Branding the library

More than twenty years have passed since I published my first book in English. The title was New Trends in Scandinavian Public Libraries.

I saw a new library concept emerging and wanted to tell the whole world about it. It was my hope that the book would have a positive impact on the further development of public libraries. The general attitude in the few reactions to the book in British and American library journals was that there was not really very much new in the book – at least not to those journals. So the book mainly had an impact on my understanding of international publishing. Ten years later it actually got discovered in Eastern and Central Europe, but still:What I did learn was that it takes more than a book to change an image! But we have been working with the challenge all along, and I believe that today we must face the fact – at least in Denmark – that the public image of libraries does not reflect realities. In a nationwide Danish competition on innovativeness among public institutions the championship went to libraries, primarily because of the services they have developed – so our libraries are innovative, but when it comes to the majority the book is still the brand.

As we face significant changes in the use of libraries, we have to do something. I believe that it is not only in Denmark you see the trend of traditional services losing users faster than gaining them for new services. Several surveys point to the fact that many users have never even heard of the new services. In spite of numerous campaigns, posters, flyers etc. only a minority are aware that they can download music files for nothing – and legally – from their homes via the library website, that there is a fast and reliable email and chat e-reference service open 88 hours a week, that you can get help in using self-service programmes, help to create your own homepage, homework cafés for schoolchildren, computer circle clubs and many other fancy activities. The lesson learnt is that changing the library’s book brand can not be done overnight. It has been built up over centuries, and it probably takes a huge effort over decades to change it.

One of the reasons for the persistency of the old image is that most libraries have not yet accomplished a complete transformation. They are still based on the book-deposit concept in their interior design, and thus present the same profile to the users as they did twenty years ago. And many librarians are still quite collection-focused rather than user-oriented when it comes to the crunch. One of the reasons for keeping the book-deposit interior design is that on the one hand most libraries still stick to the same frames as in the ‘industrial age’ and on the other hand – which is probably more alarming – do not have a clear-cut vision for ‘the new library’ but just some elements and trends, bits and pieces. And as long as we do not have this vision as a professionally shared common knowledge of where to go, it is difficult to create a consistent marketing strategy.

A ‘catch 22’ for public libraries is that for ages we have measured our impact on society in number of loans, because a large number of loans was a true success criterion for the book library. In times where people buy more books than ever this is hardly a core criterion any longer. The success of ‘the new library’ should be measured in terms of impact on society by creating good frames for many different activities within the library space and on the web. Our democratic societies need libraries to strengthen the civic society. Traditional information and leisure services are still very important – but the library should think in terms of supporting, helping and inspiring in broader terms through learning activities, workshops, clubs etc. And it must be a good place simply to stay in and meet – at any time offering inspiration. But we need convincing methods to measure the impact of these services.

In Denmark we are discussing how to organise a national marketing effort to brand ‘the new library’. Our ideas are not sufficiently clarified, but we are about to start a process towards gaining and sharing the vision of ‘the new library’.We do believe that library staff should be the ambassadors that we will need in their thousands to spread the vision. So the first step is to develop the vision with them. Likewise we must implement national programmes to improve the competencies of staff in the marketing field. And we are going to produce a toolbox with different essential tools – from ready-made graphic design to survey methods. Part of the concept is telling the stories about library successes until we discover a new impact-measurement tool.

There is a long process ahead of us. Let’s get started.

Jens Thorhauge
Director General
Danish Library Agency

jth AT

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor