Selling libraries short?

I was a little irked and befuddled by Seth Godin’s post about the future of libraries today, to be honest.

Like Joyce Valenza, librarian extraordinaire, I admire his work a great deal.  And I don’t want to come across sounding like some “stuck in the mud” or defensive and staid librarian.  Though there is some merit in his point, I think the picture he painted was a bit misleading.

I found myself wondering why he didn’t seem to get the vitality of many of our “wired libraries” or understand that libraries are(and have often been) the salvation of the economically/socially underserved/elderly/children, especially in this dicey economy.  And that libraries are not just warehouses for checkout but are still widely used for internet access, guest speakers, tech trainings, job hunting, teen hang-outs, reference support, children’s programming, teen mentorship progams,  parent trainings on computer safety,  community meetings,  book groups, social events, and yes, DVD borrowing.   And that many of our websites are twittering, facebooking, meebo-ing and leading by providing tutorials, widgets and links to help keep our customer’s informed and current?

But then I thought if he didn’t understand, then are public libraries, (or school libraries), really telling their stories?   If they were, wouldn’t the average taxpayer know what is amazing about their libraries?  There are libraries that are so clearly vital to their communities like the Seattle Public library or the Charlotte Mecklenberg library that even if you’ve never been there, you are aware of their libraries.  Our local community library is also that way.  I know that because they do a great job of telling their stories.

Now, I do agree with Seth that we need to be helping train leaders as information sherpas and with Joyce’s inspiring message that librarians need to get on the bandwagon and grab the opportunity to lead.

And while it is vital that libraries stay current and relevant, I think it is also  really about relationships and  communication.   If we have a relationship with the community we serve, then we know what is important to them and that’s what we provide.

Because after all, we can complain that our patrons/customers/students don’t come to us, or that we are only providing a narrow service (as Godin notes) or we can get busy finding out what it is our community needs/wants by building strong relationships with the community.  And then we can do it, share it, and then communicate what we are doing.

We have to understand the community we serve.  And that involves talking to them, gathering feedback from them, and marketing to them.   It involves telling our story.   It involves good design in telling our story.   It involves that human relationship conveyed through our policies, our websites, our social networking presence, and our physical spaces.   A library should be an experience.   Like going to your favorite coffee shop, or bookstore, you should “feel” the library’s vibe when you visit their website or walk in their doors.

We may be completely ‘virtual’ someday, or become more of a community gathering/information sharing space or be  cyberarians, but even then, it will be about providing what is needed, what will lead people forwards, and what will create safe launching points for the future.

Addendum:   Check out some examples of libraries which serve their communities in these heartfelt responses to Scott McLeod’s blog post.

6 thoughts on “Selling libraries short?

  1. It’s a call to arms for advocacy! We have to educate all circles of our patronage, from students, to teachers, to administrators, to even highly revered bloggers like Seth Godin. I voraciously read his content too, and always try to find application in my little corner of the world, most of the time successfully. It is sad to be so misunderstood by so many. Wake up fellow librarians, we MUST change this perception. Thanks, Carolyn, for highlighting good programs that provide models for us.

  2. Hi Carolyn,

    I left a response to your comment over at my blog post. What I’ll say here is that you’re dead on when you recognize that it doesn’t matter how much “value” you’re providing as a library if the community doesn’t recognize it. So you can think you’re doing great, wonderful, worthwhile things but the ultimate judge of that is your audience. If your patrons increasingly are turning in other directions instead of yours, that’s your problem, not theirs…

    [and the same is true for universities and public schools and the postal service and travel agents and newspaper publishers and …]

  3. Scott,

    I completely agree. It’s not that I don’t believe it’s time for serious talk and evaluation. But I think when we generalize we ignore the fact that many libraries are remaking their services and asking these questions in serious ways. (i.e. We aren’t ducking our head in the sand like the music industry).

    But we all have to help shape this mission so these conversations are really helpful!

  4. Carolyn,

    I just stumbled across Seth Godin’s post and the reactions to the post. I respect the work that you are doing, but unfortunately, my experience is that you and your library are a minority. Most of my experience is that libraries are not adopting new technologies and shifting. I believe that they do need to, but many just don’t get it.

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