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And now something to counterbalance the negative effects of the Wausau controversy and negative public perceptions, at least at the local level.

I was pleased to read a piece in the Albuquerque Journal today (“Librarians Help Students Navigate Their Way to Correct Information”) about the role of libraries and librarians, particularly for students doing research.  Because this is an extremely important demographic that is being increasingly disconnected from libraries in any manifestation, I thought the PR was particularly timely and encouraging.  The story delineates pretty succinctly why libraries are unique purveyors of reliable information.  I couldn’t help but be cheered by the words of 18-year-old Britny Rasinski, who realizes that when it comes to free online information, “you don’t really know who put it up or anything.”

This kind of marketing is great, but not necessarily proactive.  Yes, people (for the most part) love and support libraries.  We can wait for public support in the form of human interest stories, letters to the editor, speeches at town council meetings.  But how often are we making these efforts on our own behalf?

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.

I got a kick out of this recent ad effort by the Wyoming Libraries to “Bring the World to Wyoming.” OK, so this may not bring people to Wyoming libraries in droves based on such creativity, but it brings up the really important point of thinking outside of the box – or the bookshelves – when it comes to marketing libraries.  This image may be in poor taste or even offensive to some, but it grabs attention.  It’s funny (So is Tame The Web’s “Mudflap Boy“).   It’s something beyond the ineffectual and ubiquitous “Read” posters.

 I’m proud to flaunt my “Radical Militant Librarian” button in an attempt to knock the old stereotype around a bit. To me, whatever marketing can get libraries in the public dialogue is positive for the most part. Let’s push the boundaries a bit.

I spent the weekend in Minnesota for Mother’s Day, and made a few observations about the public reaction to the profession of librarianship. 

It started when I was renting a car. First I was asked if I am a professor at the university, which I choose to take as flattering.  When I said I work at the library, for some reason she responded, “Oh, so you do the filing or whatever?” Now, I’m not quite sure in what context she meant “filing”.  Like the card catalog? Or is it her impression of the library that we all stand around alphabetizing files all day?

The next day I was chatting with a friendly guy outside a coffee shop.  He asked about the Michael Gorman book I happened to be reading, which invariably led to a question about why in the world I would voluntarily read such a thing.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Michael Gorman, but Our Enduring Values isn’t the biggest page-turner in the English language.  Anyway, the mention of my chosen profession led him to respond, “Oh, so you get to read all the time”.  Hahaha! As I told him, I’ve had less chance to read (other than reams of library journal articles) since starting library school than ever before in my life.  But honestly, there are many people who conjure up (for whatever bizarre reason they have cause to do so) images of librarians sitting around reading the latest bestsellers all day long.  Because what else could we possibly be doing after the filing is done?

Sigh. 

I was a bit concerned by these casual interactions, but the most disconcerting thing was that I was not really surprised.  We know that’s what most people think about us.  What will it take? A marketing campaign? A documentary? Perhaps YouTube has the potential to save us, though as Joe Janes pointed out in his MPLA keynote address this year, thusfar we have used it in rather pathetic and half-hearted replications of traditional library videos.  I have seen a couple cool ones lately, one of them actually a music video.  It may not do much to dispel stereotypes, but at least we look darkly mysterious and omnipotent rather than bored and without purpose.