Well, it’s been a long journey but I am back to the blog. I had sort of thought that my first entry when I got back would be a little some thing about the road trip to the PLA conference in Minneapolis, but I think I’m over it at this point. 9 states. The House on the Rock. The birthplace of water skiing. Fried cheese curds. I may elaborate with some pictures at some point, but suffice to say that the ride to and from Minnesota was incredible.
Let me quickly mention that there have been some great comments while I was away, and I promise to respond to all of them, particularly the good critical ones…
The PLA conference was great, but there was some kind of underlying “we can’t do our jobs that well, so lets outsource it” feeling that really irked me. It wasn’t something that was really there in just one presentation, rather it was an overall feeling, something of a sense of doom, a feeling that indeed librarians are really just voyeurs while real-life innovation goes on in other industries. I hope I can lose this feeling that librarians are innovation voyeurs, fixated on interesting books and new business strategies outlined in interesting books. I hope I can get past this feeling that public service is inherently reactive, thanks to librarians’ willingness to just read books and hire the authors to fix problems. I was told once that in interviewing librarians if they say they want the job because they like to read then you shouldn’t hire them: all they will do is read on the job and not get any work done. Maybe the proliferation of consultants is the result of too many librarians just reading books and not doing any work. Let me recap and try to explain the problem. I really don’t believe in bitching and moaning without presenting potential solutions, so maybe I’ll be able to offer a little something constructive at the end. Even better some comments will provide solutions.
I wrote briefly in the PLA blog about the Envirosell presentation. Envirosell is Paco Underhill’s consulting firm, and Paco Underhill is the author of “Why we Buy”. The workshop was titled “Why we Borrow”, and it was the story of how Envirosell adapted their methodology to understand and then improve upon the way libraries “do business”, i.e., distribute library materials effectively to their legal service communities. I didn’t have anything great to say about the presentation in the PLA blog, and now that I’m on my own little chunk of interweb I’ll be even less nice. Less nice to the librarians that hire these clowns, that is. What: you read a book about how someone else distributed products for a profit in a “branded environment” and you couldn’t learn a thing or two from the book, you had to hire THEM to use THEIR brains and put together a plan for a library. Great. Envirosell had plenty of legitimate methodology and slick presentation for the show; they understood how to make sexy graphics and present results in a coherent manner for the digestion of executives and laypeople alike. Why librarians, people with MASTERS DEGREES, people with EXPERTISE in our mission and vision, (which is NOT simply the distribution of product) should need a consultant to understand library users is beyond me.
Next, lets talk about James Keller, the admittedly badass marketing guru from Queens Public Library. Here’s a little cut from my PLA blog post/review of his talk:
Librarians, we have to remember that these marketing bigwigs work for us- not the other way around. When Keller started talking about how to create a marketing plan it sounded frighteningly like the overall strategic plan an executive director might want to come up with for their library system. Marketing and communications departments exist to help public service folks do their jobs. Don’t be fooled by glossy flyers or hot air balloons with logos on them. We run the show, not them.
Here we go again: only this guy isn’t a consultant, he’s a top-level full time employee. I don’t want to sound like some kind of control freak. I don’t want to give the impression that I believe all aspects of librarianship are secret ninja skills learned deep in the bowels of a branch library or in a classroom tower at some library school. What I do want to make clear is that in James Keller we have yet another example of a person highly skilled in some other industry honing in on and perhaps even trying to take over one of the most important skills a librarian has: understanding user needs. What happens when user needs are measured by a marketing team for the sake of positive public image rather than by librarians for the sake of positive service impact? We stop getting the right things done. Or, we get highly hailed “successes” like the Idea Stores of the UK, 90s-looking transitional architectures that mimic the feed-the-machine style retail environments that Envirosell would have us build. Keller closed with a statement about how he’d love to partner the Queens Public Library with McDonald’s. Keller said there’s more Queens Library branches than there are McD’s in the borough. He’d like to offer bookmarks that give a free Big Mac when you check out a book. Gross James. Change the Queens tagline from “Enrich your Life” to “Enrich your Life and Destroy your Body”.
The Idea Store. I really wanted to be blown away by some kind of beautiful library innovation here, and sadly I really wasn’t. No kidding, I wanted it SO BADLY, and it just didn’t happen. The panel for this particular event was really solid: Jerome Myers of Tacoma Public Library set it up (Jerome is a former colleague from Brooklyn Public Library), and sitting on the panel was Ginnie Cooper of DC Public Library as well as Martin Gomez of Urban Library Council. Maybe they were just being polite, but none of the panelists spoke of what was going through my head. The Idea Store is in my opinion the soulless, transitional learning space associated with the turn of the century, a husk that simulates service innovation in the way that a candy-store vending machine offers you a bit of *bling* in a little plastic egg for 25 cents. The Idea Store represents the manipulative possibilities associated with user-centered design, it teases and entices the patron by appealing to their inner shop-a-holic. The Idea Store is the library equivalent of putting corn syrup in every piece of library content we deliver in order to make it taste better and sell better. James Keller would love to attract people to Queens Public Library by feeding them free Big Macs, and if he fed them free Big Macs I can guarantee that circ stats would skyrocket in Queens. The Idea Store is basically offering a Big Mac. Eat it up, suckas. Sure, the usage doubled at the Idea Store when you opened up, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with equating government sponsored, democratic style, individually initiated education with capitalist consumption, isn’t there? Isn’t there?
So is this some kind of call for good ol’ fashioned library buildings? Absolutely not. Flexible architectures and flexible architectural programs are the future of libraries, no doubt about it. Agility, both in physical presence and in core services are the future of libraries. Embracing technologies judiciously as our users demand them, that is the future of libraries. Good design as a communication tool (gotta hand it to the Idea Store here: exceptional graphic design coming out of that place), attention to retail trends, marketing strategies: all of this important. BUT pandering to people’s weaknesses: not the future. Listening to our users and giving them what they want is the future, but simply looking at what they already like and buy is not the way to evaluate what they want out of a library. Libraries are about encouraging self-initiated continuing education, we want to build in our patrons the desire to learn, the desire to help themselves. This is not accomplished through trickery.