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.