Forward Compared to What?

To move ahead, libraries need to understand where they are now

December 20, 2010

As a forward-looking library faces the future, one of the most vital steps it can take is to determine where it stands right now. You might have a destination in mind, but without knowing your current location the journey ahead will be difficult.

We all have opinions on how well we are performing and the direction we should be heading, but those notions can be quite different from those of our patrons. Measuring their perceptions is tricky and no one tool will tell you everything that you need to know.

An approach that I have found valuable is to attempt to decode the personality of the library. By understanding your patrons’ mental associations, you can then seek to enhance the relationship you have with them. If they view your library as a friendly place, then you can build on that, but if it is viewed as unfriendly then that’s the place you should start.

The technique that I use is “persona projection,” a common exercise in marketing focus groups. It is an easy and effective way to get people talking, while avoiding the pitfall of just having them tell you what you want to hear. I typically start by asking:

Let’s say that the library is a person. What does he or she look like? Whom does he or she resemble? What is his or her age?

This opens the conversation by enabling your patrons to express their feelings. Architecture and interior design will take center stage at first. For example, one library that I worked with was routinely described as Jekyll and Hyde: Some areas were very pleasant while other parts were monstrosities. This motif transcended physical spaces and included interactions with various library staff.

Another library was described as a dying old man. Patrons strongly disliked the aesthetics and felt that the building was crumbling. They also felt that the collection was out-of-date and that the seemingly decade-old computers further diminished the mood. These results revealed a disconnect, as the librarians didn’t perceive the space in quite the same manner.

Once you’ve established the physical identity of your library, then you can dig into some more informative questions:

What is his or her personality? How does the library interact with others? Who are his or her friends? What is a typical day like for this person? What is one thing that might help this person in the future?

Obviously you don’t want to overwhelm your patrons by asking these questions all at once, but rather, dole out questions to keep the discussion moving. By chipping away at the variety of personality traits and characteristics, the library’s persona will emerge.

This framework can also be used to focus in on particular aspects such as services, collections, or staff. For example, with the dying-old-man library, I asked: “Can you trust this person?” The results were eye-opening as over half of the group felt that they could not. Obviously there were deeper problems than just an old building.

As you consider branding or rebranding your library, this persona projection technique allows you to discover the intrinsic feelings of your users. If you are trying to present your organization as extremely customer-focused yet your customers don’t view you in that manner, then obviously your efforts will be ineffective.

As you plan for the year ahead, consider what you don’t know about your patrons. Filling in those knowledge gaps is an ideal place to start and can help your library better align itself. This type of assessment can potentially enhance everything from programs and events to fundraising, renovations, service expansion, collections, and marketing campaigns. Find out how you are perceived and then work toward strengthening or modifying that image. This is a big first step toward taking next steps in your library’s future.

BRIAN MATHEWS is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.



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