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.

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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.

Uber-generalist

Source: justinplambert on Flickr

Librarians are the quintessential “uber-generalists”. Our training and the nature of our profession require us to have an understanding of information and knowledge, research acumen, and familiarity with information creation, storage, retrieval, and usage, but does not require us to have extensive training, education, or expertise in any one “academic field” (with a few notable exceptions). Although some librarians possess additional “specialist” degrees, especially true in law, medical, music, and academic librarianship, a law librarian may be asked to help a student research more than law, and a social work librarian will have something to add to a discussion on interlibrary loan.

The day-to-day work of librarians is extremely varied and this is what drew me to the profession. As someone who has the propensity to bore easily, librarianship has allowed me to guard against this quite nicely. I enjoy my work as a librarian and enjoy the varied number of venues and subjects in which I have labored. I have worked in software development and implementation, in academic law librarianship, and now at a small regional campus of a large top-tier university where I am asked to do everything from facilities management to budgeting to research help to library instruction. We “generalist librarians” may not know as much sociology as a sociologist, biology as a biologist, law as a lawyer, or music as a concert pianist, but we have a “wide angle” view of all fields (and most everything else), and make good use of this generalist approach to our career and vocation.

For a long time this “generalist” approach to librarianship bothered me, mostly because I was not an “expert” in anything. Being a generalist left me feeling like a “jack of all trades, but a master of none”. As I have gained professional wisdom in the field, I realize that the generalist nature of librarianship is a blessing, rather than a curse. Most librarians, whether academic, public, school, special, or other, are free to set their own agenda, be creative in what interests them, and serve the public in many different ways, from specialized story hours, to a focus on a certain underrepresented group in the community, to tackling a large issue facing the library or the profession today. In being a generalist, we are free to “think outside the box” and be creative, pulling in resources and ideas from a number of different professions. And this is what truly makes me glad to be a librarian. The uber-generalist.

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.

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.

Using Wikipedia in Libraries

I want to go on record as saying that I love Wikipedia. I’m a contributor and user of Wikipedia and often steer students and others to this valuable resource to answer quick reference questions or to get an overview on a topic, especially current events or popular culture. Does Wikipedia have issues? Sure, but then so does every other reference tool from the venerated Encyclopaedia Britannica to a pathfinder created to illustrate the finer points of a library’s collection. I would rather teach our students how to be proficient users of any information source than to prohibit them from using this popular and, often times, well-written and well-researched source.

Inside Higher Ed has a great article today about how the University of Houston is harnessing the power of Wikipedia to gain more exposure for their digital collections. This is a novel and excellent way to “partner” with Wikipedia to make Library collections and resources more readily and widely available. I would challenge my fellow librarians to look for other ways to “partner” with Wikipedia to make the resource better. Consider editing or creating a Wikipedia article. Look for ways to incorporate Wikipedia into library instruction or reference service. Or use Wikipedia to highlight collections and resources at your local library like the University of Houston has. Wikipedia is only as good as the people adding information to it and I feel that we librarians have a lot to add to the mix.

Mission Statement, or Why I Created a New LIS Blog

I have been asked by a few people why I decided to create a new blog on librarianship, library science, and technology. Why now when there are so many similar blogs out there? And what do I have to add to the conversation?

Many of the blogs I see in my field predict the imminent death of libraries, books, and anything else related to a traditional sense of librarianship. Indeed, there have been voices in the field that have made these predictions throughout my 15 year+ career as a librarian. First it was the Internet, then Google and Wikipedia, and now it’s e-books and mass digitization and the next-great-gadget setting their sites on the destruction of print media and librarianship as the guardians and archivists of all things book. Yet circulation numbers are up from year to year, the publishing industry is still alive and kicking (for the moment – more on that in subsequent posts), and books still have many more users worldwide than any other technology. Books may be transformed by technology, but they will be with us for a long time in the future.

On the other hand, librarians and librarianship must change and adapt with changing times. I would argue that as a profession, we have done a pretty decent job of adapting and reinventing ourselves. Librarianship has kept pace as civilization moved from handwritten manuscripts to typeset books and to microforms and multimedia to our present digital state, and I anticipate that it will keep up as technology and information science progresses. Indeed, I see this as our responsibility as librarians and information professionals to advance the field by learning new technology and always looking for ways to improve our profession.

Librarianship is an evolving field and, together with the cognate disciplines of information science and technology, it possesses the tools to transform people’s lives through providing better and smarter information resources and the education necessary to use them in ethical and productive ways. What we do is essential to society and we must strive to enhance the profession rather than destroy it or replace it with something else. This is why I created this blog: to celebrate librarianship, together with information science and technology, and to add a voice to the profession that sees the value in what we do and hope for improvement and evolution of the field in the future.