By now I’m sure everyone has heard about the controversy over the librarian demotions in Marathon County, Wisconsin. Is this indeed a sign that public libraries are approaching the end of days – another nail in the coffin of the public perception of librarianship?  The comments to the original news story certainly highlight the big old “kick me” sign taped to our backs.

The most thought-provoking perspective I’ve seen on this issue on the many blogs and discussion lists that have tackled it confronts that old sticking point that we as a profession are INEPT at marketing ourselves. Unlike the CIA, which has many legitimate reasons for professional secrecy, it should not be our goal to be undercover agents. This false modesty is going to be (maybe already is) our demise. If we can’t sell value-added service to the public as our raison d’etre as librarians, then we really ARE just wasting time and money. And if the library director in Wausau, Wisconsin can’t even find reasons for keeping a library staffed with professionals paid a living wage, this very certainly is the beginning of the end.

Surely our value does not come from being the warm bodies behind the reference desk, as this story distortingly implies. But what is it that makes public librarians essential to the library? And how do we sell that to the public? There are services we provide as information professionals that are completely unknown to most of the public (and, apparently, to many library boards).  These are the useful things we spend our valuable time learning in grad school, skills which make us more valuable than generic customer service representatives (or whatever they’re calling the new librarian positions in Wausau).

1. Complex research/subject expertise/knowledge of databases

2. Instruction and programming – 1 on 1 and for classes and groups

3. Collection development – tools, collection, users

4. Tech skills (NOT just how to unjam the copier)

These are important, valuable skills.  We all know that.  We’re proud of our accomplishments and tend to come through in a pinch.  But all too often we can’t even offer these skills, because the point of need goes unannounced by a public still ignorant of our services. 

So how do we sell ourselves? Some random thoughts: THINK LIKE A BUSINESS. Stop being martyrs. Advertise on tv and radio. Do presentations for schools and other local groups. Hey, why not put up a billboard? It’s only by selling ourselves as unique and intrinsic components of 21st century society that libraries – and librarians – will maintain any sort of relevance.