Establishing a Distinctive Sense of Purpose

Last week I attended the Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. One of the session I attended was Who We Are, What We Do, and Why it Matters: Establishing Our Distinctive Sense of Purpose, presented by Valerie Gross.

education-pillarsValerie discussed how simply modifying what you say about the library can raise the recognized value of the library, and thus, your likelihood of increased financial support. She used the example of upgrading the library’s image from “generic” to “brand name.” The generic and brand names products you buy in the store are often times virtually identical, except in price. You don’t need to change what you’re doing; you just need to change how you’re marketing it. This alone can make it easier to get new or more funding, simply by changing how people perceive the library.

Aligning your library with formal educational institutions by using more familiar language is an easy way to do that, though it might require a shift in your mindset. Start by emphasizing that the library provides “public education for all” and “equal opportunity in education.” Change from “Libraries play a role in education” to “Education is the role of libraries.” Libraries are education, not just a resource or support for it. Think of your library as an education institution and your staff as educators.

Valerie pointed out how, if you compared the descriptions, her library held many events that were nearly identical to the continuing education classes held by the local community college. The difference? The courses at the college charge a fee for participation and the library events are free. She showed a similar example of a local music class for preschoolers that taught the same skills that children learn at storytime, with the same difference: these classes had a fee to participate and storytime is free. The point is not that libraries should start charging for these services, but that libraries are already providing educational classes, so we might as well market them as such.

Keep in mind that, according to a recent Pew report, many people are not familiar with what their library offers: “20% said they don’t know much about their public library’s service, and 10% said they know nothing at all.” Naturally, the “library lingo” we use can make it even harder to figure out what exactly takes place at the library.

Valerie suggested the following changes in terminology:

  • Storytime –> Children’s Class
  • Programs and Services –> Classes, Seminars, Workshops, Events, Initiatives, Curriculum
  • Programmer –> Educator, Instructor, Facilitator, Teacher
  • Librarian –> Educator, Instructor, Research Specialist, Teacher
  • Clerk –> Customer Service Specialist
  • Reference –> Research
  • Information –> Research
  • Circulation –> Borrowing, Loaning
  • Patrons –> Students, Learners, Customers, Users
  • Juvenile –> Children’s

Visit Valerie’s website for a handout you can customize for your community. You can also read an article by Valerie for the PLA Daily News discussing this concept. What do you think? How does your library position itself as an educational institution in your community? Share your suggestions in the comments!


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