In Australian librarianship there's room to breathe


Last month I ran some library marketing workshops in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. I was invited over to do this by PiCS, who were wonderful to work with and really looked after me. I don't normally write 'this is what I did' type blog posts, but working in Australia was one of the most amazing things I've ever done! So it seems silly not to write a little about it.

Australian librarians are ace. Engaged, reflective, getting things done. The marketing workshop relies on people being happy and able to discuss what they're doing and thrash out ideas in small groups, and every one of the delegates did this brilliantly.

I've now run a lot of workshops in my freelance career, so I hopefully have a good feel for the level at which to pitch them. What struck doing these was what a high level Australian info pros are working at. I had to adjust the tone of the training as I went along because everyone already doing a lot of things I was suggesting. To take one example - there's a section on marketing with video, and using nice animation tools to move away from tired talking-head or screen-capture videos. In every single workshop in Australia, participants were already using these tools at their own institutions. In the UK I'm used to maybe one or two institutions in a group of delegates who have used these tools already.

I don't mean this is a slight on UK librarians - I think what it comes down to is that there is room to breathe in the Australian library system. Although they are facing financial cuts there is nothing like the crisis facing libraries in the UK. They aren't being attacked by their own Government the whole time. And when you don't spend all your time fighting for survival, that frees you up to experiment, to prioritise, to innovate. It seems to really make a huge difference. (I also spoke to Australians who put their libraries being ahead of the curve down to the fact that they're an island who traditionally had to find answers by doing, rather than waiting to hear about the rest of the world was up to...)

The other main difference to my eyes - and I was only there for six days so I'm sure there are plenty of nuances I missed - is how integrated the libraries are with the rest of a city's public buildings. For example in Brisbane, a Library is part of the City Council regional business centre. And the the State Library of Queensland, also in Brisbane, sits right in the middle of the cultural quarter on the south bank of the river, within the Queensland Cultural Centre, in between the Museum and the Gallery of Modern Art. It's a destination - not just somewhere a council can save money by slashing services. Have a look at the first few seconds of this video to see its glorious location:

I'm not saying libraries in Australia have it easy. But - surprise suprise - when a library system isn't forced to spend 90% of its time defending its services, those services have more opportunity to develop and become more vital still to the community.

Incidentally, via Twitter I found a new photography app just before I left (thanks Amanda!), which is a neat hybrid between video and still image, allowing you to pan across a larger view. Here's where I had lunch in Brisbane, in a cafe that was part of the Gallery of Modern Art. The library is on the right as you pan across by clicking and holding the image and moving your mouse (or finger if you're on a tablet or phone).

I loved Australia. I've never been anywhere so many of the people were so genuinely nice. I felt completely at ease there. The way the trip worked is I arrived in Melbourne on a Saturday afternoon, had just over a day there to explore and recover from jet-lag, then did a 9 - 5pm workshop on the Monday. As soon as it finished I was off to the airport, and flew to Sydney that night. Then I had a day in Sydney, followed by a full-day workshop and flight to Brisbane. Then a day in Brisbane, a full-day workshop, and a 2:30am flight home via Singapore and Dubai. It was intense. It felt almost surrealy short. But I didn't want to spend any more time away from my family, particularly leaving my wife to cope with both the girls on her own!

So to all intents and purposes, I had a day to explore each of the three cities. Everyone told my Sydney was magnificent, and it was - although it had its worst storm in a decade when I was there, and I've never been so wet. I couldn't NOT go out in it as it was my only day there. But it was bad enough that people were being advised across the State to leave work early and get home to safety! But I really fell in love with Melbourne. What a great city!

   Melbourne has a river running right through it, and when you're on the bank it feels like a great vantage point to be both IN the City and seeing the best of it at the same time.


Melbourne has a river running right through it, and when you're on the bank it feels like a great vantage point to be both IN the City and seeing the best of it at the same time.

Thanks to everyone who came to the workshops and participated so enthusiastically. You made me feel very welcome. I'll be back in a couple of years for another round.

Header pic is a Creative Commons image by Wotjeck Gurak.

Library Marketing and the Terminology Problem


When I first started writing and talking about marketing libraries, I was very keen to see libraries adopt the strategies and idioms of business. Libraries were being threatened by massive corporations like Google, Wikipedia and Amazon, whose function or output was for a lot of people a perfectly acceptable replacement for what libraries offered. So we needed to fight back, and market ourselves aggressively - just because we weren't chasing profits didn't mean we shouldn't be chasing customers.

Part of the reason libraries were in a state was that they didn't take marketing seriously, they were in fact scared of the term entirely, and were unwilling to recognise that letting the people come to us was simply not fit for purpose any more. We had to go to the people, and convince them of our value. Finding the term (or the idea of) marketing distasteful was holding us back.

