Libraries are not businesses. They do not fare well when the majority of people in a society believe that the “free market” is the only viable economic model. However, there is much of value that libraries can learn from the business community and the concept of marketing is one example. Library leaders have been arguing for decades that librarians need to “get out the message” concerning the value of libraries and what they do—whether the audience is college undergraduates, the general public, or employees served by a special library. But what is effective marketing within the context of libraries?
I would argue that in order to be effective, library marketing must succeed in two things. First, it must capture the attention of the intended audience. Second, after capturing that attention, it must provide useful information about the organization or the services offered. Unfortunately, much library marketing seems to succeed at only one or the other of these objectives. Historically (and currently to a great degree as well), libraries have been successful at producing useful information about their collections and services. Librarians have spared no effort in putting together brochures, websites, research guides and pathfinders, publicity about programming, and more. But in many cases such efforts have fallen short because they do not reach their intended audience. The element of creating interest and capturing the attention of that audience is missing.
Librarians are aware of this problem of failure to reach the intended audience, but in many instances have reacted by over-compensating in the opposite direction. They have gone to such lengths to capture the attention of potential library users that the underlying message, the information they need to convey, is lost or missing. A recent case in point is the very entertaining YouTube video put out by the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library. This was promoted on ACRL’s LinkedIn page as “Now THIS is how to market a library” by UMD Libraries’ Director of Communications. The video is one of many re-creations or parodies of South Korean rapper Psy’s catchy “Gangnam Style” music video that has recently taken the internet by storm. The UMD student who produced it did a great job with the video—you can tell that a lot of planning and work went into its making. The student performers admirably dance and lip-synch to Psy’s hypnotic beat and repetitive lyrics with the McKeldin Library serving as the main setting for their lively re-creation. Yes, the video features a stereotypical librarian—a middle-aged woman with glasses and a stack of books—but even she is hip enough to get in on the fun. The video has certainly been a success by many measures, including having garnered over 100,000 views in its first week of being posted online.
In terms of library marketing, however, the UMD “Gangnam Style” video does not succeed at effectively providing information about the library or its services. The only message that seems to be communicated about the library is: “See how tuned into popular culture we are.” That doesn’t truly rise to the level of effective marketing as I have defined it. This video is the 21st century, Web 2.0 equivalent of students vying to see who can stuff the most people into a phone booth. UMD may have beaten out their peers by producing an internet meme using more people and higher production values, but it is doubtful that any UMD student understands more about their library and its services as a result of watching it.
Using tropes from popular culture to promote the library is a good idea, and it is certainly something that other libraries have attempted with varying degrees of success. Brigham Young University’s Special Collections produced a “Theatrical Trailer” that plays on themes from various popular and cult movies, from the Harry Potter series to Being John Malkovich. The production values are very high and the video effectively communicates that “treasures” of historical value are located in this area of the library. It also counters the stereotype of barriers to access in special collections with the tag line stating that “Anyone can come.” Another example is Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which made a humorous video involving another trope—zombies. In their YouTube video, a young couple is menaced by the undead while out at night. They find safety and the information they need to survive a zombie attack (in a book of all places!) at their public library. The video manages to convey the fact that useful and even obscure information can be found at the library, without hitting the viewer over the head with the message.
Popular culture can be mined effectively for library marketing, and its use is not a strategy that librarians can afford to ignore. Some may feel that they have succeeded in marketing if their audience feels positively about the library or is at least made aware that it exists. That is certainly a necessary step. But grabbing people’s attention by showing that the library is tuned into popular culture is not enough. Librarians need to do more than merely entertain with their attempts at marketing. They need to rise to the next level and do what they do best—clearly communicate useful information to those who need it.
I spent the better part of Wednesday at VuStuff II, a small regional gathering hosted by Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library, which focused on the intersection of technology and scholarly communication in libraries. The attendees were an interesting mix of people from academic and special libraries, and included library directors, archivists, systems librarians, special collections librarians, reference librarians, technical services librarians, and more. In the group discussion session, some of us regretted the lack of representation from public libraries. It sounded like it is now on the agenda to do outreach to that sector next year.
