Say Yes to the Sweater Vest

If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Houghton recently wrote a blog post entitled, “Wear What You Want: Dressing to Lead in Libraries”. It’s a great piece about dressing for the library workplace in which she advocates for personal style but acknowledges the existence of dress codes as well as peer and public expectations. It’s also receiving inevitable pushback from the people of the “you can’t just wear anything” camp despite Sarah’s acknowledgements of the limitations of her “wear anything” position. People seem to forget that just because her position doesn’t apply to everyone doesn’t make it a bad one; it just means it is not universal. (Your mileage may vary and all the assorted caveats one can muster.)

When I started out after college, I worked in commercial nurseries. From there, I worked at DuPont assembling plant experiments. My attire during those days was old jeans, crappy t-shirts, and other things that I did not mind getting dirty, wet, or worse. At the time I left college, I had hoped to work in a non-office environment and horticulture answered that prayer very nicely.

In going through the library science graduate program at Clarion, this all changed with my internship. Nancy Clemente, my internship mentor, brought me into her office and told me that my current attire was unacceptable. (I don’t remember what it was, but I’m guessing it was something in line with “high school presentation”.) I was to wear dress pants, dress shirt, and either a tie or a sweater from then on. From that point till the end of the internship, I was always dressed up for working at the library.

For me, it did two things. First, it made me feel the part. I didn’t feel like a student anymore; I felt like someone who was in charge, knowledgeable, and belonged there at the reference desk. Second, it made me look the part. I didn’t look like a graduate student; I looked like a librarian in an academic setting. It wasn’t simply a boost to my own self-esteem and confidence but also instilled professionalism that carried me forward into my career.

While I slacked off in my appearance for a period of time after getting hired at the public library (sorry Nancy!), I have found that as time goes by that I try to dress up more for the job. I’ve added more dress shoes, slacks, and (my beloved) sweater vests to my wardrobe. Once I get some dress shirts that actually fit my neck size, I’ll be looking add ties back in. It might be a bit of overkill for my library, but it feels rights for me.

For myself, it comes back to that “looking the part” in conjunction with who I am. The outfits are my uniform; they put me into “time to be a librarian” mode. It’s not that I can’t do my job otherwise, but how the public perceives me in that ultimate of first impressions (how I am dressed) is important to me. I want it to give them confidence that they can put their trust in me for whatever it is that they need. What I wear makes that difference.

In getting back to Sarah’s post, I can’t help but amuse myself thinking about how the topic of “what leaders should wear” meshes with “where are the librarian leaders?” line of thought. Apparently, people know what they should look like even as they claim that they don’t see any around. Given Sarah’s leadership on topics such as copyright, eBooks, and library filtering (to name a few subjects off the top of my head), it makes the comments saying that she is not dressed for leadership even more amusing. But I’ll admit in my own way that they are right.

No, Sarah is not dressed to be a leader. She is a leader. Those just happen to be the clothing that she wears. She could be in a burqa or dressed like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and she’d still be the person to talk about those aforementioned subjects and more when it comes to library issues.

Nor is Sarah a unique case; this applies to any of the librarian leaders I see out there right now. There is no prevailing clothing style or dress that links all of these people together; it is their ability to step up, speak up, and act up that makes them the individuals that librarians (including myself) look up to for guidance.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if people can’t get past how someone is dressed so that they can listen to the message they are sending out, then librarianship is going to spend a long time in the wilderness looking for leaders that “fit” the look they imagine them having. To focus on the end of that famous Dr. King quote, it’s the content of their character that matters when it comes to rendering judgment.

I wouldn’t say that appearance is inconsequential, but the reason why libraries are struggling in some areas is not because the staff doesn’t dress nicely enough. It’s a perception of the library as a modern institution in form and function that needs an image makeover. If we are going to concern ourselves with any kind of appearance, that’s the most pressing one right now.

Save the [Insert Noun Here]

David Lankes wrote a blog post at the beginning of August in which he urges librarians to drop the “save the library” mentality and embrace an aspirational public relations model that advocates how libraries help their communities thrive. I’m inclined to agree with David; the ‘library in crisis OMG OMG OMG’ card has been played so many times that it runs the risk of support fatigue. Given that the actual closing of libraries has been disproven, it becomes disingenuous to proclaim that the end is nigh when reality points the other way.

