Market Less. Partner More.

I’ve spent the last two days at a summer workshop for the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL). TEL is a collection of article databases, eBooks, and other online resources available free of charge to all Tennessee state residents. TEL helps people find jobs, research their family history, learn languages, practice for college prep and career certification tests and do all the kinds of research needed by students from kindergarten through college.

If you live in Tennessee, you should take a look. If you don’t live in Tennessee, I hope you live somewhere with a state government willing to put money into funding the intellectual infrastructure of your community.

TEL is terrific, but this post isn’t about TEL. It is about the ways we talk about our libraries. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Go TEL it on the Mountain”, a bit silly, yes, but focused right at the heart of something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Marketing.

My library is terrific. We have great stuff. We have comfortable spaces. We are friendly. We like to help people learn things, and we are pretty good at it. How do I make people understand how terrific their library is and make them want to use it more?

I’ve been stressing on this question for a while. Wondering if I had the right bookmarks, posters and other promotional knick-knacks. I’ve been thinking about our website design to see if it communicates fully what we are about. I do surveys. I follow up on requests and invite users to serve on a library experience panel. These are all good things, but, it turns out, aren’t the only things.

Like most librarians, I’m good at doing library. I’m bad at marketing.

The workshop keynote and other presenters crystalized a few key things I’ve been thinking about but kept trying to wrap in too many words. (Shout out to Amy Pajewski, Heather Lambert and Erin Loree.)

So here it is. The advice I needed someone else to say aloud so I could get it all to fit inside my head.

Librarians love library stuff, but nobody else cares. Stop talking about your stuff. Nobody cares about your stuff. They only care about what they can do with your stuff and how your stuff makes them feel. Talk about that instead.

Stop shooting random library stuff into the world through untargeted, unspecial emails, tweets, and signs. Nobody reads them. You are just making people feel tired. You are making yourself feel tired.

Think about your community. Think about your neighborhood. Think about your teams. What do they need? What are they about? What are they trying to accomplish? How can you help them do that? Talk about how you can help them. Find ways to help. Offer partnerships.

This is going to make you uncomfortable. It is going to get awkward. You are going to need to go where your people are.You are going to need to get outside the library. You are going to need to listen. You are going to find out what your people really want and need. Some of it will be easy to provide. Some of it will be inconvenient. Library service should meet people at the point of their need, not the point of our convenience.

And let’s be real, okay? I get all inspired talking to the all the super-smart people at the workshop. I get the big ideas. I bring them back to work with me and they collapse upon first contact with reality. Being successful requires a plan. Success requires organization and focus. You can’t tell everyone everything. You’ve got to be selective and consistent. You’ve got to spend some money and time. On day two, we learned some practical tips for planning a strategy and organizing the steps into specific, achievable goals. We learned to find an audience and tune our voice to that audience. It takes time. It takes practice. I am ready to get started.

Librarians are missionaries. We keep trying to save the world. We should start by saving our own neighborhoods first.