Branding, books and libraries

The following views are inspired by a rather heated debate in Denmark last autumn concerning the public libraries’ purchase policy. Publishers raised the question as to whether the public libraries purchase enough literature compared to other media. Other cultural personalities joined the debate and it was quite obvious that many associate the public libraries with having books and reading as their primary objective. The library act’s specifications on the extended material concept and other new tasks have not really won through with everyone yet. The public library is still associated with books. This is not only the case in Denmark – as shown in a recent international study.
There has been a great deal of focus on marketing and branding of the libraries. A new study carried out by OCLC does, however, suggest that the libraries have a global ‘brand’. OCLC’s study covers six countries and 3,300 people have been asked about their use of the library, Internet, other information resources and about their perception of libraries, Internet etc., just as reading habits have been charted. Although the study is not representative, it does come up with some interesting results.

The amazing thing is how uniformly the libraries are used and perceived in countries and regions as different as USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Singapore and India. 1/3 indicate that their use of the library has been diminishing over the past few years. On the other hand almost 2/3 expect their future library use to be stable. The majority of the respondents declare that their knowledge of search engines is more extensive that their knowledge of libraries. This means that many people start their information search via a search engine, in most cases Google. The libraries’ web sites are hardly ever used as the starting point for a search.

The libraries figure a long way down the list of institutions or persons from whom one gets information about new electronic resources. For students it looks rather different – here libraries play a much more important role. It is worrying that search engines are generally considered superior to the physical libraries in terms of giving access to relevant material. Here it is worth noting that young people place libraries further down the list than adults do. The study also reveals a considerable lack of knowledge about the libraries’ physical ad digital services. It further shows that use of the Internet and search engines results in less reading and thus also a tendency to dininished use of the library.

In some areas the library gets a higher score that search engines, namely in Branding, books and libraries terms of reliability and quality as regards information, whereas the search engines score higher on attributes such as accessibility, efficiency, speed and user-friendliness. Satisfaction with information gained via search engines is certainly on a par with the information obtained with the library’s assistance. 2/3 maintain that reliability is equally high in search engines and libraries. Young people tend to find search engines more reliable than do adults. Librarians are placed far down on the list of persons to ask when information has to be validated.

The respondents generally agree that libraries are synonymous with books and information. It is a ‘brand’. Books and information are the two dominant library concepts all over the world. There is great satisfaction with the libraries’ free services, Internet access etc, but focus tends to be on the collections as well as on the immediate accessibility of physical materials. One could say that for a great deal of people their concept of the library is based on how the libraries used to be. Generally speaking, there is a positive attitude to the library as an institution in the local community.

Similar tendencies can be observed in Denmark. The latest charting of the Danes’ culture and leisure activities in 2004 shows similar interesting traits. It appears that never before have the public libraries enjoyed such a wide surface of contact with the adult population as they do at the moment. But people visit the libraries less often than before. As to the question of where adults get their books from, the study reveals that the public libraries occupy third place – after purchase and gifts. The same tendency can be observed elsewhere in the world.More people read now than used to be the case, but on average they each read less and tend to buy more than previously.

The situation is slightly different in the case of children and young adults – the challenges are more substantial. Fewer children and young adults use the public libraries than before. Those who do borrow fewer books and periodicals, preferring other media types – quite in accordance with the intentions of the library act.

The library is a ‘brand’ associated particularly with books and information. At the same time it seems that the patterns of usage are changing dramatically – varying from age group to age group, but the main activity is still loan of books and periodicals. However, the tendency will be declining due to investments in other media and – one must assume – a stagnating economy. It is thought-provoking that library usage and library image are so much alike all around the world. It is also thought provoking that the libraries’ most serious competitors are search engines which as regards many attributes are seen in a more positive light than the libraries.

The libraries have a solid foundation to build on, including a considerable goodwill from almost all respondents, but there is no doubt that the ‘brand’ must be given a new lease of life if the libraries also in future are to keep their position in an info-sphere marked by competition. The innovation must take place in the attitude of the public, but also in the services on offer. The population’s wishes as to information here and now, extension of services combined with stagnating library budgets demand a very marked ‘matching’ between services offered and information needs. It means clearly defined prioritizations that can be used in marketing initiatives which are an essential part of a revitalised ‘brand’.

Bille, T. & al.: Danskernes kultur- og fritidsaktiviteter 2004 – med udviklingslinjer tilbage til 1964. Kbh. AKF-forlaget, 2005.
De Rosa, C. & al.: Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources. A report to the OCLC membership. OCLC Online Computer Library Centre. Dublin.Ohio. 2005

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science.