03 October 2007

Pedantry Versus Persuasion -or- How to Keep Em’ Coming in the New Millennium

by Kirstin Thomas

Last spring, during an internship at a local community college, I had occasion to put my theoretical acquaintance with library marketing to the test. With no prior experience in marketing, I froze in terror during the initial meeting with my internship supervisor (a recent SIRLS grad) when she asked if I might be interested in drawing up a rough marketing plan for the library as my main project, as this was an area that was sorely neglected by library faculty due to more pressing obligations. I gulped and said “Yes, of course. I happen to have an inherent interest in marketing” (lie). Following our appointment, I raced home, dropped my information literacy instruction class, and enrolled in the divinely up for grabs special topics course entitled “Advanced Issues in Information Resources: Marketing Library and Information Services to Communities.” Taking this path, as the saying goes, has made all the difference as I prepare to jump headlong to the real world of 21st century professional librarianship.

My internship proved to be an eye-opener in many respects. Not only was I unversed in the fine art of library marketing, but I also had not, for all practical purposes, ever worked in a library (at least beyond the solo post of subbing in an elementary school media center). My subsequent experience engaging with half-a-dozen faculty librarians on a day-to-day-basis confirmed my suspicion that there must be a curious combination of genetics and life experience that inspires one to become a librarian. Though we like to fancy ourselves a unique breed of maverick forward-thinkers, and would certainly recoil in shock at any allegation of rigidity or charge of being resistant to change, we are, as a whole, a self-absorbed (introverted), order-loving, territorial, censorious, pedantic, and stubborn bunch (remember…if it stings a little, it’s probably true). This is why our libraries often feel more like penal institutions than the kind of responsive, flexible and innovative environments they need to be in order to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive information environment. Jeannette Woodward, author of Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model, eloquently sums up what I feel will be the biggest hurdle librarians must overcome in order to be successful in the new millennium: “To be affective, we must bring people to the library, and to do that, we must mold the library to their preferences, not the other way around.”

Once upon a time, the library was not the port of last resort, but rather the only stop for information beyond what was available in the family’s Life Nature Library or three-volume set of Tell Me Why (that is, if you were lucky enough to own such an extensive personal collection of resource materials). In the great tradition of supply-and-demand, the library was like Park Place in the world of information real estate. This put librarians in the unique position to concede to their innermost selves with impunity, because the public really didn’t have an alternate choice, let alone multitudes of choices, regarding where to get their information. The “Come hither, peons, and quietly wait your turn, for I am the venerable gatekeeper of information” attitude of yore continues to linger in many of today’s libraries, as evident in the ever-prevalent Thou Shalt Not signage (DO NOT use cell phone, drink, eat, visit social networking sites, talk, sleep, sneeze, etc.), the prejudice among library workers against subjecting their activities to scientific scrutiny (Brooks 373), the failure of most libraries to actively collect and respond to user feedback, and finally, the general irritation with young people, in particular young adults, who have the audacity to periodically submit to fits of exuberance in our hallowed and esteemed institutions.

Please don’t misunderstand. In the very first days of the SIRLS program, when I was still as green as the day is long, groups of students were asked to share why we wanted to become librarians. Since I did not have the advantage of being able to formulate a more intelligent response based on the revelations of my fellow students (I was picked right off the bat), I nervously blurted the first thing that came to mind, which was incidentally the truth: “I want to become a librarian because I revere books and think that libraries smell like God.” Of course, this wasn’t the whole truth. If I had been entirely honest, I would have said this: “I want to become a librarian because I like the idea of getting paid big bucks to sit behind a desk and read, with only the periodic distraction of demonstrating how to use the copy machine or having to point to the bathroom or pencil sharpener (in a quiet place that smells like God).”

In the final analysis, I think that many contemporary students and recent graduates of library schools, particularly the large numbers of us who came to the profession as a second career (with very little or no experience working in libraries), were drawn to it based on certain notions of what librarians and libraries are supposed to be. For example, librarians are supposed to work from behind a desk, not from behind a PDA; libraries are supposed to be a place for quiet study, not a venue for Dance Dance Revolution; librarians are supposed to edify the public (because we know what is best for our fellow man- the best books to read, the most conducive atmosphere to improve the intellect, the most appropriate Internet sites to visit, etc.), not indulge our community’s every foolhardy wish and whim. As such, we are equally appalled at the concessions that will have to be made, the acts of persuasion we shall be forced to concede to, and the oppressive uncertainty of the road ahead. In the end, the main difference between “millennial” and old guard librarians is not ideological, but rather the keen understanding that if we are unwilling to adjust our thinking about what a library is supposed to be, and what our jobs are supposed to entail, we run the risk of endangering our very livelihoods. I read somewhere once that the film industry nearly collapsed, escaping decline only when it decided it was in the entertainment business rather than the movie business. Likewise, railroads stopped growing because they decided they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. It is my hope that libraries don’t succumb to a similar fate by deciding that they are in the library business rather than the dynamic, fiercely competitive and constantly evolving information business.

At the end of my internship at the local community college, I had the opportunity to present to the library chair and faculty a comprehensive marketing plan that was the fruit of an entire semester of shared labor distributed among myself an four other library marketing students (we decided to use this library as the basis for our final group project). I prefaced the web-based presentation with the following apologetic communiqué:

Our ideas and choices for this project were almost always informed by current best practices and contemporary thought coming out of library schools today, which can be distilled down to one simple truth: Libraries no longer have a monopoly on information, and as such, can no longer afford to be apathetic about change, particularly in regards to improving customer service and developing a marketing mindset.

My presentation contained suggestions that included actively garnering user feedback, identifying areas for regular assessment, expanding the current list of goals and objectives for the library, creating a library presence within the college’s online courseware, loosening restrictions on computer use, identifying and humanizing library staff via a photo wall that indicated each librarian’s academic background as well as a surprising fact (raced dog-sleds in Alaska, volunteer firefighter, Irish clog dancer…you get the picture), and creating a more casual environment on the first floor. When all was said and done, I got a big round of applause and a swift scoot out the door, as it was my last day, and I am pretty sure that my presence had become more of a disruption than an obliging diversion (except for my internship supervisor, who bid me a tearful farewell). In retrospect, I can imagine that I was rather annoying in my exuberance, and remain grateful for the experience and enlightened because of it.

One of my favorite sayings is “Change the way you think about things, and the things you think about will change.” This idea is especially salient in regard to the upcoming SIRLS Graduate Student Symposium, aptly entitled “Change and Opportunities: Libraries in the New Millennium.” I was happy to see that the original title, “Change and Challenges: Libraries in the New Millennium, was amended. In the end, the way you look at a situation can make all the difference. We can look at change as an unwelcome burden or an opportunity to make a real difference in our communities by giving our users what they really want. I hope we will swiftly acknowledge and align our service philosophy to the simple truth that Google and others have known all along: In the 21st century information landscape, the customer is king.

Works Cited:

  • Brooks, Terrence A. “The Model of Science and Scientific Models in Librarianship.”Library Trends 38.2 (1989): 237-49.
  • Woodward, Dianne. Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the BookstoreModel. Chicago: American Library Association; 2005.
Kirstin Thomas is a recent graduate of the School of Information Resources and Library Science at the University of Arizona.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post, Kirstin, you are hilarious and at the same time very insightful :) That class truly brought a whole new perspective to the table as far as the future of libraries. It was a pleasure working with you on this project last semester! I hope that the college found our plan useful.