The Future of Libraries? Adopting a Market Orientation

I have been a librarian for over 15 years, and not a year has gone by without a discussion about “the future of libraries” in the profession. Much of the conversation has been dominated by library futurists, thought leaders, and visionaries, with little regard to the actual wants and needs of the communities and stakeholders that libraries serve. As the most recent discussion swirled around the creation of the American Library Association‘s Center for the Future of Libraries, and the companion Summit on the Future of Libraries that took place last weekend, it became evident that the “usual suspects” were once again prognosticating on the future of libraries with little input from those we serve both in the profession and in our institutions every day.

At first, I tweeted that I was “staying out of “future of the library” debates on social media, not because I don’t care about libraries, but out of a dislike for futurists”, but I quickly got pulled into the online debate about the Summit and who was and was not invited. Much of the discussion inside the Summit was the stuff that many of us in the profession have heard time and time again, increased technology, huge social upheaval, and the future irrelevance of libraries in the lives of most people. This type of nihilistic and self-serving (many of the participants in the Summit were from the realm of IT and technology) prognostication is worthless without gauging the true wants and needs of our users. Additionally, I found it classist and paternalistic to be discussing the future of libraries with little or no input from the communities that we serve.

As I was kvetching about this later to my partner, the marketing professor, he asked me “So what do you think is the future of libraries?” Without batting an eye, I said, “The future of libraries is identifying the wants and needs of our communities and stakeholders and meeting them.” In other words, adopting a market orientation, a “business approach or philosophy that focuses on identifying and meeting the stated or hidden needs or wants of customers.” When organizations adopt a market orientation, they seek to identify what customers/clients/stakeholders/users want and need first and then develop products and services to meet these needs. Indeed, many libraries have always done this and will continue to do so in the future, and have been quite successful during the myriad of changes in the profession in the last 50 years, but I also know that the number of libraries who have not adopted a market orientation is much higher, and these libraries continue to struggle.

Instead of listening to publishers, vendors, futurists, thought leaders, or anyone else paid to give opinions on the future of libraries, we need to identify what our communities and stakeholders want the future of libraries to look like, and then make this a reality for them. This means that libraries and librarians will need to reach out to communities, research their wants and needs, and truly listen to what we are being told. This means that we may need to let go of old assumptions, or new ones, and be flexible enough to change as the wants and needs of the communities we serve change. This means that we need to assess what we are doing right and keep it, and figure out what we are doing wrong, and change it. If we can develop the tools of market orientation to do this, I think the future of libraries will be bright indeed.


10 thoughts on “The Future of Libraries? Adopting a Market Orientation

  1. I agree that we need first to find out what our communities want and need – which can be difficult when they aren’t totally sure what we could do beyond traditional library functions, but it could be done.

    I have to admit, though, that I resist the notion that this is a business thing and we just need to be more like a business. Partners in Health isn’t a business, but it does a bang-up job of making sure local people have a say in what the organization will do to improve health conditions. Having respect for people and what they know isn’t something I associate particularly with business, which often is trying to create consumer needs that they can then satisfy for a price.

  2. Excellent points Matthew and thanks for accepting that whether you find it distasteful or not, you have a voice in this debate. I hope you’ll also use that voice on ALA Council to make sure that the Association doesn’t use their resources to pursue strategies that fund even more futurists, consultants and self-serving “summits” without understanding the science and research around user needs assessment.

    I think libraries in general need to understand and accept that they are and will always be an intermediary for a specific constituency. Too many libraries fail to remember that and begin talking about their needs, not the needs of their users; especially with funders, vendors and lawmakers. If we all remembered the end-user and the valuable role of intermediation, I think the debate would be more fruitful and more productive.

    As much as I want to advocate for those left behind by a digital divide, I also want to recruit participation from those that feel they can leave the library behind because they have the resources for a tool and connectivity. The arms of the library can reach out to both populations and can embrace their community more holistically by doing so.

    The future of libraries for me is to embrace “contribution” by our users instead of just “consumption.” Libraries in the future will not only level the playing field, they will elevate the debate, create common ground; and place public assets in the hands of the public to truly produce the public good they were intended to produce,

  3. I totally agree that librarians need to adopt a marketing mindset if libraries are to survive long-term.

    Full disclosure: I’m a library marketing consultant. However, I’m not a consultant who happens to deal with libraries. I *became* one after using and working in libraries for years, and seeing all the problems they had with marketing. I chose this career path to help improve libraries and ensure that they stay solvent. The fact that we still think of “marketing” as a dirty word and a “business thing” just shows how far we need to advance.

    Here’s my thing: Some people get excited over “assessment” and “audits.” Others feel that “outreach” is important. Some want to concentrate more on the “user experience.” There are so many terms that various people get behind … yet they don’t seem to realize that they are all parts of marketing. If they would just adopt True Marketing, the rest would fall into place. They’re working from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

    Matthew is right about the definition of marketing — it starts with studying your users and understanding their wants & needs (even the needs they haven’t realized yet). It’s all about gathering and organizing data. I find it ironic that librarians do that for anyone who asks, but seldom think to do it for themselves.

