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the marketing unproblem of libraries

After seeing yet another tweet/article1 about the so-called marketing problem of libraries, I finally managed to get past my normal distaste for framing anything in a business framework.

When discussing this ‘marketing’ problem perhaps it is important to point out that libraries (by and large) are not for-profit businesses. Regardless that many people advocate for turning a library into a business and operating it as such (for efficiency!), most libraries still are not, in point of fact, businesses. And they likely will never be. More importantly, they probably should never become businesses.

Rather, they are a public service in much the same way that the police2, sanitation, road maintenance, etc. and so on are. Now some of these things have, in various places, been privatised with arguable success. Some of these lend themselves better to privatisation and some do not (I sincerely doubt any city on the planet would ever privatise their police force, despite – at least in Canada – it being one of the most inefficient, money guzzling ‘services’).

The point about public services is that they are services essential to the public good and, thus, cannot be left for the free market because while they may be necessary, they may not be (and frequenly are not) profitable: thus, providing very little market incentive to provide these services3.

Now, there is one respect where libraries diverge from something like sanitation: namely, that public libraries were never intended for the general public. Instead, like certain other services (welfare, old age security, disability benefits) they were intended to serve the disadvantaged. And like those other services they were created within an ideology (see enlightenment) and based on a notion of noblesse oblige.

And here we get to the real crux of the problem. It isn’t an issue of marketing4. Not an issue of public relations. The issue is that in a late capitalist, neo-liberal environment public services like libraries are a BAD THING. I mean, when we have the IMF and World Bank forcing countries to privatise their water, you suddenly realize that no amount of marketing or public relations will save libraries as a public service. Rather, what is dying is noblesse oblige (and some would argue that it died years ago).

Now, I don’t necessarily think separating the existence and purpose of libraries from notions of noblesse oblige is a bad thing. I actually think it is a good thing, since a public library organized around the public they actually serve vs. a public library organized around what privileged people think they ought to be can only be an improvement. But getting to this point requires a fundamental shift on how we conceive of libraries and the roles within the community.

On the first pass, one thing that needs to change is the attitude that we are benevolent saviours bestowing our boons and favours on the unwashed masses. And, yes, this attitude is a real thing5. Some of the discourse in libraries veers from advocacy straight into proselytizing in creepy missionary-like ways.

On the second pass, is simply realizing where we actually are. Does anyone ever say that employment insurance or welfare have marketing problems? No, not really. And these social services are more directly and viciously attacked than libraries ever are. But understanding that libraries have more in common with welfare than sanitation is critical for understanding how to approach advocacy. The people who think that social services in general are unnecessary will never be convinced that libraries are a good thing. But we are also somewhat lucky, in the sense that we tend to suffer more from benign neglect than outright opposition.

Which leads to better focusing our efforts. Rather than continually thinking that we should be trying to convince people who likely will never think libraries are necessary and important, we ought to be focusing our efforts on those that do. Or can at least be convinced. It means getting to a place where our community of users (who already think we are useful) are well situated to fight with us. That they understand the issues at hand and, more importantly, understand how they can help. It also means libraries getting involved within their communities beyond just library-related stuff. Advocating and fighting for the communities in the way that we want them to fight for us.

(And, yes, I recognize I could be wrong re: proposed solutions, especially since I don’t actually work in a public library, but the basic point that libraries do not have a marketing problem is still true.)