Bookstores, Libraries, and the ALA in a Consumer Culture

Having come from a bookstore my knowledge of the library has been primarily that of a user. So, at this juncture I can speak of the goals of the American Library Association (ALA) and how they impact the work of a librarian only in theory. Because I worked in a bookstore I do have experience serving the public in an information industry. Through my work, and also my time as a student in community college and university, I have acquired an understanding of the importance of information access that the library provides to its community. This issue is, in fact, why I decided to become a librarian.

The ALA’s goal to “…enhance learning and ensure access to information for all” is my core motivation for going into this field. As a clerk in a bookstore I often encountered people who were looking for information but had very little idea where to begin their search. Helping people locate books, periodicals, or even sections in the store, was the most gratifying part of my job. This was especially true when I was working with customers who had language barriers or gaps in his or her education that made locating resources more difficult. I would do whatever I could within the limitations of the bookstore to help, but often I found I had to direct them to the public library. Many times after giving this advice the customer would look at me with the surprise of a light switching on suddenly in a dark room and say, “oh, that’s a good idea.”

The fact that a customer at a bookstore looking for research material for their 5th grade child’s science project or a reference book from which they only needed the information located on pages 358-63, wouldn’t think to go to a library is a reflection, I think, of our consumer society. So, what can be done about this? And is the ALA thinking of ways to remind the population that libraries still exist and are far more than mere relics with shelves of dusty books, card catalogs, and microfiche?

Looking on the ALA site I did not find much pertaining to advertising or marketing plans. It could be that I was not searching in the right places. None the less, I feel that there should be an easy link to the ALA’s marketing strategies. I know it costs money to advertise and money is something libraries have very little of, however, I think it would be money well spent. With the economy as it is now, it is the perfect time for libraries to strike out with advertising campaigns. People need and want free services. If the ALA funded a campaign something along the lines of the dairy industry’s tag line, “Got Milk,” or the cattle industry’s quotable, “Beef, it’s whats for dinner,” I believe that the light would go on in the darkened memories of once upon a time library users and be an invitation to those who have never been exposed to the library and its services. If the ALA collectively created an “Ask Your Librarian” website that was as innovative and user friendly as the that of the dairy and beef industries, we might have more enthusiastic patrons. As of now when I type in that phrase I am offered links to the Public Library in Forsyth, North Carolina and the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. Not bad sites, but not necessarily sites that make you want to hang around and take a closer look. We can fix that. We can make the library appear as the exciting place that it is.

Though we may have some work to do on a national level, there are communities who are taking library advertising upon themselves. Check out this adorable YouTube commercial made by students at Southside High School in Alabama:

Blog entry created by J.A. Lee

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5 Responses to Bookstores, Libraries, and the ALA in a Consumer Culture

  1. I do think that the idea of consumer society pushes people to need to “own” the information that they are after. I find this idea compelling because of the amount of information that is out there and available and in different forms. It feels like the last place people want to go is to a computer to find out where they can access information, including an OPAC (and do we blame them, really?) I agree with your idea that the ALA needs to become more active, not necessarily in the library field, but with the public. ALA is supposed to represent libraries and the library community and patron outreach should be a part of that.

    -Lucie B.

  2. Allie B. says:

    There’s no doubt that libraries, particularly public ones, could use a compelling national advertising campaign in these currently tight economic times, and I’m not sure where one would begin with such a project. I used to work in marketing, and, when I was first thinking about an MLIS, I was attracted to the idea that I wouldn’t have to deal with consumerism or advertising as a public or school librarian. What I’ve realized in the year since I started my Masters at DU is that libraries require marketing as much as–if not more than–any other organization.

    Anythink, the new Rangeview Library concept in Colorado, has an excellent branding strategy that I’m sure many libraries across the country will begin to emulate in coming years. Anythink libraries are designed to be user-friendly in the same way that bookstores are, with reading nooks, fireplaces, and a cataloging system that encourages browsing. Although Anythink’s marketing strategy is obviously centered around reaching the communities in the district, the Anythink concept is one that I think is very effective in a culture that tends to be oriented toward consumerism.

  3. I think you’ve hit on a large concern for libraries, here. It seems like fewer and fewer people truly understand the purpose of the library. The first time someone asked me “When do I pay?” at a circulation desk, it blew my mind. This wasn’t even a cultural barrier. It was an average American citizen who had no clue that libraries didn’t charge. I’ve gotten variations on that question quite a few times now. I long ago lost track of the number of questions I’ve answered about or introduced patrons to library services that either they didn’t know existed or had no clue what they were beyond a name. I think it would be great if ALA could launch some kind of campaign. I also think it would be extremely difficult given the variety of services offered by libraries across the country. It could be that in NYC a great ad campaign would tout electronics and wireless access, while in Podunk, Nowhereland the library’s collection of cake pans is the biggest draw. That’s a very hard generalization.

    – J. Cox

  4. A national advertising campaign would be tough to pull off but a local or statewide campaigns for public libraries may prove to be more effective. I live in the High Plains Library District. A few years back they instigated a campaign built around their new web presence – Since we don’t have a local television station up here, the campaign consisted of billboards, newspaper articles/advertisements, and “take-me”s found inside the libraries. There could also be a local radio presence as well, but I don’t listen to local radio stations. The billboards can still be found throughout the area and in the calendar section of the local newspaper, there are always listings for story times, gemology classes, summer reading programs, and whatnot. Perhaps, in smaller communities it’s easier to get the word out?

    I don’t know how successful the campaign has been in terms of new patrons or even increased circulation numbers but as an average citizen of the High Plains District, I think it has been successful because it has increased awareness. My husband may not think so though. Doug passes one of the billboards on the way to and from work. The other day he announced that he was going to get an audio book and that he was going to try this “”. He thought it was a national library but was happily surprised to find out that it was our very own library district.
    Instead of using a name that’s generic and that doesn’t pertain to northern Colorado for its website, the District should have used its own name.

    K. Yockey

  5. I too agree that libraries need to be more proactive in their marketing techniques. One particular advertising strategy comes to mind that seemed to be quite successful. The Wyoming libraries made a state-wide effort to bring their institutions into the public eye through two varying segments. The first was the “Bringing the World to Wyoming” campaign which included billboards, newspaper ads, and marketing kits portraying images of the Eiffel Tower topped with a western windmill or a pickup with a Trojan Horse trailer. When people saw these ads, it was supposed to signify that the library is the place where you can have access to the world.

    The second element to their campaign was more of a guerilla marketing technique in that they produced a mass number of bumper stickers using humor to enlighten the public about the library. A particularly interesting technique was the introduction of the mudflap girl (it looks like the Playboy bunny mudflap, with the addition of “Wyoming Libraries” printed below). This campaign’s main purpose was to market the ChiltonLibrary auto repair database. Mudflap girl stickers were sent to auto repair shops across the state to advertise the Chilton database. This is definitely an innovative way to target a very different audience that may not normally think of the library as a place to access information about auto repair, and also reaches a much wider population of people who see the mudflap out on the road.

    You can see more of Wyoming’s library campaign here:


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