Thursday, August 21, 2014

Business Use of Libraries

Here's a great article about libraries setting up business centers:

This is an interesting issue, with two components: money, and merchandising.

Most libraries feel like money is the core of this debate. How do we responsibly allocate public funds? Here’s a quote from the article:

“Libraries catering to workers walk a fine line between appealing to business-minded patrons who help energize their once-sleepy reading rooms and avoiding the appearance of playing favorites in what has traditionally been an egalitarian space.” Is it okay to spend public money catering to businesses?

It’s so easy for the gut reaction to be “no.” But of course, we’re not talking about Altria and Nabisco. We’re talking about home healthcare workers and tutors and freelance designers and self-published writers – the all-important and over-cited “Main Street.” We spend tax dollars to run our libraries. If we can encourage local businesses, then we can serve as an economic engine as well as a cultural and learning center. We won’t cost  money – we’ll MAKE money for our community.

Should that be a concern? I don’t know if it SHOULD be, but it is. For libraries that are struggling to be funded, it has to be. Librarians understand this, but it’s hard to internalize. If you ask, “Why are libraries necessary?” you will get answers like “Because people can’t afford to buy all the books they want and need” or “Because not everyone has a computer at home, so they need to use ours.” At our library, the two largest user groups are children and seniors – groups without a lot of economic power. Lots of librarians got into the business to serve the under-served, and they are simply unwilling to make a choice based on economics. Some things, in fact, are more important than money.

This is a long-running debate that will continue in libraries for years. And it’s not academic, or confined to library staff meetings. Library users care about this issue. But exactly what is it they are worried about? Some people are truly worried about the use of their tax dollars, but others - and I think this is the larger group - are more worried about changes to the libraries that they love. Even in the New York Public Library debate, people's concerns seemed philosophical as much as practical. These were stacks that the public couldn't access, so why did they care where the books were stored? Because they love the idea of a building filled with books. 

This is a concern about atmosphere and emotion, not about budget. Which is great, because that's something we can address. We just need to listen to the real feelings behind the objections we hear. This is really just another part of listening and responding to our community. It's completely possible to set up our libraries to cater to businesses without making them feel like corporate offices. We can coexist!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What I'm reading: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

A detailed, engaging, weirdly-romantic, slow-moving historical fantasy. My library copy is labeled "Historical Fiction," but to me it's pure fantasy - character-centric, magic-centric, with enough historical detail to paint a picture of the times, without that detail overwhelming the story. At its core, this book is about "nature:" human nature, and the non-human nature of non-human beings. The non-human characters in this book ring somewhat truer than usual; their thinking is more authentically different.

I was drawn into the story slowly but completely. It was easy, at first, to read the book in short stretches - until I got near the end and had to devour the rest in one sitting. But the slow-burn style was a wonderful way to read it, to sink slowly into the story and to absorb the world. I was reminded of The Historian and Jonathan Strange - high praise indeed from me.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Hook: Planning a Sellable Event

One thing we’ve discovered when planning large events is that big events need a hook. The “hook” is the thing that reels people in – a super-cool activity, or a chance to win a great prize, or a pre-existing notion that the event is fun. Let me offer some examples:

At the library’s Comic-Con, our “hook” is the pre-conceived notion that a Comic-Con is cool. Our target audience already knows what a Comic-Con is, and they already think a Comic-Con is cool, so we don’t have to sell the idea. We just have to let people know when it is, and make sure that the publicity supports their idea of it.

At our library’s annual Teen Read Week Masquerade, we have to go one step further. Nobody knows what a “Teen Read Week Masquerade” is or what it looks like, so at the same time that we’re spreading information about our event, we also have to sell the IDEA of our event. Our hook is the prizes. We heavily advertise our grand prize, which is usually a tablet, and the winner must be present to win. In addition, we give away books to EVERY attendee. Between the chance to win a terrific prize, and the guarantee of free books, we are able to incentivize attendance in a significant way. Of course, the prizes don’t provide the fun – our activities provide the fun. The prizes just offer a hook.

A hook provides an entry point, something to make people take notice and say to themselves, “Hey, maybe I should go to that!” You’ve got to have it, and you’ve got to plan it. The best promotions in the world won’t get good attendance unless your event has an easily-stated, easily-understood selling point. “Lots of cool activities” won’t do it – not even if you actually do have lots of really cool activities. Our Dia de los Ninos event struggles every year, and it’s because no one knows what it is, and nothing that happens there is quite enough to change people’s indifference into interest.

The larger lesson here is a familiar one: marketing begins in the planning stages, not in the promotion stages. You’ve got to know what you’re selling, and you have to be sure that people want it.