April 21, 2020
What do libraries do?
There are the obvious things, of course, the ones everyone thinks of — cataloging and housing books, for example, or creating programming events for the community. Performing readers’ advisory and reference. Helping people pursue education, passion, hobbies. Hosting book clubs and game clubs and film clubs. There are less obvious, more niche, equally delightful things as well — seed libraries and community beehives and gardens. Halloween costume swaps, drag queen storytimes, candle-making workshops, you name it. If it serves the needs and wants of the community, some library out there is probably doing it, and doing it happily.
Then why do so many libraries seem uncomfortable with marketing?
This might seem like a trick question, but it’s not. Libraries are primarily concerned with considering the needs of their communities and creating services intended to meet those needs. Marketing is, according to the American Marketing Association, “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” Based on this definition, librarianship and marketing should go hand-in-hand. And yet Library Journal’s 2018 Public Library Marketing Survey tells us a pretty different story: only 35% of respondents considered their marketing efforts to be very effective or effective, with a mere 6% in the “very effective” camp. Lack of staff, funding, and time are, as the survey indicates, undeniably some of the biggest barriers to effective library marketing, but I have to wonder if something else is also at play: perception. On top of the burden of being an added duty, marketing simply doesn’t have a good reputation in the library world.
In my time as a library student, I’ve watched entire seminar-length discussions on community engagement and outreach go by without a single mention of marketing. Likewise, job postings for community engagement and outreach librarians seem to steadfastly avoid the m-word. And while community engagement and outreach services certainly entail more than just marketing, marketing is nonetheless a critical component. Why do we feel such a strong impulse to couch it in terms of “mobilizing stakeholders” or “guiding community members towards library resources”?
I suspect it has something to do with the ways in which the concept of marketing carries strongly transactional, money-oriented connotations, which can feel antithetical to many of the guiding principles of librarianship. The truth, however, is that a library can offer the best and most innovative services in the world, but if the community isn't aware of those services, it means nothing. Marketing is what allows libraries to share everything they have to offer with the community, a service that has become doubly important in the face of COVID-19. As libraries find inventive ways to serve their patrons safely and remotely, marketing plays the critical role of fostering communication and engagement across the barriers of social distancing. When we use buzzwords and euphemistic synonyms to distance ourselves from the language of marketing, we only make the concept of marketing more alienating and burdensome. Of course it’s going to feel like a duty that libraries lack the staff, funding, and time for when librarians find themselves suddenly having to create marketing strategies on the job with no real training or preparation.
Libraries can only begin to develop effective marketing strategies once they’re comfortable with the idea of marketing in the first place. Librarians don’t need to create marketing campaigns from scratch; there are tons of simple, effective marketing tools out there. NoveList offers its own library-specific marketing tool with LibraryAware. Whatever tools libraries choose to utilize, the point is that, when we call marketing what it is, we give librarians the chance to prepare and learn about it before being thrown into the deep end on the job. It’s time to stop viewing marketing as an added burden and instead reconceptualize it as something that supports and complements the remarkable work that libraries do.
Looking to improve your library’s marketing? Hire a NoveList expert to train your staff on creating a marketing strategy or making effective newsletters.
Isabel Crevasse is a Book Discovery Intern at NoveList. She is currently reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.