ one that has to include a computer rather than downloading directly to the device.  How much easier it would be just to buy the book from Amazon and have it downloaded directly to your Kindle and be done with it?

Libraries are not just sitting back and waiting for the dust to settle.  They are taking an active and needed role in designing the landscape. NISO, National Information Standards Organization, is launching an E-Book Special Interest Group.  According to the NISO site, the SIG will address the following issues:

  • How can NISO actively facilitate cross-community dialogue in this area, building bridges between what are now separate, sometimes disparate groups? 

  • How can NISO work collaboratively to provide education and information to assist with this dialogue? 

  • How can NISO actively foster "incubation teams" to identify specific pain points in the e-books realm that could be remedied through formal standards, recommended practices, dissemination of information (e.g., via white papers, educational workshops, professional forums, Thought Leader meetings, etc.) either through NISO or within another agency or in partnership with one or more organizations?

  • In addition to the core SIG, NISO will be implementing a monitoring group to provide feedback.  They are accepting nominations at via email (  It is but one step of many for libraries to learn adapt to the shifting realm of digital reality.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    Seth Godin on "The future of the library"

    Seth Godin on “The future of the library”

    Yep, gotta love Seth:
    The future of the library
    “The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user servicable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.
    The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.
    Wouldn’t you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information? There are one thousands things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.
    We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.”
    Read it. Re-post it.