Respect Your Elders

I’ve been working on a LibGuide for my Reference class, and I’m focusing on library marketing and PR. Thus far in my hunt for resources, I’ve found ample books on library marketing, some that even discuss such new-fangled strategies as social media, blogs, and podcasts. I’ve found plenty of books about marketing in general, some of which have content that applies to libraries, but the observation I’m most interested in so far is that the only books that discuss case studies, good or bad, are outside of the library realm. At first, I was forgiving. Libraries have only gotten into the digital marketing game, specifically the social media game, in the past few years. There isn’t enough time for marketing to be successful or disastrous.

But that’s not really true at all, is it? In the digital age, brands can be made or broken in minutes. At most, I’ll concede that making a brand can take some time, but ruining one is instantaneous. A single tweet can destroy a career in less time than it takes to fly internationally. So really, there’s been an overabundance of time to ruin the library’s brand, but to my knowledge, it hasn’t happened. Instead, quite the opposite has happened — libraries have been successful in the digital era, and I don’t mean individual libraries. While some individual libraries have made progress to building brands, by and large, the most successful brand in libraries seems to be, well, libraries.

The Library: Where Every Side Is Our Good Side

As I reflect, it seems that “the library” as a nameless, faceless, vague idea has done pretty well for itself in the digital age. Unidentified gilded mansions full of books peek out of many corners of the internet, and the recent Little Free Library trend is very viral-friendly in an American culture increasingly fascinated by minimalism (See also: Tiny Houses).

Libraries have famously been around since at least Egyptian times, with the classic Library of Alexandria (RIP, moment of silence). Individual libraries have been born and died countless times over, and the physical appearance the library takes has changed again and again, but the concept of the library persists in a way that few other things have. Of course, the individual library must rise to the occasion and adapt to the modern context. That’s always been the challenge of the institution, and as Cristie Koontz points out, “New kills are needed to mix the new and old successfully, especially as some of the newer channels… are two-way channels of communication, allowing interactions between the audience and the organization” (Hirsch 165). But do libraries as a concept need to worry about marketing? Or are they simply too old for this?

At what point does mere continued existence supplant the need for relevance? Because if it’s several thousand years or under, we’re good. And, while we’re at it, is there a need to prove libraries’ relevance? The public generally still knows that the library is the place to come for information. Sure, the Library of Alexandria might not have offered eBook rentals on iPads, and they might have been more focused on collecting physical content than on creating new content with 3D printers, but it was all about the content then, and it’s all about the content now. What other “company” can boast that they’ve been fulfilling their core goals for thousands of years?

I think the library deserves a case study that tracks its continued success in marketing and PR. The only other entity I can think of that has as long of a history as libraries is government, but I daresay their track record isn’t nearly as favorable as the library’s. Their brand has been destroyed and redeemed countless times over the years, whereas the library has remained in the public favor as Something Good. There is sufficient content for case studies on the marketing and PR of individual libraries, and there are some books that include such case studies, but I can see why non-library marketing professionals prefer to stick to organizations with cleaner metrics, like profit, instead of the library check-outs, visits, and log-ins. But doesn’t the library itself deserve come recognition for remaining in the global community’s favors for millennia? I sure think so.

Hirsh, Sandra. Information Services Today: An Introduction. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc, 2015. Print.