Personally, I think there is trouble arising out of using the term “save”. First, it implies a conservation of the item or place or thing and a maintaining of the status quo. Not an expansion or an increase of support, but a maintaining of current levels. In other words, “we need your support to keep everything as is”. That doesn’t seem like an ideal position to pivot from to ask for additional funding, personnel, materials, or other public support. It’s playing defense without a plan to get out of our own half of the field.

Second, the term “save” has become ubiquitous to any cause around the world. In doing a simple Google search for “save the”, here are things that are looking to be saved in the first few pages:

children, frogs, manatees, internet, chimps, families, ta-tas, whales, tigers, the artic, Narragansett Bay, music, the Upper St. Lawrence River, plastic bags, rain, rainforests, mothers.

That’s a lot of stuff to be saved; it’s not even the exhaustive list. I’m wondering how far I would have to go and how many other causes I would pass before I found my first “save the library” website. It makes me ponder whether people actually hear the noun that at the end of a “save the” phrase; with the constant call to save something, what is yet another species/place/object in peril? I would guess people have learned to tune it out.

To continue down this path, my fear is the future of library advocacy will become a series of dewy eyed librarians looking into the camera while the saddest Sarah McLachlan song ever plays in the background. At 1am, you’ll find yourself  sitting on the couch bawling, between sobs saying the words into the phone, “Dear God YES I want my $30 monthly pledge to save a librarian from a life of literary neglect and absence of information access.” I don’t think is the progress we are looking for in terms of library issues.

To go a step further than David, I also think there is a victimhood mentality that gets a lot of play in the library world that needs to be dropped. We must to buy eBooks at their outrageous terms and prices or else our members will leave us. We must subscribe to these databases at their outrageous prices and conditions or else we are failing our students/faculty/administration. We must provide access in every way, shape, and form or else we are going to lose every successive generation from here to the end of time. We must give our members what they want no matter the circumstances or else the library will burst into flames and be swallowed up by the earth on its descent to Hell.

You get the idea.

It implies that we are hostage to our circumstances and are relegated to simply bemoan our predetermined fate. We couldn’t possibly seek to change the terms of a contract, agreement, or other arrangement if service or access hangs in the balance, no matter how shitty a deal is being dangled in front of us.

How can we empower our communities if we can’t even empower ourselves to walk away from the negotiation table over terms that are not in our best interest nor the people we serve? Why are we surrendering control in situations we really don’t have to?

Control. Exert some. And not just on subject headings, either.

Reconsidering the Public Library Closures Narrative

From the Cites & Insights April 2012 entitled “Public Library Closures:
On Not Dropping Like Flies”:

“For those who don’t have the patience for a long, rambling essay with lots of background and detail, here’s the tip of the pyramid:

As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%. […]

Why does this matter? I’ll get to that—and to why these figures may be different than some you’ve heard, read or assumed. The answer is not that I’m trying to make everything in public libraryland seem rosy. It is that I believe it behooves librarians to know what they’re talking about—that even more than in most fields, they have a responsibility to know the facts behind their assertions.” [emphasis mine]

It’s a long but well researched piece by Walt Crawford illustrating how the illusion of public libraries closing does not match with reality. Yes, budgets are down, branches are being closed, services and hours and staff are being cut, but the number of libraries actually being closed is extremely small. Some of the rhetoric (and I’m quite sure I’m guilty of it myself) around library closings works to invoke people’s emotional response and play on the public’s fear and apprehensions. That isn’t a card that can be constantly played without being called out on it.

Also, I think blaring a constant state of distress can lead to advocacy issue fatigue; it makes libraries sounds like the constant victim of a political Snidely Whiplash, perpetually finding ourselves tied down to the budget train tracks. “Save Our Library” cannot be the constant and knee jerk battle cry to all budget announcements; a little more assessment and impact needs to be determined before warming up those war drums.

I’m not without sympathy for that 0.2% of communities that no longer have libraries, but building a overarching and rampant narrative out of that seems a bit intellectually dishonest.

(h/t: LISNews)

Support An Uprising

bw_upriselogo

I’ll let the Uprise Books Project describe itself as taken from their Kickstarter page:

“The Uprise Books Project is dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty through literacy, providing new banned and challenged books to underprivileged teens free of charge. In a nutshell, lower-income middle school and high school students can select banned and challenged books on our site, and we take care of finding contributors willing to pick up the tab.”

