The Last Librarian

An ongoing conversation about the changing landscape of public libraries.

Friday, September 26, 2008


In an effort to make things more difficult, this blog is migrating to a new space. All future posts can be read here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Makeover @ the Library, continued - Selling Your Services

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you can’t sell it.

We’ve all heard that question: what exactly do librarians do? Doctors treat disease, firefighters extinguish fires, and librarians… stamp books? To the general public it’s not really clear what librarians do. Granted public libraries could use a complete image overhaul via radio ads, billboards and their very own Super Bowl commercial, but we should probably start smaller. The best marketing happens one-on-one and begins right at the information desk!

Another comment I’ve heard all too often in library break rooms is staff complaining about trivial job responsibilities. “I got a masters degree so I can direct people to the restroom?” Lets think positively here for a moment. Why did you go to library school? How do you wish to define your job? Things are changing. We used to be just about books. Now I hear it’s information. Right this very minute we have the unique opportunity to define what exactly public libraries do.

I’m not suggesting we should stop pointing out the restroom when asked, but try advertising to patrons what you wish to do for them. And be creative! Think outside of that formal job description your supervisor gave you on your first day (that probably hadn’t been updated in about ten years). Take control of your image and start defining who you are and what you do!

Here are some creative ways to sell library services that will appeal to patrons and non-patrons:

  • Offer computer classes. From email to employment services to filing for financial aid, computer literacy is becoming increasingly vital for Americans young and old. Certainly you can teach introductions to word processing and the Internet, but if your patrons are bored then go beyond that. Try teaching a class about YouTube, Flickr, or LinkedIn – you may be surprised at who signs up!

  • Provide specialized services. Ask casual questions when you’re talking to patrons, and listen to the answers! I can’t tell you how many program ideas have come to me from quizzing patrons. Find out who these patrons are. A lot of the time they are teachers, authors, performers, and knowing this type of information will open a wealth possible services that you can provide.

  • Go above and beyond. People don’t remember adequate services – what they remember is when they are unsatisfied or super-satisfied! I’m so tired of running across posts on Twitter about nasty librarians. I want to start seeing tweets from people raving about their local librarian’s helpful service (but I’ll also settle for killer style).

  • Share your excitement! If you’re passionate about being in the information business, then let that show! If you’re not, then go hide behind the scenes - I’m sure there are some books that need to be shelved somewhere. Like it or not, even nonprofits are involved in sales - embrace your belief, or idea, or cause, and sell it!

Photo credit: Washington As It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Friday, September 12, 2008

Makeover @ the Library

I’m not normally this superficial, but I think it’s time for a makeover.

I was working on the reference desk recently, and dishing out my typically superb customer service, when a patron said something that surprised me. As a public librarian I’m used to patrons who are, shall we say, different. So I’m not easily shocked. But this was an exception. I’m not sure who she was addressing, but as she walked away from the desk, she mumbled: “well, that wasn’t so painful.”

Great! Right? I provided fantastic service and solved her problem in a way that was shockingly painless. Job well done.

But wait. Why was she so surprised? I just did my job - the same job that has been done all around the country for hundreds of years. What happened? Has the public library become the dentist office of social services?

I think we need a makeover.

And public libraries don’t just need a brush-up, we need the works. From interpersonal communication to public relations, libraries need to make a renewed effort to sell our services. I refuse to be the yard sale of information services. Make them laugh, make them smile, make them leave saying “wow!”

I’m no Miss Manners, but here are a few tips I’ve employed at the reference desk, in the stacks, and other places around the library:

  • Smile! Seriously, it doesn’t hurt, and you might even get a date. Give patrons the impression that you are not going to ridicule them for asking a question (even if you will later behind their back).
  • Make them laugh! Know any jokes? Talking to patrons should be like public speaking. You don’t just jump into facts and statistics and call numbers, you have to warm up the crowd. They are your guests - make them feel comfortable.
  • Stop shh’ing people! This applies all over the library. Let people be people. We have to encourage our patrons to be civil, but we don’t have to crucify them for being themselves. Remember Ranganathan’s Five Laws? The first law was: books are for use. How about this one: library is a place, and the space is for use. Sure, reserve a quiet area if there are patrons who need it, but don’t hold all of your patrons to the same impossible expectations.
  • Treat your patrons like fans! I’m positive that Mick Jagger does not like all of his fans. Just like patrons, some fans are creeps. But unless a restraining order seems necessary, be nice to your patrons; treat them like your friends. If you can manage to be warm and inviting, then your space and collection will be used, and you’ll have customers coming back again and again. And, hey, if you keep it up, you may even get some groupies!

