A library can have many physical manifestations. This could be the public library in a small Norwegian hamlet, a mobile library delivering books to people who cannot get to the library themselves, it could be a school library in a typical seventies’ building – or it could be the New York Public Library, which we have recently visited. Apparently, their only common feature is their content. The books. The narratives. The knowledge.
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a timeless story. It is a novel about coming of age which has been read by generations of young people. An antiquarian bookshop on Madison Avenue in New York is now selling a first edition with a dedication and the original dust jacket for the handsome sum of USD 185,000.
In Barnes & Noble a few blocks away it is sold in a hardcover edition for USD 24.99, and you can download it as an ebook from Amazon for USD14.99 (although without a dust jacket).
In the New York Public Library, a welldressed gentleman fetches the book from deep cellars full of books, and brings it to you at no charge in the venerable reading room.
In the school library at Skien Upper Secondary you can find your own edition – although with a fairly dusty jacket. The story remains the same. The circumstances are completely different.
The identity of every enterprise is shaped by four things:
1. the product we have on offer (a car, a theatrical performance, a book collection)
2. the environment in which we are offering it (the car dealership, the theatre, the library with its exterior, reception, shelves and reading rooms)
3. our behaviour (how the staff receive you as a customer, the service they provide, the knowledge they possess)
4. and finally how we communicate (signs, posters, websites, advertising).
All these elements combined build identity, and it is therefore crucial that we are aware of what we want to signal with all of them.When everything we are saying and doing vibrates in tune and communicates a single personality, then we can create a strong, shared identity and profile.
The importance of the individual element may vary. For a BMW, the car itself is the essential element – even though the dealership, the salespeople and the advertising also play a role.
To a shopping centre, the building complex is the central identity-forming element, even though the goods on sale, the staff and the store magazine may also have an impact.
To an airline, behaviour is of paramount importance, since the aircraft, the flight routes and the online booking procedure are near-identical.
And Coca-Cola is nearly all about communication (when blindfolded, people cannot tell the difference between Coke and orange soda, believe it or not).
What is most important to a library?
Is it the building – as we may think after a visit to the New York Public Library with its monumental façade, its heavy doors, its marble and its reading rooms illuminated by chandeliers?
Or perhaps as Snøhetta designed the Alexandria library, in the shape of an Egyptian coin half buried in the desert sand, a masterpiece, completely novel for a library whose construction started in 300 BCE and which has remained world famous ever since?
Is it the books, the reference manuals, the novels, the research reports – in physical or digital form, on loan or (as in New York) only for use in the reading room?
The New York Public Library has two Gutenberg bibles. In Alexandria, Plato, Socrates and Euclid deposited their manuscripts. In the school library we found worn tomes in alphabetical order on the shelves, the most important books in class sets – poetry, novels, atlases, history books and science manuals.
Perhaps the staff are our most important profile-builders – their approach to the customers, their knowledge and ability to provide guidance through a constantly accelerating stream of information?
In 2010, Google estimated that up until then, a total of 129,864,880 different books had been published worldwide – and the number has increased since then. Finding your way unaided is impossible, so skilled guides are perhaps more important than ever.
And what about communication?
In an over-communicated world it is difficult to break through and reach out, and it is therefore even more important that whatever we want to communicate is made distinctive, appealing, fascinating and filled with passion.
Nevertheless, it remains essential that we – as a sector and as individual libraries – choose what we want to be known for: Hushing, order, hair knotted in a tight bun and a faint scent of dust? Or openness, guts and joy in communication? Not to mention innovation and creativity?
Nobody, and we least of all, can say for certain what is right.What we can emphasize is the importance of making these choices and taking the consequences that ensue. Then, and only then, can we emerge distinctly, be recognized and establish a profile, a reputation and a preference. Not only through the power of physical or digital spaces, but also of our narratives, our people and our communication.