On their blog, they make an economic based argument that by sending these books to lower income teens they hope to encourage them to finish high school and go on to college. The higher the education, the larger the lifetime earning, the less likely to continue the cycle of poverty and essentially moving onto a higher economic status. (They didn’t make those last two points, but I figured they were the next logical steps.) On its face, that position makes sense to me; even in my skepticism, they note that making a change in the life of one teen pays for the other books sent out over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps that notion holds a shotgun mentality to it (the more area covered in pellets, the better), but I can appreciate the idea of doing something rather than nothing.

So, why focus on sending banned or challenged books rather than any kind of literature? I asked myself the same thing and they had what I felt was a clever answer to that.

More importantly, we think that the idea that these texts have been banned and challenged will motivate kids to actually read the things.

Ah, the lure of forbidden fruit. The best kind, some would say.

In reading through their Kickstarter page, listening to their pitch, and reading their website, I have some reservations. I’m curious as to how the inevitable question regarding the role of parents (or lack of role, in some cases) will come into play. Will parents be a part of this process as a way to get their kids to read books that they feel they should be allowed to read but otherwise couldn’t afford? Will kids or teens be allowed to select or receive books without parental consent? For kids that don’t want to get books at their homes (or have temporary living arrangements), how will the books get to them?

There is a certain amount of dangerousness to this project, but I don’t think that it is a disqualification for support. In fact, I’d say that the project should be expanded to children and teens in crisis looking for books that reflect their situation, whether it is coming out as gay, dealing with domestic violence or sexual abuse, or coping with self destructive behaviors. I’d argue that those groups run the same risk as the children and teens in poverty since they are less likely to achieve higher education degrees without some form of intervention. (The teens killing themselves over their sexuality, their psychological problems, and their inability to cope do not even make it to the lifetime earning list.) I hope that this project may pivot to provide for those teens in the future, but in the meantime it does look to make inroads on behalf of literacy and the elimination of poverty.

Even with some concerns, I have pledged to support this Kickstarter campaign and I would hope you would consider doing so as well. I am doing so for a couple of reasons. First, I feel that good ideas need to be supported. I’m not simply investing in this idea, I’m investing in the ideas to follow that look to put books into the hands of people who need them for any number of reasons (including how I’d like to see the program expand). As I said, it’s not perfect but it is good enough for me to warrant a financial pledge. Second, I’m curious to see how this project shapes up. I’d like to eventually become a donor who sends books to kids and teens who asking for my help. I’m really wondering if the ‘forbidden fruit’ angle will yield results as they hope; in putting on my scientist hat, I’d like to see how this experiment proceeds. To do so, I need to invest in it.

Finally, when I was in high school, I read the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was not a source of controversy in my high school, my community, or my home even though unbeknownst to me it was being challenged at the time. It was, for me, an eye opener. It began my own personal journey to try to understand people from their perspectives and viewpoints, to put myself in their shoes, and to gain a better understanding of the world we live and the beliefs held within. It really changed my life. If a challenged book like that could do the same for another teen out there, I’d love to be the one to put that book into their hands.

I hope you’ll join me in supporting this project. I believe they certainly are worth it.

The Uprise Books Project: Fighting Poverty with Banned Books

(h/t: Library Society of the World FriendFeed Group)

Everything I Wanted To Know About Library Marketing I Learned From A Shampoo Bottle

The always brilliant Ned Potter wrote up a wonderful little primer on library marketing entitled “Three simple marketing rules all libraries should live by…” In his post, he emphasizes marketing the service, dropping the ‘how this works’ explanation, and promote the intersection of what the patron values with what the library values. Or, in other words, to use Pepsi as an example: Pepsi tells you that it refreshes, not that it is made with high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients; there is no Pepsi ad that walks you through how it is made; and Pepsi and its customers are both enjoy sugary caffeinated drinks and work to promote that relationship.

In writing up his three marketing tips, I took it as inspiration to write up my own three things to share. As the title of this blog post suggests, the instructions from a shampoo bottle are the perfect way to explain my meaning.

  • Lather

When you think of lather, I’m talking about marketing coverage. You are trying to get the shampoo in contact with your entire head of hair, not just parts of it. Publicity is not just limited to locations within the library; think about the entire community that the library serves. Local businesses to hang flyers, radio stations to record public service announcements, bulletin boards around the school and in housing or student centers, student or local newspapers to run your press releases or advertising, or the work lunch room if your library is at a hospital or law firm. All of these places are in the community that you serve, accessible by your patrons, and all possible spots for your publicity materials.