More to come on selling your services...

Photo credit:
Advertising Ephemera Collection - Database #A0160
Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project
John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library*

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Continuing Education

That’s right, I said it. The term that strikes fear in the hearts of lazy librarians everywhere! But there really is something intimidating about continuing education, isn’t there? Like when you’re graded on participation in school. Most people are perfectly willing to participate in a conversation, but now that their participation is being graded, the whole class is stressed out! Suddenly Suzie won’t shut her mouth and Steve is paralyzed with fear.

Does this have any relevance to continuing education? I don’t know. Maybe.

In 2002, Peter F. Drucker predicted the importance of continuing education for knowledge workers in our increasingly information-based society.

For most of human history a skilled worker had learned what he needed to learn by the time his apprenticeship was finished at 18 or 19. Not so with the modern knowledge-worker. Physicians, medical technicians in the pathology lab, computer-repair people, lawyers and human resource managers can scarcely keep up with developments in their fields. (Managing in the Next Society, St. Martin’s Press)

Our world is changing fast and continuing education is more important than ever. But what exactly is continuing education?

I think one problem is that most people (particularly, employers) think of continuing education in very narrow terms. Remember that week-long workshop in Syracuse that you attended partly to improve your job performance, but mostly to escape your job? Sure, that was continuing education, but there are other activities that help you become more knowledgeable and better at doing your job. Go into work tomorrow and tell your boss you want CE credits for watching TV. Not buying it? Try telling her about the PBS Frontline special Growing Up Online (2008) that documents the current experiences of teenagers with computers and the Internet. Is that a better argument?

Here are some other activities I would argue as continuing education:
  • Reading newspapers, professional journals, popular magazines, books. It's all good - everything from The New York Times to The Onion.
  • Listening to podcasts, CDs, and the radio. Try the new Jay-Z album that your YA librarian just bought 4 copies of. 
  • Watching television and movies. There is so much out there: anime, documentaries, foreign films, local news, etc. Substantive, popular, who cares! It’s all about variety.
  • Playing video games. You don’t have to master it, just give it a try.
  • Talking to colleagues. Inside your field, outside your field, doesn’t matter! People with a completely different perspective often have the most insight. For example, the best advice I receive about librarianship often comes not from my fellow librarians, but a friend who works in real estate.
  • Shopping. Seriously! Next time you’re in Barnes and Noble or a Virgin Megastore pay attention – is there anything public libraries can learn from these places?

If you work in a public library and you’re not doing all of these activities, then I urge you to start! If you are, then keep doing it, and feel good about it. It should be less about updating our resumes and keeping our supervisors at bay, and more about learning new things every single day and continuing to grow as people and professionals.

Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Make Your Library Remarkable

