I have a confession to make.

For more than a year now, I’ve been amid an internal struggle that caused me some anguish. It started when I realized that I was hearing the same phrase from many administrators and staff in public libraries, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Here’s what I kept hearing, over and over: In order to stay relevant, libraries must change completely.

The fear that the public perceives libraries as old-fashioned and unnecessary is not new. But it seemed to reach a kind of fever pitch last year. Everyone was writing about it. Everyone was talking about. There were whole conference sessions and webinars dedicated to library relevancy.

I thought maybe I was imagining it at first. So, I did what any normal person does when they’re looking for validation. I did a Google search.

I clicked on the first result, “library relevance.” There are 314 million results.

I understand why libraries are worried about relevancy. It’s the media narrative. (For a great perspective on that, read this fabulous opinion piece from Public Libraries Online). It’s also the argument made by those who want to cut funding and services for libraries.

But here’s the thing. The public at large doesn’t think libraries are irrelevant. In fact, they think quite the opposite.

I’m sure you saw the new Gallup poll released this past Friday (Jan. 24, 2020) that shows “Visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far. The average 10.5 trips to the library U.S. adults report taking in 2019 exceeds their participation in eight other common leisure activities.”  

Public libraries have bought into the notion that we have a brand perception problem. But we don’t. We’re doing a great job. And people see it.

What we have is a fear problem. Public libraries are afraid to market the fact that they have books.

Why? Because they’re terrified that talking about our collection will reinforce a notion that libraries are a dusty, old, unsophisticated repository of classics. They may even believe that marketing the collection will distract people from the other great services that the library offers.

I vehemently disagree.

Libraries should market their collection. In fact, they should do a lot of collection marketing. Instead of limiting the conversation to non-collection services, libraries should expand the conversation to show the connection between the books, literacy, and all the other amazing work they do.

Your collection makes it possible for you to offer social services. Your collection makes it possible for you to create programming around workforce development. Your collection makes it possible for your library to offer support to educational institutions in your community. Your collection makes it possible for your library to be a thriving, open, welcoming, and inclusive public space.  

Literacy is tied, undeniably and inextricably, with all the things libraries do outside the realm of books.

Data tells us that most people who sign up for a library card do so to get free and open access to the collection. The collection is the gateway to get community members in the door of your library, where they’ll experience the other services you provide.

If you were to look at the Google Analytics data for your website, or the usage data provided by your library’s app developer, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the number one activity for online use of your library is collection-based. That’s why your library spends most of its non-facility related, non-staff related budget on collections.

Studies of library usage by the Pew Research Institute shows that 66 percent of library cardholders use their card to check out items including books, magazines, CDs, and more. Only 17 percent of library cardholders say they use their card to attend programs, classes, or lectures.

People are still reading books. People believe libraries have transformed themselves into tech hubs. People see that libraries offer digital services. People hear about the social service help offered by libraries. Libraries are winning the relevancy war (good job, you!). The community knows and understands that we are more than a place for books. It’s why your library gets regular requests from organizations looking for a partner in important outreach work and advocacy.

The message is out there that libraries are more than books. But make no mistake, most of the folks who walk through your doors or interact with your library online, are there for the collection.

Before I was a library marketer, I worked as a television news producer. That means I put together each night’s newscast, decided which stories were told, in what order, and how they were told.

Every year, our news director would bring in a consulting firm to help us improve our shows and increase our viewership. I was proud of my work as a journalist. But when I was presented with the feedback from focus groups, it was clear that most viewers were watching my show for the weather. I spent a lot of time writing insightful, informed, well-sourced investigative pieces. But my viewers only wanted to know was whether it would rain the next day.

In television news, weather is king. In libraries, the collection is king. That’s why your library spends the majority of it’s non-staff and non-facility money on the collection.

Now, please understand me. I’m not saying you stop promoting your non-collection related activities. Far from it. Library programs and outreach nourish the soul of our community and offer cultural and educational opportunities for those who might not otherwise have access to them. And they must be given attention through marketing.

But don’t stop talking about your collection. Don’t hide your collection below the fold on your website. Mention your collection when you talk with the media. Write about your collection on your blog. Send emails to your cardholders with reading suggestions.

If we want to compete with Amazon, Audible, Netflix, Hulu, and other paid content providers, we must promote our main asset. If you want to attract new cardholders and keep the ones we have happy and using their library, market the collection. If you want to have a part in making the world more informed, more educated, and more empathetic, market the collection. Share this infographic to help spread the word!

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