    Libraries have morphed to stay relevant for thousands of years. If that ends anytime soon, I think it will be because they didn’t adopt a marketing POV and weren’t willing to change quickly enough.

  4. I am weary of these discussions, though they are important.

    Libraries have gone through one evolution after another.

    If we keep our own content and don’t cede collections to vendors,

    If we continue to meet information and cultural needs of our users (and potential users),

    If we help people add to human knowlege,

    If we know the difference between fun and essential,

    And if public libraries don’t allow themselves to be come a service only for the very poor (while serving very poor people),

    I see a bright future.

  5. I think we walk a fine line in the language we choose to describe our practice. While it may be seen as savvy to use business language, we, perhaps unwittingly, become complicit in practices that are problematic. Consider, for example, how describing library work as being ‘effecient’, ‘effective’, ‘productive’, ‘targeted’, etc. diminishes the important and less rationalized aspects of information work that fuel intellectual growth, engagement, and social responsibility. There is no ‘space’ for being human in the language of corporate culture.

    I respect that we must work within the fabric of society we find ourselves within but I challenge librarians to insert (or reinsert) language that disrupts the slippery slope of becoming corporate entities. Thus, instead of seeing us in need of having to market, we need to promote. While this might involve some forms of marketing, our greater purpose is to promote, presumably, something that our communities desire, while also looking out, as experts, for their best interests as they relate to information.

    I agree that many leaders not only act to define what is in ‘crisis’ but they also attempt to define who shall lead through such constructed crises and in what ways that needs to be challenged. I think it starts with a critical and intellectual examination of our own practice. Libraries might have a wonderful future as automated kiosks but what about the future of Librarians???

    • I find it funny that you worry about other using business language and recommend exchanging it with other business nomenclature. You chide the use of business jargon by stating “instead of seeing us in need of having to market, we need to promote” obviously not realizing that “promotion” has be a key part of the marketing mix since conceptualized by McCarthy in 1960.

      The theory of market orientation encompasses three key capabilities of an organization in terms of fulfilling the marketing concept: (1) knowledge creation regarding the wants and needs of the market, (2) knowledge dissemination of said market information, and (3) firm responsiveness to this market knowledge. Research suggests organizations who best implement this outward-in/inward-out approach to the market’s wants and needs tend to be more successful. It isn’t about “being ‘effecient’ [sic], ‘effective’, ‘productive’, ‘targeted’, etc.” Rather, market oriented organizations build corporate cultures and brands centered on meeting and exceeding the needs of key stakeholders. And isn’t that why all service organizations exist?

      In all honesty, libraries need to “market”, not just “promote”. Promotion is just about communication. Strategic marketing encompasses the notion of creating, distributing, exchanging, and communication value with key stakeholders. As libraries face their future, taking a holistic, market-oriented approach to developing a cohesive value proposition will serve the profession more than merely promoting something you think the communities desire.

  6. there’s no doubt it’s important to pay attention to the wants and needs of community members, and we can find out more about this by talking to them or observing their behavior or finding out what doesn’t work or understanding what they want to do but can’t in our current environment. For example, the faculty member who wants to start an open access journal for his currently subscription-based publication. Can we accommodate this need? But I wouldn’t want to limit our future vision based just on existing needs. Businesses have found all too often that consumers either could not articulate what they really needed or wanted – or there was something they would like but didn’t know it existed. For example, students tell us they want the library to buy copies of textbooks and put them on reserve so they don’t have to buy them. Not a bad idea, but is that really a good way to expend our limited collection building dollars. Every cent spent on a textbook that will be out of date next year is fewer scholarly works added to the collection. What if we knew we could do better by encouraging faculty to find better ways to deliver learning materials instead of using traditional textbooks. They might not even be aware they can do that. So to some extent we need to be looking out into the future landscape of higher ed, business, technology, UX, etc., and identifying those ideas and services that could be important to sharing a better future library experience. So I’d advocate for both listening to users, but also be proactive in identifying services that may not be asking for but which we think they would value (and we’ll no doubt sometimes fail in delivering that value).

  7. Michael Wachter has it exactly right. “Promotion” is already one of the activities that falls under the umbrella of “marketing.” And we need to do both (+ market research, + segmentation, + publicity, etc.)

    Language IS important, which is why I began my book (The Accidental Library Marketer) by explaining the distinctions. But it seems that the folks talking here are thinking about the words too narrowly. Just b/c we’re doing things that are described with business words doesn’t mean we’re abandoning all of libraries’ positive attributes.

    Christina said, “Consider, for example, how describing library work as being ‘efficient’, ‘effective’, ‘productive’, ‘targeted’, etc. diminishes the important and less rationalized aspects of information work that fuel intellectual growth, engagement, and social responsibility.” I think that’s silly. We can be “effective” at “targeting” groups of people and still serve them with all of the caring and ethics and intelligence that librarians always have.

    Why can’t librarians understand what marketing really is and how it works, then apply those tactics and strategies to the work they’ve always done? Using proper terminology doesn’t have to change what we actually do.

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