Academic Librarians Are Not Salespeople – But They Should Be

Have you seen the latest set of “Provocative Statements“ from the 2009 Taiga Forum yet? The statements were released a few weeks ago, and I think there’s been little discussion about them thus far. By contrast the first set of provocative statements generated in 2006 created a great deal of discussion. So far I think only this blogger has discussed the statements, and the lack of attention strikes me as odd. Perhaps this year’s crop of statements are just a bit less controversial than the ones produced in 2006. For example, one of the most provocative of the 2006 batch stated:

there will be no more librarians as we know them. Staff may have MBAs or be computer/data scientists. All library staff will need the technical skills equivalent to today’s systems and web services personnel. The ever increasing technology curve will precipitate a high turnover among traditional librarians; the average age of library staff will have dropped to 28.

Compare that to one of the 2009 provocative statements:

libraries will provide no in-person services. All services (reference, circulation, instruction, etc.) will be unmediated and supported by technology.

Keep in mind that all those statements are prefaced with “within the next 5 years”. Even looking back to 2006 it’s highly unlikely any academic librarians believed we’d all be gone by 2011. But the value of Taiga’s provocative statements isn’t their predictive value. Rather it’s in their ability to get librarians thinking about and discussing how it is possible we can even be making such suggestions, and what it is we need to do to shape our own preferred future rather than submit to the outcomes the statements suggest. I can recall several regional conferences that based some sort of activity or discussion on the 2006 statements. I doubt that will repeat for the 2009 statements. I’m not sure why. The 2009 statements are worthy of discussion, but perhaps in our current state of financial crisis academic librarians are simply fixated with budgetary issues.

So what does any of this have to do with this post’s title? Well I participated in this year’s forum (now that I”m an AUL I’m a member of the tribe), and with colleagues I helped to shape the statements. Somewhere during the discussions one of the participants said something along the lines of “Academic librarians are not good salespeople.” I can’t quite recall how that came up but it struck a chord with me because I’ve thought the same exact thing for quite a few years. Frontline librarians need to do more than just respond when the end users are looking for information. They’ve got to be out in the field spreading the word, and making the sales pitch for why the library’s resources are vitally important to the teaching and learning process.

Here’s an example. I was at a meeting last week of our Distance Learning Advisory Group. Our leader asked me to say a few words about how the Library supports online learners – and where we need to improve. As I finished one faculty member blurted out “I had no idea I could do at that with your resources.” How many times does that happen? Too many. We’re also doing LibQual+ and there are far too many comments with suggestions for what the library should be offering – that we’ve already been offering for two or more years. They don’t know it. There’s a disconnect. On the other hand we’ve got 35,000 students, over 1,000 faculty and 12 reference librarians. That’s a whole lot of sales calls for everyone. So we’ve got to figure out how to be a truly effective salesforce. Maybe this new book will give me some ideas for better marketing and promotion methods.

To tell the truth the best library salesperson I ever worked with wasn’t a librarian. At a prior job the instructional technologist who helped our faculty learn the courseware system and other learning tools was far more effective than any librarian at getting our faculty to integrate the library into their courses. He’d be telling them about all the technology tools, and then he’d slip in “Well you are going to integrate the library databases in here, right?” And from there he just did a good sales pitch and then the librarians took over and closed the deal (it’s as simple as ABC – Always Be Closing!). Maybe the next set of Taiga provocative statements will include “Within the next 5 years all librarians will work strictly on commission earning revenue everytime one of their clients searches a database, acquires an article through interlibrary loan, or requests an instruction session.” With the way our economy is going, who knows.

I hope you’ll take a look at the 2009 statements and share your thoughts. As an added bonus you can see some of the slides used for the 5-minute lightning round presentations made at the forum (each statement was presented by a forum attendee). I presented for statement #5 and the slides are there.

