Marketing and Advocating for the Academic Library

I was asked to give a presentation for university faculty and staff on marketing and advocating for the library. Below are slides and my notes. This presentation was geared towards an external (non-librarian) audience.

Marketing and Advocating for the Library

I have been asked to speak about marketing and advocating for the academic library.

  • We will walk through how I define marketing and advocacy along with their similarities and differences.
  • I’ll also provide examples of how marketing and advocacy can and should be applied in an academic library context.
  • I’ll wrap up with how marketing and advocacy fits into some trends I’m seeing with libraries and higher education.

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Before we get into it, I want to share my working definitions of marketing and advocacy. The two go hand-in-hand, but there are some differences.

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Marketing

Marketing focuses on the library’s current users and also our potential users. For us here at the university, that’s primarily going to be our students, but also faculty and staff, and community users.

It’s also important to recognize different segments our community. For students: it could be undergraduates, graduate students, international students, athletes, a particular major, etc.

For faculty: It could be marketing to their needs or using them as a channel to market library services to students.

For staff: It could be marketing library services like our leisure reading collection or curriculum materials collection. Something that adds value to their university employment.

The goal: Aligning the needs of the our students, faculty, and staff to the library’s services and resources.

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Advocating

Advocating is different. It’s all about the influencers and how the library reaches out to them. It’s focused on the individuals or groups that can influence the environment to benefit the library.

In our case, this would naturally include the Provost and senior leadership, possibly the Board too. With all the changes at the university, the library needs to communicate the value we provide to the University.

Influencers are not just top leadership of a university, but it could also be student organizations like Student Senate. The people here may not even use the library (like senior leadership), but they are the ones to make decisions. That’s why we need to advocate using the data and stories we collect to prove our case for the library.

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Marketing & Advocacy

So how do marketing and advocacy go hand in hand to create a better library?

Marketing can:

  • Increase the number of users of library services and resources
  • Shape services to meet the needs and wants of users
  • Ensure the understanding of the role of the library within the institution
  • Help users to understand the unique value of the library (Google paywall vs. library databases)

Advocacy can:

  • Increase decision-makers’ understanding of the library
  • Increase decision-makers’ understanding of the benefits to the institution of a strong sustainable library
  • Support changes in policy that will add to the library’s success

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So before I talk about why marketing and advocacy are an essential part of a library staff’s work, I want to do a little activity. 

Close your eyes. Think about a library.

What’s in there? What do you see? Who do you see?

Open your eyes. Use the scrap paper to write down FIRST 5 things you think of when you hear the word “LIBRARY.”

[discussion follows]

I did a similar activity like this, but a very different audience. Last year, I was asked to give a presentation to a group of high school students who were in a pre-college program. As potential university students I thought it might be interesting to get their take on libraries. So I asked them:

When you hear the word librarian, list five things you think of.

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So what did we get? Some of the usual stereotypes: books, old lady, mean, shhhh, and glasses.

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Then I switched the question to:

List five things you think a librarian does.

Here I got: read, shelving books, checking in books, help people find materials, and doing programs for the community.

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Perception Issue

We have a perception issue in terms of what librarians do. It’s very book-centric and focused on a lot of clerical tasks. Above is one of my favorite slides:

What our parents think we do, What our friends think we do, What students think we do, WHAT WE ACTUALLY DO

Now I’m not going to draw conclusions based on working with one high school group, but it’s a little anecdote that I think is worth sharing.

To me, libraries ARE NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS, THEY ARE ABOUT THE PEOPLE – and that’s what we need to market & advocate to.

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Marketing & Advocacy

So marketing and advocacy are an essential part of an academic library staff’s work. As we’ve seen, many people have a stereotyped image of libraries based on outdated experiences. We need to update the image of libraries, librarians, and all library staff. We have a responsibility to promote our professionalism and value to everyone. This is particularly necessary in the current environment of technological change.

Decision makers routinely deal with issues like funding cuts and accountability questions and so much more that impact library services. We need to provide a quick response so that their opinions can be informed by professional advice.

Let’s face it: There is intense competition for funding and we must continue to ensure that the value of the library is well-understood and appreciated so that there is a good reason to continue funding it.

To do that, we need to back up our marketing and advocacy with data and stories. And now I’m going to talk about a few of those examples.

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Low Key Assessment

One less time intensive project that I like is from library at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. It’s a simple Post-It Note wall. It asks students:

“What do you love about the library?”

“What do you hate about the library?”

It’s an easy way for students to give feedback and an easy way for the library to listen. It keys library staff into unmet needs or services. As an assessment tool, it tells us what we’re doing well and what we could improve on. We could take the a data from the post-it notes to advocate for library improvements or resources.

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Library as a Place

In the past ten years or so, there has been a focus on promoting the Library as a Place – on a college campus, that sort of makes the library like the living room. You want to have various spaces in the library that appeals to all types of students. So collecting student data in how they use the library is essential in arguing for additional resources for library improvements.

One example I have here is from a team of researchers, mostly from Drexel University, where librarians started to taking NOT just hourly building counts, but actually SEAT counts–and recording which spaces students were using. Then they devised a heatmap to show where students were congregating. Red/orange/yellow is higher use, blue/green is lower use.

In the left example, students were using solo/pairs tables by the windows. In the right example, students were using the computer pods in the middle.