  • Rinse

When you think of rinse, I mean it as looking to clean up your marketing messages. Your initial marketing material and pitches can be made more precise, more contextual, and more compact. For myself, I find that the little sales pitch I give for a program or service grows shorter over time as I eliminate extraneous words and phrases and get it down to a just-the-facts speech that can be said in under a minute. I edit and re-edit press releases every other month to change up the appeal and to sharpen the prose. It’s a matter of constant re-evaluation of what the library is saying, how it is saying it, and how the message can be refined.

  • Repeat

When you think of repeat, I’m speaking of marketing as a repetition game. It’s about telling the same pitch to different people throughout the day, posting your posters or flyers everywhere you can think about it, and driving home the message you want to send whether it is “Sign up for our crafting class!”, “Did you know we offer one-on-one research consultations?”, or “We have a library club!”. If you’ve said it one hundred times, then say it a thousand more times. If you’ve thought you slathered the community with flyers already, check again for more spots to post. For every time you repeat something, it creates a new opportunity to inform someone of whatever it is what you want to educate them. You can’t simply hope that by telling one person that they will tell ten others; tell those ten other people yourself to ensure that they got the message.

Marketing tends to reward the amount of work you put into it. If you just fire off a press release and post a flyer in one spot at the library, then you are probably going to get the attendance or service use that reflects your effort. You have to invest time in reaching people; it will pay out in dividends of program attendance, service use, and an overall higher door count. It’s up to you to make the effort, no matter what kind of library you are in, what size it happens to be, or where it is situated in the community. It takes effort, but it is well worth it.

Just like good hair.

Marketing & The Donated Book

Fellow New Jersey librarian and all around stellar librarian Valerie Forrestal posted a brilliant idea on her blog Ridiculously Digitally Ubiquious. Her idea is to take donated popular books, pop in a little note about the library along with contact information including website and social media handles, and drop them off in public places. The idea that people can find them, post their location or a review of them on a blog or the website, and pass them along.

In thinking her idea through, it’s an extremely inexpensive way to market the library with a very catchy local appeal. I can imagine some of the objections that might be raised since material budgets are generally down, but I think it could be done with discarded popular books as well. There are some good viable variations to this idea that I think people might consider as well. The book could be returned to the library for some sort of reward or incentive. It could be part of a library sponsored scavenger hunt. The placement of books in public could be done in conjunction with a library promotion. That’s just a few offshoots and I’m certain there are more out there!

Well done Val!

The Enchantment of Libraries

kawasaki

I know what some of you are probably thinking right now.

“Ebooks? If only he knew what kind of Byzantine arrangement eBooks are for libraries! Between the publishers and the content providers and the restrictions and whatnot, it’s just a giant tangled mess.”

But, even perhaps without that knowledge, Guy’s point still has some legs. Reinvention is not necessarily a clean process and it is something that libraries are undergoing right now at an imperfect, inconsistent pace. The advent of eBooks is undeniable; it will change how people perceive and access books when they have the option of getting one from wherever they are.

In looking towards that evolution of libraries, the demise of Borders should be a powerful lesson for libraries. Take a look at their business plan in the last ten years. They widened their movie and music selection, added a café, and then struggled onto the eBook market and eBook reader platforms. I’m not saying that this is something that will happen to libraries, but that kind of change should sound a bit familiar.

(Yes, I concede that they had a profit motive that libraries don’t, but their course of action to change their strategy does have parallels.)

If anything, at least someone outside of libraryland is pulling for us. We could use all the library champions we can get.

The Why, How, and What of Library Advocacy

The audio isn’t great for the first half but it gets better later.

It’s not a well kept secret that I do love a good TED talk (or five). When I’m feeling like I’m out of creative energy and need a recharge, I watch a bunch right in a row. Pretty soon, it is late at night when I’m supposed to be asleep and my brain is trying to assimilate the ideas, thoughts, and concepts that have just been presented to it. If there is a cure for insomnia, this is the opposite of that endeavor.

From Simon Sinek’s talk, he talks about the model for how good leaders and companies effectively communicate. It’s the idea that people buy into the purpose over the actual product; that people are attracted to the ideas and emotions more than the actions. Here’s the part that grabbed my attention:

Why? How? What? This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t. Let me define the terms really quickly. Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by "why" I don’t mean "to make a profit." That’s a result. It’s always a result. By "why" I mean: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? Well, as a result, the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in. It’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing.

