Market Orientation, Part Two

In my previous post, “The Future of Libraries? Adopting a Market Orientation“, I stated that the future of libraries is identifying the wants and needs of our communities and stakeholders and meeting them. Market orientation is taking this concept (the “marketing concept”) and making it central to the goals, objectives, and mission of an organization. I received a lot of positive feedback on this post, with many librarians agreeing that this is an optimal “way forward” for libraries that have been historically concerned more with products — collections, services, spaces, etc. — than with finding the wants and needs of their communities and meeting them.

I also received some thought provoking negative feedback on the post, mostly from those who have concerns about the use of business terms in librarianship, the “commercialization” of public good organizations like libraries, and basing what we do in libraries on “market forces”. If we as librarians and library professionals feel that we need new terms to describe these concepts, then let’s create them. Furthermore, adopting a market orientation is no more “neoliberal” than using standard accounting practices or sound financial advice for investing library endowments. I liken marketing and the marketing concept as a “way of thinking” that has proven results in satisfying wants and needs. Our market orientation, as libraries, is how central we are making this concept to what we do on a day-to-day basis.

As I said in follow up comments and tweets, I’m not advocating that libraries adopt a “laissez-faire” attitude and base everything we do on the whims of the market. As professionals, we need to guide and inform the wants and needs of our patrons. Even in business, customers often come to a firm with no clue about their individual wants and needs. Market orientation is a way to be aware and focused on these wants and needs, while guiding and informing our communities and the stakeholders we serve.

These ideas are more fully fleshed out in an article in the Journal of Library Innovation published today by Arne J. Almquist titled “The Innovative Academic Library: Implementing a Marketing Orientation to Better Address User Needs and Improve Communication“. Dr. Almquist details how the university library at his institution, Northern Kentucky University, has made the marketing concept central to the mission and strategic plan of his library, and some of the results of these actions. He also dispels the myth that I have seen quite prevalent in librarianship that marketing is only promotion and advertising. While these are important they are only marketing functions, and the marketing concept is much richer than promotion and advertising.

I would highly recommend that any librarians interested in preparing themselves for “the future”, read this article. I firmly believe that employing the marketing concept, and developing a market orientation, is a strategy that libraries can employ for years to come to truly meet the wants and needs of those we serve. Without our stakeholders — patrons, communities, students, faculty, and the like — libraries are nothing. Meeting their wants and needs will truly illustrate the values of libraries, and make us stronger as organizations and as a profession.


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.

Some thoughts on “library futures”

The Wikiman does an excellent job this morning of collecting discussions around points on the “future of libraries” and how these are already happening in many places. Many of the points are not related to collections, but rather service focused, which I think is an interesting shift that is happening in the profession.

Some highlights are:

  • Smaller borrowing limits for unlimited time periods
At Penn State we have already increased the loan period for most all of our patrons (except community borrowers) to a semester-long loan. We would offer longer loan periods, but this works best with out current automation system and procedures. Most patrons also get unlimited renewals and can check out a ridiculously large number of items at a time. The benefits to students and faculty alike have far outweighed the fears of empty shelves and scarce resources.
  • Front line staff will become much more highly skilled
At my branch academic library we have four full-time staff: two librarians and two library assistants. All of us do reference, answer questions, and have proficiency and skills in providing good customer service and an increasing skill set and familiarity with the resources and services offered. We also combined the reference and circulation desks into a central “information desk” shortly after I arrived, and all front line staff, including student assistants, do “reference triage” where simple questions are answered as skill sets allowed and more difficult questions are passed off to the “experts”. It has really worked well for us.
  • Library will offer a wide range of “non-library” programming
We have seen an uptick in the amount of “non-library” uses for the Library building in recent years from an increase in computer lab space to “digital commons” where students can edit and create video and sound recordings and usage of the library classroom for outside conferences and events. All of these have benefited the library by showing that it is a viable and dynamic space on campus and a place that students want to be.



Skip to the end! Library futures, now… « thewikiman.

Sleeping Taiga?: Ten New “Provocative Statements” about Academic Librarianship

The Taiga Forum has released their latest list of provocative statements about academic librarianship, which are sure to cause plenty of debate, consternation, and foment around the field as I type this post, as did their statements from 5 years ago. Taiga is now couching these as “intended to provoke conversation rather than attempt to predict the future”, instead of as real expectations for what the next five years will bring academic librarianship. Some of these are already happening, some will never happen, and some are truly just meant to poke a stick in the hornet’s nest and see what flies out. I’ve added some comments below each statement and I (and Taiga, frankly) welcome any and all discussion on these statements.

1. Organizational structures flatten

I already see this happening in academia in general, and particularly in academic libraries. Budget pressures, shifting demographics, and the necessity to examine new organizational and management styles will mean that a lot of what academicians have taken for granted as the “way it has always been done” will end up changing. Changing the grinding bureaucracy of the university is something we should all welcome and celebrate. I disagree, however with Taiga’s notion that “libraries will have less autonomy and librarian roles will have been subsumed into other parts of the university.” I see libraries in general, and librarians in particular, taking on increasingly more central roles in the university as areas like IT, instructional support, university presses, and the like are consolidated under the aegis of the university library. I also feel that academic librarians will be called upon more frequently to take administrative roles in the university as teaching faculty become more research focused and averse to roles in administration.

