The missing link A question of mindset

Intensified marketing of the public libraries’ new services is firmly on the agenda, not only in Denmark and the other Nordic countries, but also in the rest of Europe and the US. The marketing debate has a more sharply defined profile in the Nordic countries than elsewhere – undoubtedly because the public libraries’ status here is more highly charged in terms of tradition both in the minds of politicians and users. The drop in loans figures and the wish for increased use of the library’s new digital services have therefore added fuel to a number of marketing considerations.

But as far as the public is concerned the libraries continue to uphold their status as a brand! The problem is that this brand is more or less identical with books and collections. This obstructs the promotion of the new library’s content, offers and possibilities. The challenge for a progressive marketing is therefore to find a link by which to pull some of the old brand’s qualities into a new, future-oriented brand, which – needless to say – can be communi-cated to the right users. In Denmark this challenge has over the past few years been tackled within a number of areas:

Profession identity. In 2007 the Union of Danish Librarians initiated a modernisation process with its suggestion of changing the name to ‘Knowledge and Culture [Union of Danish Librarians]’. The suggestion was rejected by the members. Librarians wish to be members of a librarians’ union!

Cultural policy. In November 2009 Danish minister for culture, Carina Christensen, set up a committee which in 2010 has to produce a number of innovative statements as to the role of the public library in the knowledge society. In 2009 she published a new culturalpolitical strategy Culture for Everybody – culture nationwide, which makes it clear that the public libraries still have a major task to perform in terms of education and enlightenment.

Educational profile. The Royal School of Library and Infor-mation Science in Denmark has for some years suffered from a decline in the number of new students and is working intensively on redefining the scope of selection and specialisation possibilities. The School’s identity and mission are at the moment being assessed in a committee that has to come up with a completely new name for the School based on a new value position and brand platform which can hopefully inject renewed interest in the education programme.

Library concepts. In the intersection between the ‘old’ book and collection library’ and the new library concept many suggestions have been generated as to what to emphasize in a new branding of the public libraries: culture, learning, education, knowledge, innovation, social meeting place, experiences, companionship and community cohesion etc. – but the final ‘launch pad’ for the brand has yet to materialise.

Conservative users

Altogether understandable! With more than 34 mil. physical visits annually and a lending figure of over 74 mil. (2008) the public library in Denmark is to be regarded as one of the major ‘concerns’ among public cultural offers in Denmark – and in terms of marketing strategy there are many considerations to take into account. Generally speaking the public libraries belong under the Ministry of Culture and are administratively placed under the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media. But financially they are placed within the framework of Denmark’s 98 municipalities. With a construction such as this, marketing initiatives become a question not only of changing users’ traditional perception of the public library, but also of winning over the local politicians for treading new and innovative paths.

However, there seems to be widespread satisfaction with the public library at all levels – why then change anything? Consumers are conservative as long as they can get the products they want. And they can. And politicians are satisfied as long as the voters are satisfied.

Conservative brands

Only very few concerns have got away with quick changes of their brand. Danish LEGO ran into serious problems when the concern wanted to be ‘electronic toys’. They swiftly returned to their core product – LEGO bricks – and were immediately and awesomely successful. Carlsberg tried a quick modernisation of their labels – but the consumers demanded to have the old ones back. The Danish Tax Authorities spent 17 mil. DKK on a new branding, which did not do very much to change the public’s conception of the institution. The Danish Library Association conducted a questionnaire towards the end of 2009, to get an indication of the patrons’ expected usage of the library in two years time. 63% expected the same scale of usage as in 2009 and ‘only’ 26% expected an increase in the use of the library’s digital offers. There are thus no empirical experiences that point to the possibility of a ‘swift’ transformation of the present library brand.

A new strategy

However, we are only talking in terms of controlled panic! The public library is a stronghold and its services will be in demand for many years to come. The book – the libraries’ main product – is in no danger of perishing for some time to come, but is increasingly going to be able to adapt even to digital approaches. But even if there is no immediate crisis, there are many quite solid reasons for cultivating ideas as to a new strategy for marketing of the new library. Good strategies – as we all know – tend not to be born out of crises.

Marketing courses – experiences and perspectives

The Danish Agency for Libraries and Media therefore entered the affray with a marketing course for 35 public libraries. The initiative continues in 2010 where a number of libraries upon application will receive funding from the Agency’s development pool for the establishment of concrete marketing campaigns within three areas.

The purpose of the courses in 2009 was partly to provide the participants with fundamental competences to work out concrete marketing plans, partly to gain knowledge about which subjects the libraries themselves consider essential for the development of their own marketing activities. The messages were fairly clear. To a great extent the libraries call for a common strategy which can underpin and visualise own visions, action plans and target-group-oriented marketing. That is to say – basic skills.

As the situation looks today, all libraries in all 98 munici-palities could spend time and resources on such a strategy. The Danish Agency for Libraries and Media has partly via publications, partly via a number of meetings, courses and conferences given useful inspiration and guidelines to local processes. However, the ideal situation would of course be for the 98 municipal library systems to establish a common strategy platform from which to do their work. The content is not yet completely finalised, but ‘Digital services’, ‘Partnerships’, ‘Culture and Learning’ are self-evident keywords. Exposition of those staff qualifications in the libraries, which actually are to make things happen, is another keyword. Finally, it is going to be absolutely essential to determine the target groups the marketing has to focus on. They are the ones that are going to drag the brand into the future.

The link is a relation

In one of literature’s great classics a young lady by the name of Alice is walking about in Wonderland, where from time to time she offers interesting and quirky reflections such as “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there!” The public libraries need to make up there minds where they are going, and whom they are going to prioritise in the marketing process – so that they can focus on the way forward. In November 2009 the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media held their annual meeting for the Danish library directors. Director Jens Thorhauge offered the following heading for a future library concept: “The new library is a new cultural enterprise”. In that case it is going to be a cultural enterprise that makes room for new challenges in the actual space and moves even more of the collection to the digital bookshelves. “The missing link” does not only connect to the digital space, but to a much larger degree to the attitudinal and relation-seeking space with younger, young and coming generations of library users, for whom the digital world is exactly as obvious as books are to former generations.

NOKIA’s famous brand line ‘Connecting people’ could in that connection be re-phrased into a more active version: ‘Connecting and supporting people’s needs for personal knowledge, cultural inspiration and communities’.

Claus Pico Stæhr
MA, director Stæhr Grafisk
Lecturer, Danish Agency for Libraries and Media’s marketing
staehr AT
Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

MA, director Stæhr Grafisk Lecturer, Danish Agency for Libraries and Media’s marketing course