(The short version for people who have not seen the clip is that most organizations advertise in a “What they do/How they do it/Why they do it” pattern. Effective individuals and groups communicate in the reverse; they talk about Why-How-What they are doing or believe in. If something I write is a bit confusing, it is in reference to the talk. It’s a medium length video clocking in at fifteen minutes and it is totally worth the time.)

It got me thinking about this idea as it relates to library advocacy. Are the majority of advocacy efforts communicating in a What-How-Why pattern?

Consider this.

How often do libraries lead off with a ‘what’ type of statement in their materials? (“BumbleEff library circulates 750,000 items a year.” “Over 1,000 children have come to our story time programs.” “The library has 180,000 visitors last year.”) I mean, look at these statements. Who doesn’t know that the library lends items? Or their library has story times for kids? Or that as a public building you can actually visit it? I would say that (with few possible exceptions) there isn’t much of a doubt as to what the library does. People borrow books, movies, and other stuff. They have computers that you can use. If you have kids, they have monthly story times. You can read the newspaper there. People in general know what the library does; all these numbers is remind them of what they already know about the library. Sure, you could list all the things that the public might not be aware of, but that’s like tossing out attributes in the hope that one will resonate with someone. The public evaluates it as it relates to them, not so much as it relates to the community as whole. 

In turning to the ‘how’, it can be very hit or miss as to how the materials, services, and programs of the library come to exist. In providing a ‘how’, it tends to be based in finances; it makes mention of return of investment numbers, the local or state per capita spending, or the savings involved in group contracts or a robust interlibrary loan system. When staff are mentioned, the terms hover around adjectives such as dedicated or professional, the same sort of words used to describe upper tier restaurants and spas. It’s not exactly inspiring in the slightest nor explanatory as to how things come into being at the library.

As to the last area, the ‘why’, I find myself wondering if I’ve seen a good ‘why’ explanation offered by libraries. I’m talking about more than just offhand statements like “promote literacy” or “provide internet access” because those are simply superficial expressions of purpose.  It’s the equivalent of a mother declaring that she provides her child with maternal care; while technically correct, it doesn’t delve into any emotional or intellectual depth that the institution and the people who work there bring to this equation. It is these vapid declarations masquerading around as high minded philosophies that fail to make the personal connection between the library and the communities that they serve.

Just like Simon’s talk, I propose to reverse the manner in which the library advocates. Start by showcasing the ideas and emotions behind the why, present the how as the method for putting the why into action, and leaving the what as a footnote to the whole thing.

In addressing the ‘why’ of the institute and the profession, Simon offers basic questions that can be used to work it out. Why does the library exists? What purpose does it serve? Why did you choose to be a librarian? Why should people care about the library? It’s deeper than a love for books or helping out kids and adults with their homework. It has to lay bare the essence of the library and librarian in their societal role from its Enlightenment rooted beginnings to the distant future. In attempting to address this myself, here is what I feel (in regard to the public library):

The public library is a community supported public institution that provides knowledge access and information literacy education. Built on the ideals of supplementing public education, supporting individual self improvement, and providing materials and services for those in the community who would otherwise go without, the public library is a champion for intellectual freedom and personal curiosity. My work at the public library is important to me because I believe it is one of the greatest ways in which to support the new knowledge economy as well as improve the lives of the community members. Each and every day is a chance for me to change the life of someone who walks through the door, from a simple act of public service to providing or creating intellectual and social opportunities. A public library is an act of community altruism which creates happier and enriched fellow citizens.

The gist of the ‘why’ argument is based in the personal emotional drive of the library as an institution. My example is far from a perfect logical argument, but it is why I believe the library exists and why I have chosen it as an occupation. It is authentic in its telling and belief, invoking an appeal that goes beyond the surface and the numbers. This is what the ‘why’ drives at: the raw emotional core that makes an appeal at a completely emotional and ideal level.

In pivoting to the ‘how’ aspect for libraries, I believe it needs to address all of the moving parts of the library. It is drawing back the curtain and taking people down the path of what is required to arrange the materials, services, and staff for daily operation. Beyond what is immediately apparent, it is touting the expertise of staff in selecting books and preparing programs; the coordination and planning of personnel to ensure the acquisition and flow of materials (both print and online) at and between locations and on the website; and the use of budget as it relates to furthering the core mission of the library. For example, it is one thing to say that the children’s collection is selected by staff; it is another to say that the staff are former teachers with years of experience in both settings. It is showcasing the process and the people who carry it out that reveal more about the character of the institution. For me, the ‘how’ is a marriage of the fiscal wizardry and value of the library to the talent of staff and the individuals who choose the books and databases, prepare or schedule the programs, and maintain the quality of the institution.

Last, in presenting the ‘what’ of the library, it is about offering a course of action to support it. What can people do to support their library? Should they be asked to donate money, time, and materials? Which politicians or newspapers should they write to and what should they say? Could they offer to teach programs or tutor others? How can they raise funds for their Friends or association? Can they serve on the library board? Who can they call to gather support and what should they say? As I have stated previously, everyone knows what the library does but most don’t know what to do to support it. This is a chance to ask for their help, to inform them as to what is required, and to make supporting the library a truly community effort.

As I glance back over the preceding paragraphs, I think this might be an uncomfortable tact for some of my peers to consider. It takes us down a different direction, perhaps unproven in their eyes. The current advocacy strategies, while far from perfect, have been proven to work in a varying degree of success. The abandonment of those stalwart arguments might be perceived as a gamble. For myself, it is a necessary step for the continuation of libraries. I believe that libraries will lose in the long run if they stick to simply ‘what’ they do. That is a numbers game that will be set aside against a digital data future that is only getting faster, larger, and more accessible. What cannot be denied in that numbers game is the ‘why’ of existence of libraries and it is there that the appeal lays. The principles and purpose that lay within the institution are the keys to saving it when it reaches out and touches their inner idealist.

In a world where people accept ideas on the basis of their authenticity, I believe it is within our best professional interests to present library advocacy in terms of why, how, and what. For while our collections change, our principles and mission do not. Let those be our strengths in the battles ahead.

<Insert Clever Library Porn Story Name Here>

From the NY Post:

Shakespeare’s plays, Einstein’s theories — and porn queen Jenna Jameson’s steamy online sexcapades.

New Yorkers can take their pick at the city’s public libraries, thanks to a policy that gives adults the most uncensored access to extreme, hard-core Internet smut this side of the old Times Square.

The electronic smut falls under the heading of free speech and the protection of the First Amendment, library officials say.

The article goes on in the typical porn-in-the-library Mad Libs manner: ordinary citizens outraged at the very idea while library officials offer stale free speech and First Amendment snippets. The only issue I can see is the poor timing for New York City library advocacy efforts as they combat cuts to their systems. It take the steam out of all the efforts to highlight all of the good things that the public libraries do for their community and focuses it on a tiny minority of computer users. It’s rather unfortunate, really, and I hope this issue fizzles in the media.

The Greatest Library Funding Idea Ever Written

There’s no subtle way of delving into it, so I’ll just lay it out there: this evening, I went to see the new Morgan Spurlock documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s a film about brand sponsorships in movies… and the movie itself is paid for by brand sponsorships. It’s a vastly entertaining movie on the process (from start to finish) of how advertising and entertainment are joined at the hip, the former funding and influencing the latter. And I really, really enjoyed it.

On the drive home, I thought about sponsorships as a means of funding the library. This is not a new idea by any means, so there is a certain amount of moving old bones into new graves on this blog post. But in the last two years, the sources of funding for public and school libraries have failed like nothing else. The budget cuts are well documented and well known (for non-librarians reading this, try this Google search covering the last three years) but the government funding forecast continues to look bleak. There have been victories in terms of raising tax levies and finding other public funding, but in most cases it is not a sustainable funding model for the future.

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that. School librarians have been proven to be effective in raising achievement in schools; if taxpayers can’t or won’t foot the bill, why not pay for it through advertising and marketing money? Schools, once thought off limits, are now using advertising to meet their budgets. (There is a disconnect between wanting the best education for our nation’s children and paying that bill, but I digress.) So, why not libraries?

We have markets that companies want to reach through advertising. Whether it is book readers, movie watchers, internet users, or story time attendees, these are all representatives of desirable demographics. The library is uniquely positioned in the community since there is no other institution or entity (public or private) that does we do. There are aspects to the library that could hold unique appeal to both library vendors and non-library companies on that basis. And, to put it in some additional perspective, it’s a relatively unexplored market.

As much as people might find this idea reprehensible, here’s a incontrovertible fact: a closed library helps exactly zero people. You can explain your adherence to the “the ends don’t justify the means” principle while you stand on the front step of your closed library to the job hunters and students being turned away. I believe that the tough economic times call for consideration of other avenues of funding and revenue, especially from sources that libraries may have shied away from in the past. Where public funding has failed I think corporate funding can fill in some of the gaps to keep the doors open for both the public and students alike.