2. Radical cooperation

This is another area in which we are already seeing movement in academia. Libraries are not only cooperating with each other across the divides of institutions, but libraries are cooperating with other departments and entities on campus and within universities and colleges as well. And cooperation buys libraries a greater voice and stronger participation when working with vendors, publishers, and suppliers, and elevates the status of the organization within an institution when done in conjunction with academic or administrative departments. Which leads to statement number 3.

3. Collaborative space partners

This is a “no-brainer” that I think has been taking place for years. Many libraries (mine included) have spaces devoted to information technology, food service, instructional support, or other “non-library” use. And I think this trend will continue into the future.

4. Books as decor

I’m not quite sure how to respond to this one. On the one hand, Taiga states “within five years, graduate students and faculty will fill all their information needs online, never coming into the library”, which I think is a fairly accurate statement. Faculty and grad students, unless they are in a “book intensive” field like the humanities, haven’t stepped into the library for years, if ever. Taiga then goes on to state “yet they [faculty and grad students] will continue to idealize the library as a sacred place to commune with books. Libraries will respond by flipping their stacks into designer reading rooms that use books as decor.”

I see the library being used less as a “place to commune with books” than as an adjunct student union, makeshift conference center, or general hangout place for friends to converse, collaboratively study, and get together for all types of reasons. And libraries have always been used as such, in addition to being a repository of books. As the print collections dwindle, in size and in number, the other uses of the academic library will take on more prominence. I think the momentum for this has already reached a pretty heady clip.

5. No more collection building

Ah, the shift from “library as repository for knowledge” to “just-in-time collection development” and “patron driven acquisitions”. Nothing really new or provocative here. This has been happening in public libraries for years (decades even), and the time is ripe for it to take place in academic librarianship.

6. New model of liaison librarianship

I’m not really sure what Taiga is suggesting here when they posit “efforts to develop research data management and curation services will have led to a wholly new model of liaison librarianship that is focused on institutional content.” Are they saying that liaisons will focus more on institutional research and resources in a given field?  If that’s the case, I think they are right on track. If they intended something else, your guess is as good as mine.

7. Staff reallocation, elimination, and retraining

Again, not a very provocative statement. Many college and university libraries are overstaffed or undertrained. Others have the opposite problem. It’s a shame, but I think this statement may be the one that generates all the heat. No one likes to be told that their job is being eliminated. At least they didn’t suggest that MLS-holding librarians should be replaced by post-docs.

8. Library in the cloud

Oh, cloud computing! Such enormous promise, yet so elusive. Anecdotally, I remember about 15 years ago when Citrix was hawking the “Internet workstation” that would not have a hard drive and retrieve everything from remote servers. It’s too bad the bandwidth and computing power destroyed that dream. We’re a little closer to that reality now, but I’m not quite sure if we will see “all library collections, systems, and services will be driven into the cloud” in the next 5 years. I’d love to be proven wrong.

9. Boutique services

Taiga suggests that “libraries will be forced to acknowledge that our boutique services have been collecting “in the basement.” To clean house, libraries will implement planned abandonment.” But why planned abandonment? In the contemporary world of niche marketing and personalization, why doesn’t the academic library market, promote, and celebrate “boutique services”? Unless, like most crap bought anywhere with the name boutique, it’s not worth keeping. I’m not really sure what Taiga is referring to here, so I’ll avoid commenting further.

10. Oversupply of MLSs

Well, I never thought I’d see it, but someone has finally and publicly challenged the widely-held notion that there is an unlimited number of positions out there for MLS-holders. I remember being told, 15 years ago, that because of the mass retirement of the Baby Boomers, my generation wold see limitless numbers of positions for folks with an MLS degree. Well, it never happened, and probably never will. I’m glad someone finally had the chutzpah to put that rumor to bed.

Additionally, I think the MLS degree was “sold” to thousands of people who had no interest in libraries, librarianship, or the like. This is the real reason that , according to Taiga, ” library programs will have overproduced MLSs at a rate greater even than humanities PhDs and glutted a permanently diminished market”. Coupled with the fact that an MLS is an easy-to-obtain degree and the coursework can be completed in a year (or less!), makes the current “perfect storm” scenario. But this is really nothing new to the field.

All in all, I found these provocative statements to be much less provocative than those offered 5 years ago. I’m not sure if Taiga is shying away from the provocateur role or if there is just not as much to get excited about in the world of librarianship that is currently seeing massive budget cuts and the non-stop barrage of constant change.

So how do you feel about these statements? Are they provocative? Are they already happening? What does this mean for academic libraries? I look forward to the discussion.

Is reference service dead?

