Bullet Point: “The Opportunities of Obligation”

A few weeks back I did a talk for IMLS to state libraries. The title of the presentation was “Obligations and Opportunities.” An introductory point of the presentation was that in these days of economic hardship libraries are more needed, and more used than ever before. There is an obligation on the part of libraries to serve the increased demand (and for states and localities to support the library). This idea is well distilled in a recent NBC broadcast:

However, the real focus of the presentation wasn’t on the fact that more people need libraries than ever before, it is how to use this increased demand as an opportunity to build strong bonds to our communities for when the good times return. In essence, how can we go from “any port in a storm” to “destination of choice.”

Right now, we have what folks want. Listen to that video clip again: books, DVD’s, WiFi. All of those things can come from other places as well. What we need to make folks aware of is that they are coming to a place (or logging into a place) not as a cheaper alternative to other offerings, but that those things are in place to improve the community as a whole.

If we only define our success by increased usage, we should do things differently. For one, we should offer, as an Ann Arbor District Library user wrote in a comment, more porn and pie. We would also need a better system to “monetize” use. That is, how to turn usage into money. So more books circulated, more revenues. This is the advertising model in search engines. Google offers more services to get more users, because more users means more eyes seeing advertising, which means more money. Libraries are not in this situation as we see everyday in our budgets. While I am all for figuring out more models to turn greater use into greater resources (that will vary by library type and settings), it all begins with making a better argument about our value.

Having real, documented, and valid measures of success means going beyond the things people use (circulate, etc.) from our libraries. We must be able to document what happened as a direct result of library use. What was the result of that small business workshop? Did someone start a business? What was the result of the job hunting service? How many people got jobs and what were they. To find this data, we must be 1. proactive in connecting people to tell their stories, and 2. we must build a strong relationship with our members/patrons/users so that they will want to come back and share their success.

If we continue to define our business as things and access, and not knowledge and learning we will remain the place people go to when better options aren’t available. If we become the community’s innovation and learning space that touches all aspects of our communities/academies/businesses/etc., then we become the treasure that must be maintained.

So which will it be? Shall we forge a relationship that ultimately pushes the community forward and helps avoid the next economic crisis, or are we in the “more porn and pie” business?