18 thoughts on “Academic Librarians Are Not Salespeople – But They Should Be”

  1. There was a brief discussion a few weeks ago in the LSW room on friendfeed (a place that has come to replace blog conversations for many).

    I’ve also been surprised at the lack of conversation about them. Perhaps it’s because no one really knows what their purpose is? Are they supposed to irritate us, enrage us, or move is in their direction? I don’t know how to take them, so it’s hard to do more than shrug and think bad thoughts about them in general

    Of course, if there was a big launch & conversation starter somewhere, I missed it

  2. I had Rudy’s reaction – what is this about? Because they seemed to be totally a recipe for How to Spoil Libraries and Insult Everyone Who Loves Them.

    I’m tempted to write a book with a Stanely Fish-esque title: Librarians Are Not Salespeople And It’s a Good Thing Too.

    Really – how many of us need more pushy salespeople in our lives? Imagine going into a library and having a bunch of piranhas descend … And what will be gained if we push people to use library resources just to push them? Why not just become textbook reps if you want to sell stuff? It seems to me one of the things libraries are all about is making your own choices – not being prodded to consume because consuming is its own reward.

    I hope you’re feeling okay, Steven, because this seems completely barmy to me … as do the statements. If I showed those to students and faculty they wouldn’t know whether to be amused or horrified, but would probably conclude it was some kind of hoax.

  3. I’m feeling just fine Barbara – at least well enough to respectfully disagree with you on this one. When I read a report like the one from Project Information Literacy that confirms that students don’t know what we offer and are overwhelmed by the choices they do find – well just how exactly are they supposed to make their own choices? They are making a choice – they go to everywhere but the library for their information and that’s the one choice we can’t afford. When I say “we need to be more like salespeople” that doesn’t mean we should all become obnoxious used car salespeople. It’s not about “pushy” but it is about “persuasion”. My point is that we have to be assertive and get out of the library and let faculty know what we have and how to best use it. It’s not about pushing people to use our resources just because we have it. It’s about helping them to make the right choices and putting the resources where they can be readily found and used. If we just wait around for the customers – there – I said it – to figure it out and make the right choice that’s a surefire recipe for making ourselves obsolete.

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the growing value of marketing skills in our information-rich world. As the amount of available content (defined loosely to include text as well as audiovisual/multi- media) increases, is it harder for “the good stuff” to rise to the top organically? Not only on the Internet (and despite attempts to optimize content for search engines), but also in scholarly publishing and other types of media. Strong content is necessary, of course, but perhaps strong marketing is, too, in order to help users differentiate between the many, many options available.

    While I consider myself to be ever-so-slightly on the extrovert side of the extrovert/introvert boundary, I must admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with an increased focus on marketing. My job involves lots of faculty outreach and collaboration as well as teaching, which I love. But I find that too much time spent in salesperson mode (e.g. working on library PR materials) can make me weary. It seems to me that many librarians are firmly on the introvert side – I think it might be difficult for the profession to focus on marketing as much as we may need to in the coming years. The book you point to is a great start, and perhaps professional development courses or webinars as well?

  5. And here I’ve been secretly hoping that the recent financial crisis would finally push us to question the notion that a market/business model is the be-all and end-all for any endeavor, most especially education! 🙂

    For myself, I, like Barbara, think that “teacher” sums it up pretty well, though I’ll also accept the term “advocate”. “Salesperson” just doesn’t cut it, since I’m not selling anything, and “marketer” ditto — it’s a library, not a marketplace! That doesn’t mean I won’t become familiar with marketing techniques and choose to use those I find appropriate for the setting and the patrons (there, I said it! 😉 ). But words have power, and they convey meanings; I want the people I work with and for to know what I am and what I do. Even if they have only a vague notion of what “librarian” means, it certainly means something different than “marketer” or “salesperson” — and well it should!

  6. “Provocative” doesn’t necessarily mean it provokes thought.

    Sensationalistic is more apt here; drawing attention to where little is due.

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