Eli Neiburger of the Ann Arbor Library District proclaims that “reference is dead” and that Ann Arbor will be cutting reference librarians in order to hire more IT-related staff in an article in the Library Journal today. The article raises some interesting points, and in light of the recent online (and offline) conversations surrounding remarks on the future of academic librarianship by McMaster University Librarian Jeff Trzeciak, is reference service in libraries really dead? Should libraries be replacing librarians with IT folks?

Neiburger does concede “the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction”, but argues that armed with Google and an internet connection, the need for reference librarians has diminished. “Travel agents were outmoded because people felt they had better access to the information than they could get from the travel agents”, he said, and just as travel agents have become a thing of the past, so will the anachronistic reference librarian. With everything on Google, who needs them?

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it becomes a “chicken-and-egg” argument about the future of our profession. Are patrons abandoning reference services because they are finding what they need elsewhere? Or are we as librarians not responding to the true needs of the patrons and transforming reference services and proving their value and worth to patrons?

I am all for finding new ways of thinking about the services, collections, programming, and support that we provide to our patrons. The ever-changing world in which we find ourselves demands this. But instead of declaring reference services dead and a thing to be put in the history books, I think we need to reexamine reference service and transform it into something that has real value for our patrons. What this “new reference paradigm” looks like or how it works is up to us as librarians. Let’s not give it over to the geeks and the techies. Good reference service is not technical support.

Profession vs Professionalism

A few weeks ago, I had a Facebook conversation with a group of librarians on apathy in librarianship and the fear of “rocking the boat”. Concerns were expressed that as a profession we were becoming apathetic in the name of “professionalism”. Librarians were characterized by one as “sterile, grey and beige, clean, unassuming, and boring”.

One of my biggest complaints and concerns about our profession is the lack of open and honest debate of issues in the same of consensus, team building, and professionalism. As a group, librarians tend to be conflict adverse and instead seek to build a bland consensus, especially in matters concerning the important issues surrounding our collective futures and our profession. We choose professionalism over profession.

Profession is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act of openly declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith, or opinion.” Any profession needs debate and discourse to survive. Librarians need to take a stand on what we feel is important, even if it makes us unpopular. Professionalism, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.” I would argue that librarianship needs more profession and less professionalism, especially in matters concerning the profession itself.

There are ramifications to taking an unpopular stand, but I would rather be on the side of right than on the side of “the right thing to do”. Being a professional means that we “profess” a belief in something, meaning that we need to take a stand. Too many librarians are more than happy to sit by like a wallflower at the Junior Prom rather than get involved, take a stand, and improve the profession and the world around us.

Stephen Abram is a smart guy, but I disagree with some of his characterizations of  Jeff Trzeciak’s presentation and the debate that followed in his recent blog post. What he sees as a “piling on”, I see as a vigorous debate over the future of our profession. This type of open debate is needed in the profession in order to ensure its survival. And I am not so concerned about leaving a digital record of our debates on the profession. Debates in other academic professions have be chronicled in academic journals and elsewhere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The blogosphere is just the newest medium of academic discourse.

I do agree that vigorous debate does not give license for ad hominem attacks on one’s character or person. But vigorous debate is not piling on or bullying, unless attacks are getting personal. We need to debate ideas, not personalities. And we need to stop penalizing librarians for taking a stand. We need debate in librarianship, with the security and freedom to do so in an environment where the ramifications are felt in the betterment of the profession, not in the career path of the individual.

The Rumors of the Death of Libraries have been Greatly Exaggerated

With apologies to Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of libraries have been greatly exaggerated, especially in the last week. Mark Shatzkin first predicted the death of libraries in a Globe and Mail interview this week with the statement “libraries make no sense in the future” and then followed it up on his blog yesterday stating “it will be hard to find a public library 15 years from now”. Pretty scary stuff for a librarian or library patron, no?

Except I have heard this argument again and again for the last 15 years. In fact, I suspect as libraries and librarians have faced every new technological change of the last century (microfilming, cheaper publishing methods, automation, the Internet) the same “libraries will be dead in 15 years” statement was uttered by someone. The facts prove otherwise. Libraries have weathered these changes, albeit as changed organizations, and have come out stronger because of them (for the most part).

Shatzkin attempts to tie the decline of bookstores to a decline in libraries, but to do so is comparing oranges and tangerines. Both are similar in the provision of books to the public, but libraries provide much more in terms of service, public space, and support. Bookstores are on the decline because of bad business decisions and a reliance on antiquated supply chain and distribution methods. In contrast, public libraries have been on the rise, in terms of usage and materials circulation, because even though technology seems to be pervasive in contemporary culture, the public needs spaces to collaborate, congregate, build knowledge, and synthesize information. These are the true raisons d’etre of public libraries, and anyone seeking to boil libraries down to simple book distribution is uninformed at best.

Public libraries will certainly change in the next 15 years, as they have the last couple of centuries. However, rumors of their demise are and always have been greatly exaggerated.