The fair rebuttal question to ask of this idea is “where does it stop once you introduce advertising to a library setting?” To be honest, I don’t know but I’d like to imagine I would know it when I saw it. Is the “Gale Cengage Computer Center” too far? No, I don’t think so. Is the “Playaway Presents Time for Twos: Story Time Program for Toddlers” too far? No, I don’t think so either. Would taking time at the start of a crafting program to announce and thank sponsor Jo Anne Fabrics while making promotional material be too far? Perhaps to some, but not to me. Considering how the Friends and Trustees of the library fund and support programs (hell, we even have a sign in our library to display when they do), how is that any different than offering a corporate advertisement? There are extreme cases we should avoid (like a 3-6 year old story time where the children sing commercial jingles or recommending books based on sponsorship and not patron desire), but I think it can be handled in a manner which is in line with our core mission while benefiting a corporate sponsor.

I feel there is a certain hypocrisy to the rejection of sponsorships and product placement in the library world. The major state and national conferences that we attend are not exclusively funded by registration fees. They have sponsorships where library vendors pay money to get their name on the front of the program book, on the websites, and on every advertising piece that goes out. It ranges from the free ice cream that is handed out at the New Jersey Library Association conference, the open bar exhibitor reception at Computer in Libraries, and funding some of the major speakers at the American Library Association Annual conference. Some might revolt at the idea of the “Harlequin Romance Section” at their library, but have no issue picking up advance reader copies or other swag from the publisher’s booth. You cannot curse it at one end while seeking to exploit it at another.

For the libraries that are well supported, this kind of funding should not be a consideration. For the libraries that are facing budget gaps, it should be a viable option put on the table. There is only so much materials, so many hours, and so many staff members you can cut before the operation becomes wholly inefficient to its mission. Like the movie poster for Morgan’s movie says, “We’re not selling out. We’re buying in.” And what we get for buying in is staying the business of helping our patron communities. At the end of the day, that is what matters.

***

Like I said at the top, there is no subtle way of approaching this as a blog topic. In putting links to the filmmaker, the movie, and providing my own personal endorsement, I’ve inserted a variation of product placement in my blog post (sans compensation but staying faithful to the unwritten blogging credo of citing and referencing the subjects being addressed). I’ve just sent this blog entry with a product placement/endorsement to over 1,000 blog subscribers, over 200 Facebook fans, and since I’ll tweet this post several times, over 2,300 Twitter followers. This will be in addition to whatever incoming links I might get from other bloggers (both from this post or from previous links) or if/when my posts get picked up by American Libraries Direct which goes out to the tens of thousands of American Library Association members. Between all those tweets, Facebook shares, and emails, those who actually read the post will see that I went to a movie, liked it, and then wrote about it. (To steal a line from Morgan in the movie, “dozens and dozens” of people will end up actually reading this.)

In looking back, I can see everything that I have, in essence, advertised: from “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor” Facebook group to the Edublog and Salem Press Awards to a permanent link to my Mover & Shaker profile on Library Journal and even talking about how I advertised myself to boost my Facebook author page. And that’s just the stuff off the top of my head.

So long as we are talking about self marketing and self promotion, if I really wanted to utilize the blog space to pay some bills I could sell the banner spot, buttons on the side of the sidebar of the blog, even put a banner and link at the base of all of my posts. Of course, it is a matter of proving value (or in other words, my brand); while I get thousands of views a month (a small number compared to some of the other librarian bloggers out there), I would say that I’m widely read by all the right librarian people. “Do you want your library products to reach library thought leaders and futurists? Then I’m your guy. Send me an email and let’s talk!”

And Morgan, if you’re reading this: first, thanks for an enjoyable and informative movie. You do excellent work that makes people think. I laughed as I drove home and looked at all the advertising I saw on the way. Second, I’m biased but I would hope that you’d be interested in doing a documentary of libraries (or at least an important information issue like the inadequacy of current copyright or the digital divide). I’d be happy to answer any curiosities you might have even if it’s just for yourself. Third, if you have any thoughts about the idea of advertising libraries, please feel free to leave a comment. It would be most welcome, especially as someone coming from outside the library world.

Thank you.

(By the way, the only potential result I fear from this blog post is being haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.)