Public libraries set the bar really low. In general, we create a boring environment with bland products and mediocre services. But this doesn’t have to be the case, and I think libraries can learn a lot from the business world. I just finished reading Purple Cow: Transform your business by being remarkable, by Seth Godin. What follows is a list of advice from Godin and how I think it can be applied to public libraries.
  • Users are interested in services that are remarkable. Most libraries are boring, bland, stagnant. As Godin says: “Stop advertising and start innovating.” Consistently good service is not enough; libraries have to be innovative. Does your library make people say “wow”?
  • Key to promoting is to get the message to the right users, not the most users. Who are the right users? “Sneezers”: patrons who will spread your message. Example: high school and college students, and nonprofit organizations. Social networking was available for a while, but it didn’t become hot until teenagers helped spread it. Focus on groups that will spread your message!
  • Think about niche markets that are being underserved. Example: students, job seekers, grant seekers, immigrants. Are there gaps in your collection? Can you improve your services to any of these groups?
  • Libraries need to provide services that fascinate people. Example: video games. People either love or hate the idea of video games in libraries. Regardless of their feelings, it gets people talking about public libraries. It generates publicity. What other services can public libraries provide that will really wow people?
  • Be aware of your competition. Know who your competitors are and what they are doing. Competitors might be nearby libraries or libraries that are leaders in the field. Find out what competitors are doing well and what they are not doing well. Use this information to improve the services at your own library. The status quo is not good enough – we have to be surpass the expectations of our users..
  • Be obsessed with creating a great experience. Libraries are always an option, but what can we do to make the public library the first option? How can we make our services remarkable?
For more on these ideas, read Seth Godin’s Purple Cow (Portfolio, 2003).

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Adult Gaming @ Public Libraries

I love video games in libraries. But the whole concept of gaming programs in public libraries is often sold as a lure for reluctant patrons, and I think this is misguided. I think there are two major benefits to gaming programs.

Lets be honest, libraries (and librarians) have a lot going against them, from the stereotypes of being a boring place and enforcing noise policies to just a shear lack of funding. From a marketing standpoint one of our biggest challenges is to remind patrons young and old that public libraries are relevant to their lives. The library shouldn’t be a place to take a break from the fast pace of the real world, it should be the center of the community – a place where people go to do things!

As reported by the Entertainment Software Association, the gaming industry continued to grow in 2007, outselling music and movies in total revenue. It’s important for public libraries to play a role in the gaming world. We don’t have to be the first choice, but libraries need to at least be in the conversation. Gaming programs at public libraries remind patrons that we speak the same language.

But more importantly, we need to start seeing video games as learning tools. It’s been suggested that gaming doesn’t fit into the mission statements of public libraries, but I disagree. It’s simple: games encourage learning. Although everyone says this differently, the primary mission of most public libraries is to support educational activities within the community. Gaming has many positive impacts, including:
  • Teamwork
  • Socialization
  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Basic technology skills
  • Problem-solving
  • And probably more that I’m overlooking

But hold on - these results are not just beneficial to young people; there are plenty of adults who could improve these skills. Education is a lifelong process, and gaming programs in public libraries is another way to help patrons improve their lives.

Unlike their younger counterparts, older adults may not attend gaming programs willingly - it may take some serious encouragement! 

Many older adults have finally come around to personal computers, but the gaming world is completely foreign to them. Gaming is the realm of their children and grandchildren, and many adults are reluctant to show their ignorance with this technology. The trick is to get them in front of a game - like Wii Tennis - and put that controller in their hands. Once they start interacting with the games, they will be sold.

Be sure to have staff members of all ages around to help patrons get the hang of it. The result that I’ve been most impressed with is the interaction between the teenage staff and the senior patrons!

For more information on starting or continuing gaming programs in your library check out Gaming - Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

From Web Sites to Widgets

How can libraries cash in on the widget craze? A colleague of mine recently suggested an answer: using widgets to provide specific services offered by public libraries.

It’s time to start thinking less about complex web sites and focus more on widget applications that allow libraries to highlight particular services that our users want. For example, I’ve downloaded applications for Google Maps and ESPN to my BlackBerry, and I use these constantly. One benefit is that since I’m opening a smaller application and not the entire web site, the load time is quicker and I spend less time getting the information I want. Making it easier to locate information – sounds like a responsibility of librarians, right?

Here are some services offered by public libraries that could potentially be utilized by a widget:
  • Online catalog (search for materials, locate where they’re checked in, place holds)
  • Account login (view holds, fines, blocks; edit personal information) Events calendar (upcoming programs)
  • Readers Advisory (searchable lists by topic)
  • Electronic databases (newspaper, magazine, journal articles)
  • Ask a Librarian (chat reference)
  • Homework Help (for kids and teens)
Web sites may become the middle person that we increasingly find ourselves trying to eliminate. If we can make it easier for users to locate information, why not do it?