A Beautiful Obsession

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Libraries are awash with a raging torrent of bog-standard services. This used to be a competitive advantage when ‘main street’ was the only place you could buy anything without having to drive fifty kilometres to the next town. But now when the world is at your fingertips, bog-standard services are commonplace and people are overwhelmed with the choices they face. As a result people are better informed, more critical, less loyal and harder to read. The principal currency today is no longer information, products or services; it is human attention.

So how do libraries grab and keep a community member’s attention? Well it certainly won’t be through organisational branding and rejigging structure – two favourite obsessions of libraries and their governing bodies. Community members don’t care about rebranding or whether your team is called ‘Collection Management’ or ‘Content Management’. Community members don’t even care whether a staff member has the right qualifications. All a community member cares about is: ‘How can you help me?”.

In order for libraries and librarians to answer this seemingly simple question well we need to intimately understand our community; to see the world as they see it, along with their needs, wants, desires, fears and concerns. Of course libraries do not have the resources or capabilities to intimately understand the entire population it serves so it must focus its resources on its most valuable members and become obsessed with capturing their attention, surprising them and delighting them. Why?

This is the only way libraries will raise the bar of mediocrity and achieve excellence that members will want to talk about; excellence that is memorable and worth sharing.

I’m not suggesting you ignore parts of your community, or that you treat them unfairly. What I’m suggesting is that you become obsessed with your most valuable members within that community. Not all members are the same. Some borrow, some study, some surf the net, some ask for help, and some attend events etc. They aren’t all the same, you don’t treat them the same, and neither should you try to.

The Pareto principle or 80:20 rule means that in anything a few (20%) are vital and many (80%) are trivial, and this also applies to library members. That is, 80% of a library’s value comes from only 20% of members. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to identify these members, find out more about them and provide them with the best service? And just to be clear by best service I don’t mean the best service you can, but to be recognised by your community for being the best at providing that service.

Who are your most valuable library members?
This is not an easy question to answer because it requires you to define how you measure value and whether a library member’s value is based on realised value or untapped potential.

Start with whatever data you have to find a segment of your community who overlap in both library use and staff investment. Consider researching which areas of your collection and services are most heavily used and who uses them. Or perhaps research which collections and services staff invest the most (or perhaps least) time in and who uses them.

  • A tertiary library may consider students who attend their information literacy classes (or perhaps lecturers who send them) to be their most valuable members.
  • A public library may consider parents of toddlers to be their most valuable members.
  • A special library may consider their most valuable members to be staff who use their research and analysis service.

What do you know about your most valuable library members?
Once you’ve determined who your most valuable library members are, the next step is to find out more about them. Consider not just their demographics but also how the library fits into their lives, for example:

  • When do they use the library?
  • How do they get to the library?
  • What do they do on their way to the library?
  • What do they do after they leave the library?
  • Who do they come to the library with?
  • What are their favourite websites, music, sports, celebrities, television programmes, food?
  • Which library services do they use and don’t use?
  • How often do they use the library?
  • Do they place requests, have fines, or return books late?
  • What else would they use the library for, if they could?

Talk with them, observe them, get to know them and ask them about their lives not just what they do in the library.

Ask for their opinions on potential new services; ask if you can shadow them for a day to more deeply understand how they live. Don’t just do it once, do it all the time. And don’t just shelve what you learn but integrate it into your strategic and operational plans. Integrate it into your performance management systems. Make customer intimacy a ‘thing’ at your library staff meetings.

How to be the best
You’ve identified your most valuable members; you’ve talked with them to learn as much as you can about them. Now it’s time to turn these insights into products and services that will capture their attention, surprise them and delight them.

The only way to do this successfully is by involving your most valuable members in the process.

Last year I was fortunate to participate in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) led by Dr Michael Stephens from San Jose State University in California. The MOOC was based on a new kind of library called ‘The Hyperlinked Library’. A hyperlinked library emphasizes an open participatory library that welcomes user input and creativity and involves community members as equal partners (rather than in consultation or advisory capacities) in library projects. The library becomes a platform for making things happen.

David R.Lankes describes how the library as a platform differs from the library as it was: “Our buildings matter. Our services matter. But they don’t matter on their own, and we do not determine their value – that is a job for the community. It is only in the advancement of those we serve that we find our impact. It is only in the potential realized that we can measure our contribution. Our buildings, our books, our services, our catalogs must not be channels of assistance we provide, but part of a powerful platform that enables our communities to succeed. This platform is our infrastructure, but it is also the infrastructure of the community – co-owned.”

David Weinberger elaborates further “A library as platform would give rise to messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources. A library as platform is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub.”

And when you do it
And the more you do it
It becomes a beautiful obsession. 


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