Abandoning “library”?

The latest Informed Librarian has a “Guest Forum” contribution “Reading the Tea Leaves” by Chris Olson. IL invites comments, but only via email–and when I tried to go back this morning to check on the address, the site appeared to be offline. So…

Olson looks at the OCLC Perceptions report and finds things there that somehow eluded me. “People say that they use the library less, that they read less…”

Odd. The report I read shows that 69% of U.S. respondents had either increased their use of libraries or stayed about the same over the past few years, and that 73% expect to either use libraries more in the future or use them the same amount. (The figures for Kids These Days, the ones who’ve abandoned libraries and print: 74% and 88% respectively.)

“That they read less”? Maybe I didn’t read the report carefully enough, but I see nothing in the report that says people are reading less. Never mind; my reading skills may be impaired.

Olson also accurately reports that people equate libraries with books. And that most people feel that they can find information on their own.

Olson later has one of those sentences that tends to stop me in my tracks: “Libraries are no longer the sole keepers of information or providers of access.”

That’s like saying that the U.S. is no longer the only democracy or capitalist country in the world. “No longer” implies something that is simply false. Libraries have never been the sole “keepers of information or providers of information.” Never. Get over it. Nor, in my opinion [repetitive rant] have libraries ever been the first or most important source of information for most people in their daily lives[/rant]. Ever.

So what’s Olson’s conclusion? “Anyone who can change their brand name or drop the word ‘library’ from it, should consider doing so if they want to be perceived as offering something other than books.” Oh, and they should make sure that branding stays away from any association with libraries or books…

Olson doesn’t say “Any special library or corporate library.” Olson says “Anyone.”

Hmm. 80% of survey respondents view libraries favorably. As libraries. Even as collections of books.

Now, if you really believe that your library is an “information service,” then maybe Olson’s advice makes sense. For many special/corporate libraries, that’s a reasonably accurate definition. For, oh, 99% of public libraries and, I would argue, most academic libraries as well, “information service” is a tragically misguided term as a primary descriptor.

Chris Olson’s marketing firm “has transformed libraries into uniquely branded information services.” If you’re in a public library and ready to throw away 80% approval rating in favor of pushing your role as doing something that most people explicitly say they’re perfectly capable of doing themselves…well, I trust you have another career in mind.

Maybe it really is a divide between “information professionals” and “librarians.” Which are you?

8 Responses to “Abandoning “library”?”

  1. Christopher Harris Says:

    Hmm…he does come on a bit strong. One would almost think a library beat him up and took his lunch money as a kid. I think the OCLC article Olson references at the end of his rant (http://www.oclc.org/nextspace/001/1.htm) does a better job of addressing the issue at hand – a possible re-branding of libraries – not a wholesale abandoning of the word “library.” I know we have talked about this before, but I still feel that libraries are on risky ground maintaining an image of being only about “books.” Before I would have said they should be about “information” (that ties in so nicely with my blog title after all), but you have convinced me that the concept of “narrative” is more powerful.

    If we want to shift a library brand, I think a better way might be to shift the brand of “book.” I could envision a series of posters. Something witty to play off of libraries being an open, accepting community area – “All Books Allowed” with the words e-book, paperback, audiobook, digital, and what not floating around in the background. Maybe a central image of a half and half book with the left side traditional pages and the right side of the book an e-book reader screen. Or something like “What’s Your Story” or “Billions and Billions of Stories Served.”

    Still, I will maintain that I think we need librarians to serve as “information experts.” It’s a big world out there, and it sure can help to have a guide along the way. People can do a lot for themselves, but they also need an information help desk for when they hit a snag. I also will just as strongly defend that we need LIBRARIANS as guides. Why throw away such a wonderful word that so many know and love?

  2. Dave Tyckoson Says:

    Maybe it really is a divide between “information professionals” and “librarians.” Which are you?

    A more important question, is Which is Chris Olson? In the blurb at the end of her piece in “Informed Librarian”, I see nothing to indicate that she is either.