So based off of this data, library administration could go to senior leadership in proposing renovations or improvements based on space. In today’s data-driven higher ed environment, you need to use the numbers to prove your story.

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“Just in Time” Marketing

Another idea I like are these “Library Minute” videos from Arizona State University. Designed for “just in time” help, these videos market library services and resources. It’s a good way to reach current and potential users. They are short: around one minute as the title suggests. Videos can be embedded on the library’s website, their Research Guides, and can be promoted by the university or the library via social media. They have a whole list of short videos: how to access online resources, how to get materials through Interlibrary Loan, and even more complicated issues like open access.

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Kindness Audit

This is another concept I love because it’s undercover marketing to students, but it also gives you data that you can use to advocate for the library. I first heard about in a MOOC I took with Michael Stephens at San Jose State University. 

So what is it? This is an idea that I adopted here. I started with new library student workers, but I also recommend tapping the broader student body. 

I asked students to use their smartphone camera and walk through the library and take photos of:

  • Things you liked
  • Things you didn’t like
  • Things that confuse you
  • Things that surprise you

The goal: Have students assess the library’s physical space to see how “kind” it is. The students find out new things on their own as they explore the library. Library staff can use the data to improve the space.

We used the Kindness Audit data to:

  • Convert our gendered, single-stall restrooms, into gender-neutral restrooms.
  • Add more electrical outlets.
  • Create collaborative open study in the Library Classroom when not being used for a class session.
  • Liberalize the library’s food & drink policy.

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A Sense of Fun

I also think we should market social events that help change that stuffy perception of the academic library. Encourage some fun events, get students involved, and then when they actually need research help they will feel comfortable coming back. Here I’ve been involved with our welcome parties that we did for a couple of years. When I worked at my previous institution, I instituted an Edible Book Contest for National Library Week which was fun.

This past January, we hosted laser tag in the Library, which I loved:

  • Required little time and no money from the library
  • Was sponsored by Student Activities who coordinated the staffing
  • I was happy to offer up our space for the event
  • Creates goodwill among the students
  • It would have been easy to say “No” but I want to create that culture of saying yes and showing the Library off in a different light.

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Trends

So I’m a person who always like to see things on the horizon. So I want to talk a little bit about some trends I’m seeing in higher ed and how library marketing and advocacy will be key.

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Open Educational Resources

This is something that is both marketing to Faculty, and being an advocate for Students. I’m concerned about the rising cost of textbooks. Students already pay a lot for college and this doesn’t help. I think the Library should be marketing to faculty the use of open educational resources.

OERs are freely available, open licensed textbooks, media, and other digital materials that can be used in the Classroom. There is a lot of high quality content out there, it’s just making the time to search for it and figure out how it might fit into the curriculum that takes time.

The library could host a workshop with faculty in discovering and evaluating resources such as these and maybe start a pilot program where a few faculty members experiment with them in their courses.

To me OER fits squarely within the university ethos with respect to stewardship of material resources and would be beneficial for our students.

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Scholarly Communication

This one primarily affects Faculty. The cost of journals continue to rise beyond inflation each year and they are now owned by a small number of multinational publishing conglomerates which can jack up the prices. I think the library should be marketing open access journals to faculty and advocating for university support for faculty to publish in them.

I wish we could encourage faculty to consider publishing in reputable open access journals (those that provide free access online and are non-profit). However, it’s a balance because those faculty members going up for tenure want to publish in a high-profile journal and those still tend to be owned by those large scholarly publishers.

The library should develop some sort of award or prize for faculty publishing in an open access journal. We do get questions from faculty asking for help in identifying journals to publish in, so maybe some sort of workshop or brown bag is in order. But I think it’s the library’s job to promote and advocate for this.

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Experiential Learning

This involves both students and faculty. Usually the library is thought of as a one way transaction: You download a journal article or you check out a book. I would like the library to be a place where students create things. So maybe that’s a makerspace that combines art & technology skills, but I would love to connect with faculty and students on something like this.

For example: We have a 3D printer, but there’s no educational programming done. People submit their jobs to the library and we print their items. If we could design a space that is collaborative and market it to faculty and students as a place to experiment and create things and talk about what we’re doing and what we are learning, that would great. To me, that places the library in the forefront of not just being a repository of THINGS, but a place that CREATES things–and I think that sends a powerful message to campus.

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Marketing & Advocacy

So to wrap-up…

These days everyone’s attention is so segmented. The academic library cannot just expect to exist as it is. We need to reach out to our current and potential users and promote our services and resources. We also need to investigate the unmet needs of our users and figure out: WHAT ARE WE NOT DOING THAT WE SHOULD BE DOING? In doing so, it’s important for the library collect data and stories from our users to paint a picture for senior leadership. The goal is to create a funded library that serves our community of users.

5 thoughts on “Marketing and Advocating for the Academic Library

  1. Great post, Joe! I hope your team responded to thoughtfulness involved in carrying out all these research experiments. Asking and receiving feedback (which for some can be tough to hear to read) especially on a perception that you nay not agree with can be really challenging. I’m curious, were there any issues as far uniting as a library team for any of these intiatives?

  2. Pingback: #Marketing and Advocating for the #AcademicLibrary | bluesyemre

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