Marketing future libraries

Now, more than ever, libraries are no longer the center of the information universe. While us librarians never truly had a monopoly on information, our "market share", especially with the advent of globally networked computers, has dwindled considerably. Put another way, there are many more people and institutions providing information services today than even five years ago. Consequently, it behooves us to think more aggressively about marketing our information and knowledge products and services if we expect to be around in the future.

Marketing is

Marketing is an exchange process whereby two or more individuals (or groups) exchange goods or services for items of value. In Library Land, one of these individuals is almost always a librarian. The other individuals include tax payers, students, faculty, or in the case of special libraries, fellow employees. The items of value are information and information services exchanged for a perception of worth -- a rating valuing the services rendered. This perception of worth, a highly intangible and difficult thing to measure, is something the user of library services "pays", not to libraries and librarians, but to administrators and decision-makers. Ultimately, these payments manifest themselves as tax dollars or other administrative support. As the perception of worth decreases so do tax dollars and support.

Marketing is not another word for publicity or promotion; publicity and promotion are just one aspect of the marketing process. Marketing also includes product creation, pricing, and distribution.

Marketing has been traditionally associated with physical "goods". As our economy moves more and more into the distribution of "information" goods, we can easily predict an increase in the marketing of these services simply because there is increased competition. Because of this increased competition, expectations surrounding information services have increased. Couple this with our society's undieing thirst for technology, demands for convienence, and the self-service mentality, libraries have to do more to improve their services and convience people why should use libraries and not necessarily other information providers.

The key to this process is customer satisfaction, and one of the keys to customer satisfaction is employee satisfaction. Studies have shown that services organizations having high levels of employee satisfaction also have high levels of customer satisfaction, and low employee turnover is closely linked to customer satisfaction. Similarly, employees who feel accountable are more likely to provide better customer service. [1]

Market research through technology

With these things in mind, there are a number of ways libraries of the future can employ computer technology to improve marketing efforts, but first a library must come to better understand its customers through market research. The use of transaction log analysis, circulation records, user surveys, focus group interviews, and information interviews, will provide insights on what your customers really expect.

For example, similar to the process of data warehousing, libraries will be better able to extract reports from the log files of their computerized services. All of a library's computerized services from OPACs to Web servers to bibliographic databases produce reams of log files. Libraries of the future should be able to analyze the desperate log file formats, normalize the data, and report on the real information customers are seeking. Libraries of the future will provide direct and sophisticated feedback mechanism for customers. These mechanisms could include simple electronic user surveys, video conferencing, or Web-based suggestion boxes.

The entire purpose of market research is to learn about your customer base and their needs. Once learned you will probably discover their needs are broadly defined. This necessitates the segmentation of your clientele in order to excite and motivate them to use your services:

In so doing, we "segment" our library clientele into user groups (i.e., senior citizens, kids, business users), create services that meet their specific needs, and then try to motivate each group in a different fashion. Our library can still retain a core image (perhaps user friendly or high technology) that is promoted to all groups. But segmenting the mass into narrow target groups allows us to position our library and services so that they have more relevance to the lives of these individual groups. [2]

Developing product lines

After initial market research is completed, the next step is to develop a product line, a list of information and knowledge products and services. Here it will be imperative for librarians of the future to balance professional training with the results of their market research. What we were taught in library school and what we read in our scholarly literature describing what we ought to do and what is right is not necessarily up-to-date nor jives with the desires of our clientele. Remember, you are striving for customer satisfaction, not necessarily an academic ideal.

Paraphrasing what a co-worker of mine, Keith Morgan, says, "Our clientele want services more, better, and faster." This is what we discovered here in the NCSU Libraries after conducting a set of focus group interviews in the Fall of 1997. These interviews are resulting in the creation of a service we are calling MyLibrary -- a user-centered, customizable, Web-based portal service to the library's set of information services. Other services under consideration include:

up to the minute status reports of interlibrary loan transactions and document delivery services current awareness services delivered via email based on user profiles applied against new acquisitions to the Libraries collection immediate and direct communication channels from patrons to librarians via digital mediums like video conferencing

The reason we are trying to develop these service is because these are the sorts of things asked of us by our customers. These are our product lines for the future.

Publicity and distribution

You will have to make your clientele aware of the services you provide. This is difficult task since you will be competing with some of people's most valuable resource, time. One angle you might consider is to ask yourself, "What products and services are you providing that others are unable or can't provide." Alternatively, "What benefits do our user's gain by using your services?" What we as librarians take for granted, like authoritative data, deep collections, or reference librarians are things we may take for granted but are not so self-evident to our clientele.

Traditional means of making people aware of your services include newsletters or the distribution of bookmarks. These methods are by no means obsolete, but libraries of the future may take advantage of mailing lists programs, demonstrations in people's offices through the use of portable computers like circuit-rider librarians, demonstrations for passer-bys in well populated places, or kiosks throughout your institution.

As competition becomes greater and greater, it may become necessary for the library of the future to back up its products and services with warranties and guarantees. Examples could include the following:

Even if you have to fulfill only a few of these guarantees, the perception and assurance these guarantees provide instill enormous amounts of confidence in your general population. Often times, people paying for services go away from transactions feeling good about the what they got if the process of using the service was enjoyable. It seems the end is not so important as the means used to acquire the end.

Marketing and librarianship

All to often the concept of marketing leaves a bad taste in the mouths of librarians. We associate it too much with for-profit institutions, the process of making money for making money's sake, and the efforts to convince people to use unneeded services or products. This is the "hard sell" concept of marketing. The more "soft sell" approach puts the emphasis on customer satisfaction and meeting the expectations of customers. We are often taught from reference courses that the patron does not always know what they want nor can articulate their information need. These teachings are direct contractions to idea of "the customer is always right." As librarians of the future we must learn to balance our professional ethics and teachings with the cultural environment in which we work -- an environment of consumerism -- or the environment in which we work will work against us.


  1. Linda M. Gorchels, "Trends in marketing Services". Library Trends 43(3): Winter 1995, pg. 498 and Martha E. Catt, "The Olympic Training Field for Planning Quality Library Services". Library Trends 43(3): Winter 1995, pg. 372.
  2. Rae Helton and Stuart Esrock, "Positioning and Marketing Academic Libraries to Students". Marketing Library Services 12(3): April/May 1998.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This is a pre-edited version of Eric Lease Morgan "Marketing library services" Computers in Libraries 18(8):50-51, September 1998.
Date created: 1998-11-27
Date updated: 2004-11-06
Subject(s): marketing;