    Thanks for pointing out that the library was NEVER the sole or primary information source in the community. We serve as information resources to some of the people some of the time. Our success in that role has deluded some of us to think that we need to serve all of the people all of the time. If that is our goal, Mr. Lincoln would remind us that we are only fooling ourselves. Public libraries are primarily in the educational entertainment business — and do a damn good job. No apologies are needed. Any other public agency would love to have an 80% approval rating.

  3. walt Says:

    She, actually. And looking at her firm’s client list, it’s all or nearly all special/corporate libraries, where there’s nothing necessarily wrong with her advice.

    I have nothing against reference librarians, bibliographic instruction, or librarians as information expert: I think those are all great. And I agree that Librarians make great information experts. But if that’s all public librarians are, it’s a tough sell…

    And yes, expanding the library brand from “just books” makes sense–but, for public libraries in particular, abandoning the Book brand is a dangerous proposition.

    [Just to clarify: This was a response to the first comment. Dave's comment, which didn't require moderation, came in as I was writing my response.]

  4. Fiona Says:

    The writer seems to really misunderstand the meaning of “brand”.

    A related note – the number of library branding and marketing ‘experts’ that have been popping up in library magazines writing regular columns, ‘borrowing’ ideas from a hodgepodge of different industries and ‘transforming’ libraries is simply staggering. Libraries aren’t retail units, and to just borrow everything that retail does, lingo complete, does libraries a real disservice.

  5. Barbara Says:

    There’s a wonderful new book out on reading that not only talks about the value of books (particularly in the public library context, particularly to people who aren’t engaged in “research” but who, nevertheless, learn a great deal from books) but demolishes the notion that people don’t read anymore. It’s Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006). I haven’t finished reading it yet, but it’s terrific.

    I have to second what Fiona says about our relying too much on business publications for our ideas. We worry far too much about “market share” – even though nobody will corner the marketplace of ideas. It is important to let people know about libraries, and to make them at least as comfortable and pleasant as book stores, but we have a much richer tradition in sustaining the public sphere than any of our “competitors.”

  6. T. Scott Says:

    Librarian, absolutely. Librarians in a corporate environment may tend to have a very narrow role and it is at least debatable that some kind of “information services” title is more effective for them (although I still think they’re wrong). But, as you quite rightly point out, in the public library world, in the academic library world, we have the brand that we need. There was a great story in the Birmingham News a week or so ago about all of the exciting and innovative things that are happening in some of the local public libraries. Books remain a very important part of what they do, but certainly the people who pack the parking lot of the Hoover Public Library every single day understand that the library is about a lot more than books.

  7. Dan Says:

    As a corporate (and former public) librarian, I don’t want to be lumped into that group that doesn’t appreciate the word “librarian.” At a previous job, I waled into my new position at the “Information Resource Center” and everyone in the company thought that meant the IT Dept. I changed the name back to “Corporate Library” and my usage skyrocketed. At my current job, one of my big goals (spurred on by patron requests) was to establish a physical library space. While my job is mainly online, it’s still very diverse and people come to me becasue I am the central point of information. But they still call me the Librarian. And I have no problem with that. They know what that word means to them.

  8. walt Says:

    Great comments. Perhaps I should clarify something in my post:

    “Now, if you really believe that your library is an “information service,” then maybe Olson’s advice makes sense. For many special/corporate libraries, that’s a reasonably accurate definition.”

    “Many” certainly doesn’t mean “all” or even “most.” A colleague has suggested that corporate libraries may be more likely to benefit from the “it’s not really a library” idea than other special libraries (medical, law, etc.). I should have thought about that–after all, I’ve spoken twice at SLA, and both times noticed that it’s really two dozen little conventions held jointly more than it is one medium-sized convention.

    I have to assume that Olson’s clients felt they benefited from her advice. I’m certainly not arguing that other special libraries should automatically follow that advice–I’m just arguing that public libraries should not.


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