I don't feel entirely differently about this today, although my view has become more nuanced, and I'd rather see Libraries effectively communicating the value of the other aspects of what we do, rather than directly trying to compete with, for example, Google: a fight we'll never win (and shouldn't need to).


In 2010 David Cameron came to power, and his Conservative Government set about making the UK a worse place to live. Part of what they've done is commodify everything, consumerise everything, and it is with this apparatus that they advance their causes of privitisation, destroying the NHS, making education a source of constant frustration for schools and parents alike, and so on.

Increasingly things with which I was previously comfortable - marketing terminology, describing students as 'customers' and so on - are being strongly associated with things which make me decidedly uncomfortable.

Yet sometimes you need to use the vernacular of what you're describing if, like I do, you spend a lot of time describing it - I run marketing workshops and write about marketing on this blog and in a whole book about it. Increasingly I'm drawn to the word 'communication' - not all communication is marketing, but all marketing is communication. So marketing is a subset of communication. Good marketing is often just a byproduct of good communication. 

Nevertheless, I still use marketing lingo at times, albeit decreasingly so, because on occasion there's no better way to describe something so people will understand it. Whatever you think of the term itself, everything that marketing actually entails (a dialogue between us as library services, and users and potential users of those services - about how and why our services are relevant to their lives) we NEED to be doing.

People pay money to come to my workshops, and I don't want to waste their time explaining what I mean every 10 minutes as I search for an alternative way to express something for which there exists a perfectly good term or phrase - it would be absurd. As the trainer I have to communicate effectively in workshops about communication! But I also don't want to be part of the problem, I don't want to be ushering libraries towards a consumerist future which sees information purely as a commodity.

So yesterday when I ran a workshop called Marketing Libraries: Principles and Actions, for the International Library and Information Group, I put this slide on the screen 5 minutes in, and addressed this issue head-on:

A slide from my marketing workshop. Click to view CC version on Flickr

A slide from my marketing workshop. Click to view CC version on Flickr

I wanted to make clear that, although I was trying to avoid certain problematic terminology, I was still going to use some where it would be ludicrous not to - and I wanted to be clear on exactly what library marketers mean they talk about the market.

In essence, your market is your community.

Your community will be very different depending on the type of library you work in. Some libraries have a clearly defined community - I work in Higher Education, so my library's community is the students and staff at the University. (Primarily.) This is our market. This is the audience to which we need to communicate our usefulness. Most Special Libraries have defined communities: a firm, or business, or a school. Public Libraries don't enjoy this luxury of course - for them the market, the community, is everyone in their local area, both users and non-users alike.

However you define your community, this is what people like me are talking about when we say things like 'understand your market' (get to know your community), or 'segment your market' (divide them into appropriate groups so you can tailor communications for each group) or even occasionally 'market share' (if you work at an HEI with 1000 staff and students, and 600 of them use the Library, you have a 60% market share). I talk a lot about libraries being market orientated, and I can't stress enough how I mean community orientated. I actually say 'community orientated' all the time now, but plenty of my past output just used 'market orientated'.

I'm not talking about 'the free market' here. There are economic definitions of 'market oriented' and marketing definitions of 'market orientated' and I'm (very obviously) referring to the latter, as are other people who go on about library marketing. I'm talking about libraries offering services that their community needs, rather than merely offering services they've always offered, irrespective of their community. 

In traditional marketing there are two ways or orientating your organisation: Product Orientated, and Market Orientated. This 'services you've always offered' alternative, in marketing terms, is to be Product Orientated. This means focusing on the thing you do, rather than the needs of your market / community. This worked for libraries for a looooong time. We did books. It was great. But we all know that's not enough any more, hence the move towards market-orientation - towards working with the community.) It's about working closely with the people who use (or may use) your library, understanding what they need and what they'd like, and then trying to deliver that.

(There is a further complication here, in that people don't always KNOW what they need. So I tell libraries to continue to do everything people need, but to focus the marketing on what people want.)

As the slide says, everything - everything - comes back to your community. The library being at the heart of the community is a very popular refrain - but as pointed out on Twitter recently after this sentiment reached a critical mass in conference season, just saying the library is at the heart of the community doesn't make it so. To BE at the heart of your community you have to understand them and offer services based on what they require. Your community is your market. You are therefore market orientated if you want to thrive.

So next time you hear someone talk about library marketing, remember that a) we're trying to make libraries communicate more effectively so people use them more, and b) we're using marketing rather than economic definitions, and c), most importantly, 'our market' is our community, and we must work in collaboration with them in order to succeed.