Lately, I’ve been in a marketing frame of mind. The information literacy committee I’m on is busy coming up with ways to spread the information literacy word and develop new and exciting PR techniques. My regional library is just starting production of a newsletter, geared towards faculty (informational, but a marketing tool nonetheless). I’m brainstorming ideas for my tri-sided bulletin board in the library lobby. I’m even getting hit with marketing advice at conferences: a few weeks ago I attended my regional ACRL chapter conference and who should the keynote speaker be? None other than the chair of the marketing department at a local college.
It seems strange, because I’ve never really given marketing much conscious thought. It just seems to sort of happen. Of course I know that libraries, like any other “business,” have to “sell” their their services. But wait a minute: are libraries really businesses? Should they really have to convince people to use their services? These questions are loosely tied to the old Patron vs. Customer debate. At the ACRL chapter conference I attended, there were some rather strong opinions about college students being viewed as customers of the library, since they do pay enormous amounts for tuition. And I’ve seen this debate elsewhere, too (take a look at the Information Literacy Instruction listserv archives for a heated discussion on whether or not instruction librarians should treat their students as paying customers) . Some librarians think it’s outrageous to view students this way, while others think it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t really see the “library as a business” model as all that evil; in some ways, it even makes sense. Any organization that wants the population they serve to be aware of and use their products must find a way to let the population know about said products. This is the same regardless of whether or not your population pays for the services you provide. And there we have it: the essentials of marketing.
Now that I find myself actively involved in library marketing, I have to think about these issues. To be honest, I really don’t think it matters at all whether or not we call the people who come into our libraries “patrons” or “customers,” or even “users.” Even if I worked at some sort of fantasy free university (can you imagine??), I wouldn’t treat the students any differently (other than being slightly envious, as I contemplate my student loans waiting to be paid off). I’d still have to find some way to let them know about information literacy, or our workshops, or databases that will be of use to them. That’s why we’re here, right?
This brings me to my last thought. How do I get the point across that these are things they need to know? What kind of marketing works for this generation of students? My info lit committee has come up with numerous ideas, including YouTube videos (in the style of the DePauw Libraries Visual Resource Center) and having a weekly column in the student paper. We’re even considering something in the style of Lav Notes: a marketing tool that consists of flyers and advertisements posted to the doors of restroom stalls. I think we’re on the right track, but students can be a fickle bunch. While we struggle to find ways of telling them why information literacy, and whatever else, is relevant and important, some new style of media may be grabbing their attention. In the end, I just hope that they’ll be curious enough, desperate enough, or maybe just conscious of their financial investment, to be swayed by our marketing techniques and come by the library to see what we can offer them. But, hey, if all else fails, I guess they’ll always need to use the bathroom, right?