I’ve been impressed with what’s going on at Villanova for awhile now. Not only are they doing some of the most interesting, cutting-edge work that I’ve seen in terms of presenting digital content from their special collections, but the culture of their library work environment is very different (and I might judge it as “better”) than what I know of in other libraries and work settings. This is an outsider’s view, based on perceptions gleaned from what people who work there have told me and things that I’ve read. The following are some of the things I find particularly intriguing and feel might serve as a good model for other places to consider: 1) Falvey library staff are given time to explore special projects based on their own interests. By doing this, the library is taking a risk – some work hours may indeed be “wasted,” but new products and new services may be born. A lot of workplaces harp on the need for employees to be “creative,” “collaborative,” and “innovative,” but very few actually provide the time and space to support their staff in doing this. 2) Falvey funds technology. Money for digital projects and technology-based services is written into the budget. Many workplaces expect staff to “make do” with no financial support or else fund projects on an ad hoc basis. Falvey models the fact that superior technology-based projects require dedicated, on-going funding. 3) Falvey diversifies the responsibility for technology. There is no one staff position that is responsible for technology initiatives; rather, various aspects of technology are integrated into the job descriptions of numerous library staff members. This means that if a library staff position is cut or a staff member leaves, technology initiatives don’t evaporate along with that change. 4) Falvey supports open access. The VuFind product they’ve developed for use as a flexible library resource portal is available for free through a GPL open source license. The digital library content they present is available freely to anyone (with a few exceptions for some materials with outside restrictions). Instead of partnering with commercial interests to market a product, Falvey keeps to the ideal of libraries providing information and resources free-of-charge.
I think that Joe Lucia, Villanova’s university librarian and the director of Falvey Memorial Library, deserves a lot of credit for his leadership in these areas. I missed his opening remarks at the conference, but found his questions and comments throughout the sessions to be interesting and thought-provoking. He seems to be looking further forward than many library directors, asking questions like “What does it mean for libraries if the ILS as we know it is dead in the next five to eight years?” “What does it mean if 80% of the content of our book collections is available electronically?” A word to the wise is that the two books he specifically mentioned were Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything and R. David Lankes’ The Atlas of New Librarianship.
The presentations at the conference were informative and sometimes inspiring. Amy Baker of the University of Pittsburgh described the preservation of archival mining maps project that her institution has been involved in, spurred by a mining accident in western Pennsylvania. Working in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection, this project is a good example of a university/government partnership that provides publicly available information in order to help protect people and property. It reminded me that while librarians and archivists rarely see our work as possibly having life-or-death consequences – sometimes it does.
Eric Lease Morgan of the University of Notre Dame demonstrated the Catholic Research Resources Alliance website (the “Catholic Portal”) and explained how it uses the VuFind product to draw together metadata from various formats and sources into one seamless product. I was particularly interested in its ability to perform full text searches and construct KWIC word concordances. I’m not sure how well known or well utilized this site is, but I think it holds a great deal of potential for researchers in literature, history, religious studies, and other fields to mine text data for a variety of purposes.
Eric Zino of the LYRASIS library network explained the Mass Digitization Collaborative, undertaken to help libraries digitize selected resources in a cost effective way. Unique items of historical value have been the major focus, although participating libraries are free to choose any materials they wish to include (provided copyright restrictions are met). Digitized materials are made publicly available via the Internet Archive, and can also be hosted locally. This project underscored the benefits of libraries working together to cut costs, minimize staff time spent on projects, produce consistent products, and share content more broadly.
I missed the final presentation of the conference, which was Rob Behary of Duquesne University speaking on his library’s project to digitize the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper. His presentation highlighted some of the benefits of moving from microfilm to digital content. Most librarians will agree that efforts like this, to preserve smaller regional publications with a unique focus or viewpoint, are an important service that libraries should be involved in.
All in all, this was an interesting day with plenty of time for networking built in. I enjoyed reconnecting with former colleagues and students, and meeting some new people as well. It was particularly rewarding to be with a group of people who were interested in moving library services forward into the 21st century, while still retaining the traditional library value of open access to information. I suspect that organizers may be seeking larger quarters for future VuStuff gatherings as its reputation continues to grow.