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*