Tips on marketing the 21st-century library

How to show the world why libraries are still relevant – and professional development at ALA

Debra Lucas-Alfieri, MLS“So, what are you doing for a living now?” my high school friend asked at my 25th high school reunion.

“I’m a college librarian,” I proudly replied.

“Well, I guess they won’t need you much longer, will they?” he joked. Seriously.

That’s when it hit me: the profession is at a crossroad. As such, so is the library. Well, if the profession does not respond to these unfortunate but common remarks, who will?

I’m what you might call an “unlikely librarian.” I was the high school student that is remembered for being voted the “Wildest Senior.” I was a dreamer who could be found feeding ducks at the park on sunny days when I belonged in my vocational shop class. I wasn’t even sure how to find my high school library! Defiantly, I’d question authority and challenge the teachers to challenge me.

Years have passed, and here I am, defending the existence of what should be the core of academic institutions: the academic library. I am here to defend its existence, rally troops, and provide directions along the way. Knowledge is power, and it is time we take what we know and lead our profession from the brink of disillusionment to fulfillment.

Library Learning Trends – Professional development for librarians

This is the second story in the series of professional development articles for Elsevier’s Library Learning Trends. The program taps into the expertise of Elsevier’s Chandos Publishing authors, offering librarians and information resource managers the latest views on a variety of topics and providing career development opportunities online and in-person.

Professional Development at ALA San Francisco 

Three Chandos authors will give presentations on challenges faced by today’s library information professionals at the ALA Annual Conference, Elsevier booth #504:

  • Saturday, June 27, 11 am: Informed Systems, by Mary M. Somerville
  • Saturday, June 27, 3 pm: Copyright Librarianship, by Linda Frederiksen
  • Sunday, June 28, 11 am: Information Throughout the Ages, by Debra Lucas-Alfieri

Librarians can also enter Book Giveaways each day to win books by these and other Chandos authors.

A luncheon on Saturday — Data-driven Decision Making in the Library and Beyond — will feature Anne Mitchell, Head of Acquisitions for the University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries; and Mary M. Somerville, University Librarian and Professor at the University of Colorado Denver and Library Director at the Auraria Library. Register here .

I love the profession and the institution. It’s the academics that I hold most closely to my heart. It is the college librarian who trains future healthcare workers, communications specialists, engineers, politicians, activists and educators to pave the way forward with the love for the information that leads to knowledge. The future of generations. We can install a love for knowledge, a love for evaluating knowledge, and a love for sharing that knowledge with every person with whom we interact: our constituents. I know I’m speaking in existential terms, but to save our profession, we need to expand our current modus operandi.

Librarians are married to libraries. There can be no divorce. But there can be a certain death without a proactively planned approach to saving the institution of knowledge management and display, otherwise known of as the “library.” The marriage of library to librarian should produce societal knowledge — a “brain child” so to speak.

Libraries are still a place, whether it is physical or virtual. Both aspects of this hybrid home are managed by people, real live actual people with whom you will have a personal experience. You can ask the Internet a question, but how will it respond? Will it anticipate the answer with bated breath, greet data with skepticism, shush loud passers-by, or display any other famous librarian expression? So, how does the Internet reply? Information overload.

However, data overload, the staple of the Internet, is not our enemy. It is a librarian’s friend. Where data floods the senses, we provide the lifeboats. The true calling of an academic librarian is to save a scholar or a researcher the time and frustration of wafting through oceans of answers, some correct and some not.

“Library as place, library as space”

My recently published book, Marketing the 21st Century Library: The Time is Now, intends to help prepare future and practicing librarians to meet the challenges to our chosen profession. As we grow professionally, we gain momentum in our institution. Our libraries, however, must remain that physical/virtual hybrid: library as place, library as space. What we offer within the institution must reflect what the constituents want, not what we think or believe they want, regardless of our conviction. Run with data, not beliefs and preconceived notions.

An excerpt from Chapter 4 will give librarians some tips to better understand how to use marketing plans to enhance and ultimately fulfill the mission and vision of the academic library.

Creating the marketing plan

Marketing the 21st Century Library: The time is nowWe refer to “market planning” as the process of planning to meet the needs of our market share, i.e., our constituents. According to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), marketing is the process of planning and executing such aspects of library services as the conception, pricing and promotion of ideas, goods and services to create interactions that will satisfy organizational objectives (Association of Research Libraries, 1999). To accomplish this goal, the first task is to understand and then to define the organization's objectives. The ARL says marketing collects and uses demographic, geographic, behavioral, and psychological information for this purpose. Marketing, they say, “inspires public awareness and educates.” (Association of Research Libraries, 1999, p. 1)

But, why do it? According to Helinsky (2008) , “if we, the representatives of libraries, do not act now to demonstrate how important we are, and how significant a resource we constitute for the whole of society, we will just not be noticed in the ongoing information flow” (p. 7). To remain “significant” and “noticed” is a continuous effort to encourage inspiration and develop life-long learning skills in the patrons. Library and librarian existence depends on creating and securing the loyalty of satisfied customers.

