Why don’t people appreciate Libraries (and thus Librarians)?

Over the past week I have participated in a discussion on an ALA listserve titled The Marginalization of Librarians.  It has been interesting to read the perceptions of librarians (from ‘special’ libraries, academic,  public libraries etc…) about themselves.  It seems like there are two streams of thought arising:

1. Those that believe that libraries and librarians have great resources which just need to be marketed better.  Only if people (members of the public/academics and other users or non-library users) knew what we had, would they come to appreciate libraries and thus librarians.

2. Those that feel that librarians and libraries have missed the mark.  It is not about ‘marginalized librarians’ but actually about marginalized communities.  Libraries and librarians have not effectively sought out and developed approaches for library staff to work with communities to discover what needs they have and discover from target groups what the libraries role could be in fulfilling these needs.  (To clarify, this is not outreach – it shifts what we are doing when we are in the communities from talking to listening.)

I am wondering after 50+ years of marketing, if libraries have possibly hit their saturation point?  Are non-library users/sometimes library users at the point where they are so inundated by marketing messages, that libraries are just one other small piece of the chatter?

How do we know that the messages we are sending them are applicable to the possible barriers they face accessing library services, especially in an environment when many people perceive information being available over the internet?  I know this is really distressing in an environment where we proclaim that librarians provide more accurate information than search engines, but – if people are satisfied with their search results – who really cares?

Is getting up on a soap box and talking about the services we have created for the ‘non-converted’ not a little backwards?  Have we talked with them to see what they feel the role of libraries should be?

I don’t think that using marketing to scream about how valuable we are will make a difference to a large segment of the community.   Actually, I know it doesn’t. (Don’t get me wrong, marketing can and still plays a valuable role for libraries – especially for those that regularly access our marketing tools).

Also, I definitely don’t think that making the public’s response to libraries personal and talking about Librarians being marginalized will do the profession (or library service development) any favours.  It doesn’t address the underlying issues, and does not change anything about libraries from the public perspective – other than viewing us as a bunch of whiners.

It is time to stop this self destructive behaviour and time to start creating solutions to ensuring our continued relevance to existing and potential user groups.  The issue is not that people don’t appreciate libraries or librarians, the issue is that they need to see themselves, and their needs reflected in the services provided.   Only then will they appreciate libraries, librarians and library services.

~ Ken

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Why don’t people appreciate Libraries (and thus Librarians)?

  1. Jenn

    Well put, Ken! I’ve long felt that (in general) we spend far more time discussing the lack of awareness of library services, etc. than we do solving the underlying issues. We’re really good at identifying the gaps – we know libraries / librarians’ skills are underutilized and have far more to offer than what most people know about (or identify with librarians). Where we miss the mark is in re-thinking our offerings to bridge those gaps. Obviously, there are exceptions and some libraries/librarians have been extremely successful. For those who haven’t, though, why continue to push current offerings when we could be starting fresh and identifying exciting new ways to deliver value? I’d like to take it one step further: instead of “thinking outside the box” about current programming, services, outreach, etc. let’s forget the box and it’s inherent limitations, and redefine ourselves, our profession, and our offerings. It’s long past time to lay aside the tired marketing campaigns, and start asking the right questions and boradening the conversations: what do people want/need in general – not just from their librarians, since they may not be able to shift their thinking beyond what they currently perceive as library offerings / capabilities? and how can we realign ourselves / our skills to meet those needs and provide our clients/patrons with the most value?

  2. Ken, very thought provoking post!

    I suppose I fall in both camps: I think libraries often fail to be truly community-driven, and also often fail at marketing. And I think both listening to marginalized communities and marketing are important, in order to represent the full range of the community. I think that for optimal adaptation and survival into the future, libraries do need to diversify their patron base, the base of community members who love and feel invested in them, and provide essential services to those neglected by other institutions. But our “eggs” need to be spread among many community baskets — which is a challenge, since we’re already trying to do so many things even for a limited active user base.

    I’ve been thinking of it more like libraries/the field of librarianship are having an identity crisis. Internal conflict, search for identity, lack of clarity around what their role in the world is. It’s tempting to say this is particular to times of great technological change in our field, but I don’t really know how unique it is. However, I *think* that if we were ever to reach more consensus around the core of what it is we do, broadening out audience and community involvement might be easier.

    • I agree with greyson. We are failing in redefining ourselves as the community activists that we should be, at least in public libraries, and in marketing what we have done and can do. Too many people are buying into the idea that Google does it all and that books are going by the wayside. We can and should still fulfill the the traditional role of providers of reliable information, both digital and otherwise, as well as bolstering our role as a conduit of equity and democracy by listening, and engaging in dialogue with our various community members. We need to be creative and innovative like never before despite the dire funding challenges and an often mediocre, entrenched “leadership.” I apologize to the great library leaders out there, but our experience locally has fallen below the mark and threatens to wipe out the professional public librarian here altogether.

  3. There are a few points I would raise here.
    First, we confuse libraries and librarians. Which is un(der) appreciated? Are they the same?
    Second, ironically librarians are more appreciated, and better remunerated, in non-library environments by non-librarian supervisors. What does this say about how we value ourselves?
    Third, 70% of individuals entering a library building do not interact with a staff member. So of the 30% who do, what percentage would be with a professional librarian? Even less.
    My conclusion is that we shed the victimization mantle and define our unique skill set and expertise and start to demonstrate it in thoughtful and relevant ways that impact our communities.

  4. willimen

    Thanks Ken – the title has been adjusted to reflect the main thrust of the post – libraries. After a bit more reflection, I think that the reason I was using them interchangeably is that when people enter libraries and see someone sitting behind a desk – their automatic perception is that they are talking with a librarian. Regardless – of it being tomato or tomatoe – there is an under-appreciation.

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