"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Nov 9, 2011

Public libraries = education? Yeah, that works for me (more or less)

On November 4, I attended the New Hampshire Library Association fall conference. I'm not sure I appreciated before how useful it can be to take a little while away from the day-to-day reality of my job to meet with colleagues from many different libraries and talk about our successes, challenges, and ideas. It's so easy to get focused on the nitty gritty of what needs to happen each day that I sometimes find it hard to step back and think about the bigger picture (part of why posting on this blog has been so scarce, I think). So I left the conference feeling refreshed and excited to get back to work, with some new "big picture" things to think about!

In this post, I'll talk about the first session of the day, which was probably the most thought-provoking and potentially controversial. This session consisted of a webinar led by Valerie Gross, the president and CEO of the Howard County Library System in Maryland, called "Transforming Our Image." If Ms. Gross' name sounds familiar, it may be because you read her article, "Transforming Our Image Through Words That Work", in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Public Libraries. I recall reading the article at the time and being intrigued but not totally on board. After the webinar, I felt that her ideas make much more sense to me, although I still have some quibbles.

The presentation had three main sections: first, Ms. Gross made the argument for re-branding libraries as educational institutions like schools; second, she explored how we can accomplish this re-branding through simple changes in the terms we use to describe our libraries and what we do; and third, she spoke about the logistics of implementing this kind of change.

Ms. Gross began by stating that by choosing our language carefully, we can control our image and the values that other people assign to us. She noted that in this economy, funding is proportional to the value placed on an organization, and quoted a number of unfortunate statements by various government officials that characterized libraries as discretionary or nonessential services.* Ms. Gross noted that librarians have to constantly make the argument for libraries' importance, whereas schools, for instance, don't. She argued that we have to use words that people understand and that convey our value in an incontrovertible fashion - and that strongly aligning ourselves with education can put us in the same "safer" category as the schools when it comes to budget time. In other words, if we say that we are education or education is our role rather than that we play an educational role or we support education, we will position ourselves to be well-funded instead of having to fear more budget cuts.

How should we accomplish this re-positioning or re-branding? Ms. Gross argued that it's actually relatively straightforward. Simply changing how we describe what we do, moving from "library lingo" to terms that are more meaningful to the average person and more clearly connected to education, will encourage people to start thinking of libraries as, and therefore treating libraries as, educational institutions more like schools than discretionary social services. A large segment of the webinar was devoted to discussing ways to rephrase what we do. Often, this involved taking a term that can have a broad meaning or a variety of meanings, and/or that often connotes something quite different to librarians than it does to the average person, and finding a more specific and immediately understandable way to say it.

Some of my favorite suggestions for rewording: changing programs to events and classes (I always feel like I'm going to get misunderstood when I say I'm in charge of "adult programming" at my library -- people tend to think "computers"!), changing reference to research and reference interview to research needs assessment, changing information to education, changing database to specialized online research tool (how many people could tell you what a database is, in the context of a library?), changing "free" to no charge or no admission after all, as we have to emphasize, library programs aren't free -- the funding just doesn't come directly from attendees!), and circulation clerk to customer service specialist.

(There were a few suggestions I didn't agree with. A reference librarian is just not an "instructor", for instance, as far as I'm concerned. I don't teach people on the reference desk. Nor do I "instruct" when I organize and lead programs -- oops, "classes and events" -- I am usually in the background, doing logistics but not presentation. "Research specialist" is perhaps better but I still don't think it quite covers what we do. I'd rather stick with "librarian" and re-educate the public about what that job actually entails!)

Ms. Gross closed by talking about how to implement her ideas in our own libraries. This section of the talk was largely aimed at management and was fairly common-sense -- make sure to involve staff and external constituencies, change the way you present yourself to funding authorities by changing your statistics and budget headings, etc.

My thoughts? Largely, I think Ms. Gross' arguments make sense. Point by point:

Libraries are absolutely in a place where we need to find a way to legitimize ourselves in the eyes of many funding authorities. Is rebranding ourselves as "education" the right way to go? I was skeptical coming in, but after the webinar, I'm on board with the idea of rebranding libraries as educational institutions. I think that the connection of libraries to education is pretty obvious, and I thought that the idea made some sense even before the webinar. Initially, I had some reservations because I thought that some of what we do doesn't, in fact, qualify as education. Where is there room for leisure reading, recreation, crafts, and other "less serious" things that libraries promote under the umbrella of education? This is probably a common concern, and Ms. Gross addressed it directly by noting that education includes "instructive and enlightening experiences", which would encompass the various "community-center" roles that libraries are beginning to fill as well as recreational reading and activities. I think one does have to make the explicit argument for this being relevant in order for people to see it, but it does make sense. People can educate themselves in ways that are totally irrelevant to what we might think of as formal schooling, just because it enriches their lives. I think a lot of things that libraries do that aren't easy to directly connect to education could fit in under this idea that life-enriching activities and learning are also legitimately education.

Will simply changing what we say make a difference? I think so. Word choice definitely influences what people think -- that's practically the whole idea behind branding and marketing. I also agree that some elements of "library lingo" are not meaningful to our patrons. Words that we use all the time and that are transparent to us signify very little to many people walking through our doors. And even if experienced library users do know what "circulation" (e.g.) means, shouldn't we aim to be comprehensible to anyone who comes through our doors or encounters us online, without having to educate them about basic vocabulary before they can interact with us effectively?

What about the specific word choices? I listed my favorite suggestions for rewording "library lingo" above, as well as my major objection (i.e. replacing "librarian" with "instructor"). Overall, I think most of the suggestions in the webinar were good. However, I also think this is an area where individual libraries may need to tailor their choices to their patrons. And I am concerned that doing too much rewording could create an environment that is buzzword-y and just as jargony as some libraries currently are. For instance, while "programs and services" is kind of vague, I think that the suggested alternative of "curriculum" is going to be just as confusing to many people who think of a curriculum as a planned series of lessons that make up a coherent course of study -- which is not really what you find at a library. (How about just "what we do" or "what we offer"? I think that would actually work in most cases where we're saying "programs and services".) If we aren't careful in choosing alternative ways of saying things, we could come off as pretentious or just trying to hop on the latest bandwagon to sound "cool", like that executive who always talks about "synergy" but clearly has no clue as to what the word really means.


* As an interesting and semi-related aside, my library does not close for (e.g.) severe weather unless the entire town government closes. (Employees are encouraged to only come in if they can do so safely, however; and we have had days with only a few staff actually in the building.) My director's reasoning for this is that essential services do not close for weather, and if we want to be perceived as an essential service at budget time we need to behave like one in other circumstances.