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What is Your Product? Libraries and the BASF Problem

Post by Duncan Smith
Posted July 25, 2012 in Readers' Advisory News

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Have you heard of BASF? It is a company name that might be unfamiliar to you. BASF is a German-based chemical company -- the largest in the world -- that at one time had a big problem. No one knew who it was or what it did. BASF does not make end products. It produces the chemicals used by other companies to make consumer products.

Their solution was a series of television ads that focused on their contributions to many of the products that we purchase every day. You may remember these ads for their clever voice-overs. "We don't make the dress, we make the dress redder." "We don't make the ball, we make the ball bounce." These ads drew attention to the fact that without BASF and the chemicals it produced, many of the products we desired would not be as desirable.

Libraries have a similar problem when it comes to acknowledgement of how we make a difference. We do not write or publish the books, we make them available. The result is that the essential contributions we make to the citizens who use us and the communities that fund us remain hidden.

A recent example is in the June 25 issue of The New Yorker. Throughout Ken Auletta's article "Paper Trail," detailing the recent Justice Department action against Apple and five of the largest publishing companies, much is made of the potential demise of bookstores. Scott Turow, representing the Authors Guild, says, "In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors. It's by far the best way for new works to be discovered." At no point in the article does the word library appear.

We all know that libraries are also an excellent place to browse a range of titles and discover new works. In fact, Library Journal has documented that readers who use public libraries not only discover new authors and titles, they go on to buy the ones they like -- from bookstores (both brick & mortar and the online variety). Over the past year, Library Journal has been conducting surveys of public library users, publishing the results in Patron Profiles. The following relationship between library borrowing and book buying comes from Patron Profiles, no. 1 (October, 2011):

About 40% of Power Patrons report purchasing a book that they had previously borrowed from their library. A similar percentage of Power Patrons indicate that they use the library to discover and try new or unfamiliar authors and genres. Almost two-thirds of Power Patrons have bought a book written by an author whom they first discovered in their library.

Yet in spite of these facts, libraries seem to have a BASF problem. Our role in book discovery is frequently overlooked. Susan Benton, President and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council has said "Books are our brand but not our business." And she is right. Our books do not build the windmill, they inspire the builder. Although we don’t raise the child, we do help the child become a reader. The titles we lend may not pay for the vacation but they certainly make it more enjoyable. The books that readers discover in libraries do not make a life -- they make that life worth living.