You can feel it. We’re going through a cultural shift. Thank the economic meltdown. I’ve noticed a number of writers pointing to a trend that could impact academic librarians, but will more likely make its presence felt in the public library sector. Still, it’s a trend to which we should pay attention, and perhaps there may be ways academic libraries can make their own contribution. Call it the Age of New Frugality. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer points to a behavior shift in which Americans “are showing an enthusiasm for thriftiness not seen in decades.” In the Age of New Frugality people won’t be just spending less, they’ll be looking to make every dollar stretch as far as it can. Think clipping coupons, staycations and combining errands to save gas.
Harvard B-School professor John Quelch has another word to describe the changing consumer. He calls them Simplifiers. A Simplifier is, quite simply, a consumer who is shifting away from the accumulation of stuff and towards the acquisition of experiences. He writes that
“The economic boom of the 1990s fueled consumption and democratized access to a wider than ever spectrum of goods transforming former luxuries into “must-have” necessities…[now] they want to collect experiences, not possessions. And they give experiences rather than goods as gifts to friends and relatives. Experiences may seem ephemeral. They cannot be inventoried except in the form of “Kodak” moments; but they do not tie you down, require no maintenance, and permit variety-seeking instincts to be quickly satisfied.”
That’s a huge change. People want to simplify. Accumulating stuff is now not so attractive or important. Having a good experience, not acquiring a material object, creates meaning.
Other signs of the Age of New Frugality are already being evidenced by the increased use of public libraries. Instead of buying and collecting DVDs or books, more people are recognizing the savings in borrowing them from the local library. And in the academic sector there are numerous reports detailing the increase in online enrollments because students save gas money that way, and the larger enrollments at community colleges because their lower tuition is far more economical. Why pay more for a traditional face-to-face learning experience at a name-brand institution? Of course, there seems to be no tremendous decrease in the number of students applying to the nation’s most costly institutions. But for the majority of Americans finding ways to save money is the essence of the Age of New Frugality.
It’s great that higher education offers options that can help people get through these tough economic times with job retraining for some, a haven from a difficult job market for others, and access to free learning for everyone. But what if we could do more than that? What if we could capitalize on the shift from people investing in stuff to investing in experiences? The signposts suggest that in economic hard times what people value more than stuff is adding some intrinsic meaning to their lives; the latter is certainly more affordable. I think that creates an opportunity for librarians. To be sure, in the 21st century libraries are largely about technology. But where we excel is in bringing the human touch to high tech. Academic librarians deliver meaning by helping students and faculty to be more productive and academically successful. Being helped by a librarian is an experience – hopefully a good one. I was giving a talk about this idea of designing user experiences in academic libraries to the library staff at a large university. The concept is one that takes some time and thought to process. But one librarian spoke up and shared her experiences helping students with their research projects. In almost every case she found those students came back to her each time they had a new research project. I thought that was a great example of delivering meaning to students. I said “You are the library experience”.
It looks like we are just entering the Age of New Frugality. It’s likely to last a while – at least longer than we’d like. Let’s keep in mind that some of our students may be struggling to make ends meet while they try to come up with their tuition money, if they are able to find a lender. I can well imagine many are in need of a good experience, something to remember and something to which they can look forward. If we think about it, and give some thought to designing it, academic librarians can offer a great user experience. Our communities may need it now more than ever.
And speaking of the new frugality, our parent institutions are entering unknown economic territory, and if your library isn’t already feeling it, it probably will be soon. More on the grim outlook for higher education in a future post.