Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Back in February, I had the great pleasure of attending and speaking at the Edge 2020 conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. While there, I heard from librarians across the United Kingdom as they shared stories about the fantastic work happening in their libraries. You can now see video of all the sessions on their web page.

Scott Simpson, Head of Library & Information Services, and Paul Martin, Systems Development & Support Officer, East Renfrewshire, discussed their library’s program, “Do Your Bucket List at Your Library.” Attendees can visit places they’ve always wanted to see, pretty much anywhere in the world, using a VR headset and guidance from a library staffer. Simpson and Martin told us that many older people use VR to revisit places they haven’t seen in years or to show their families where they grew up.

I think this is brilliant. And marketable. And I said so on Twitter.

That’s when this back and forth happened.

The discussion has been on my mind ever since. I thought about it last week, when I recorded an episode of The Library Marketing Show about the need for libraries to keep communicating their value. I want to expand on that point.

The debate surrounding the word “marketing” in libraries is not new. When I worked for a large metropolitan public library system, my department was often met with skepticism or wary looks from librarians.

Most staffers wanted me to promote their programs and events. But many told me they felt weird or icky about promoting the non-program library work, like the collection or summer reading or homework help or online resources.

Library staff was more than happy to talk one-on-one about how great their library was. But there was something off-putting about loudly proclaiming the value of the library in mass library promotions.

Frankly, we must get over it. We must stop being humble. We must talk more about the work we do in our libraries, as loudly as we can, to as many people as will listen. Our very existence depends on it.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. But I am deeply worried about the future of libraries.

Marketing is not a dirty word. The importance of library marketing is the reason I started this blog five years ago. It is my mission to help library staff communicate their value to the public.

I love the library industry. I truly believe that libraries are the key to building a fair, educated, and empathetic society.

We’re not very good at marketing libraries, to be honest. In 2018, OCLC released this report on the marketing approach of public libraries in the United States. According to the data, 96 percent of US libraries said they use social media. I bet that number is much higher now. 70 percent send emails (also probably higher now, due the pandemic).

Here is the bad news. At the time of this report, only 40 percent of public libraries had a communications strategy. Only 17 percent said their strategy was current.

Why?  75 percent of libraries say they don’t have the necessary staff resources to do marketing. They don’t even have a marketing professional on their staff. That’s a big red flag, my friends.

I’ve been frustrated by the lack of focus on library marketing for years. But now, amid a pandemic, when library buildings are closed and when libraries face imminent budget cuts, it’s become a serious problem.

Many library staffers make an assumption that the community knows what they do in the library. But I am certain your community does not know the full extent of your impact.

They don’t know how you help craft the resume of the single parent looking to get a better job so he or she can provide a better future for their family. They don’t see how you help a terrified cancer patient research the latest treatment option. They don’t have any idea that you provide after-school homework help or teach young children to love reading. They don’t have a clue that your building is the only safe space a teenager has to hang out. They don’t know that the library is sometimes the only place where a child in their community gets a meal. Heck, half the time, they don’t realize you have eBooks.

It’s important to talk about all your work–loudly, openly, and all the time. It’s more than pride. It’s survival.

If you educate your community about the work of your library, it’s going to be painful for leaders to make budget and staff cuts. Your community will come to defense if they understand the loss that those cuts will mean for their community.

This is a change in mindset for libraries. This is not something that you’ll talk about once at a staff meeting and forget it. This is something we need to do every day, without fail.

Now is the time to make marketing one of the main focal points of your library’s outreach. It’s our duty to advocate for our own professional services and expertise.

Your patrons don’t want you to remain neutral. They want you to take a stand.

If your library isn’t centered on marketing, you might well face more problems than just getting people to your programs.

The very survival of your library depends on marketing.

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