Libraries already often conduct market planning activities to secure organizational commitment for funding current library services and resources, to develop information projects, and to create marketing plans. Any organizational commitment is easier to obtain if the academic library market is educated.

Librarians should consider the bigger picture. Marketing is not only promotions. “What is below the surface … includes important strategic components such as evaluating the needs of the customer; planning the various elements of the mix in order to answer those needs; and periodically evaluating the results” (Gupta & Savard, 2010, p. 3553).

The need to market plan is two-fold: we need to increase awareness of services and resources, and we also need to better understand user needs and expectations. As mentioned, each group has their own set of unique needs and preferences. We want to and need to retain current patrons, while attracting future patrons. Academic library patrons are no longer our captive audiences, because they can access information via the often faster, easier, and more convenient Internet. Users might not realize it's inaccurate or outdated, or they might not care. If librarians can help the patrons understand how to limit their searches and evaluate the resources, then we are growing our patron base. Librarians have to market plan so that the general constituency better understands what the library offers, and thus develop a growing appreciation for the value of librarians.

Market plans for the academic library

According to Duke and Tucker (2007), a marketing plan is a living document that will “change and develop every year as an institution learns from past marketing activities, the needs and desires of users change, and services, programs and resources of the library evolve to meet those changing needs” (p. 54). Marketing plans vary in size and content, depending on the needs and preferences of the library preparing the plan. Each plan will, however, have several sections that provide a roadmap, from the beginning of the process, to the plans for continually assessing progress and subsequent results. An effective plan outlines each step, from where a library is to where it wants to be, with detailed directions provided along the way.

A marketing plan is more than just flyers, posters, website announcements and bookmarks. Marketing is only a part of a strategic plan and it should incorporate the library mission and vision statements.

Marketing plans answer many questions, such as:

  • Who are the constituents we need to reach?
  • What do we do best, and what opportunities do we have to improve?
  • What library staff will be responsible for creating and implementing the marketing plan?
  • What resources and services will be created, deleted, or showcased?
  • What are the standard promotional tools to be incorporated into the marketing plan?
  • What assessment methods will be used and how often?

A glimpse into the future: a mission and vision statement

Mission and vision statements tell the readers where the organization is and where it plans to go: the present versus the future. Mission and vision are our guiding principles. A mission statement performs a general public relations function. It states the reason the library exists, and details its key activities and functions. It educates patrons on library resources, services, and overall value to the community. Most importantly, mission statements create support from our audience of patrons, staff, volunteers, donors, trustees, and administrative personnel. A mission statement can set the organizational tone for library staff as well. The library staff members are, after all, customers of one another. The mission will enable the staff to focus on the reason they are there.

Although writing a mission statement can be demanding and complex, employing the following can be helpful:

  • Use clear and narrow terms to concisely state the library purpose.
  • List some of the library's most significant services and resources.
  • Circulate the mission statement to all library staff. Also invite input. Host a staff or constituent meeting to engage participation and ideas.
  • Be creative! Brainstorm!
  • Get final approval from senior administrators.
  • Circulate the final mission statement to all staff in the library and/or its system libraries.

According to Duke and Tucker (2007), a marketing plan is a living document that will “change and develop every year as an institution learns from past marketing activities, the needs and desires of users change, and services, programs and resources of the library evolve to meet those changing needs” (p. 54).

Through this valuable process, the library gains an opportunity to in fact harness 21st-century concerns to further its mission, rather than reacting in an unplanned way to the threats these technological and modern day changes seem to present. The effective market plan allows the library to thoughtfully evolve as a relevant player in the digital information age.

Read the full chapter 

This is Chapter 4 of Debra Lucas-Alfieri's book Marketing the 21st Century Library. You can also access it on ScienceDirect.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Debra Lucas-Alfieri has been the Head of Reference and Interlibrary Loan at D’Youville College in Buffalo, NY, since 2002. She is author of the recently released Elsevier book Marketing the 21st Century Library: The Time is Now. She has also written book chapters for Middle Management in Academic and Public Libraries and the 21st Century Handbook of Anthropology. Debra has dozens of encyclopedia articles in the Encyclopedia of Power, the Encyclopedia of Time, the Encyclopedia of Anthropology, and the 20th Century Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. She has also published academic journal articles in Collaborative Librarianship, the Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Electronic Reserve, and the Journal of Library and Information Science, and served as an editor for the Journal of Library Innovation. She teaches web-based workshops for Library Juice Academy in marketing public and academic libraries, library management and interlibrary loan. She is often a guest lecturer, conference presenter, and keynote speaker in the field of librarianship and research, and is recognized in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who of American Women. Debra’s website,, details her professional contributions.

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