It’s probably the most difficult problem that librarians around the world are currently facing : how to get the instiutions in which we are based to understand what it is we actually do and moreover to recognise our value and relevance. I realise I’m not saying anything new or groundbreaking here, but I honestly believe that if we don’t start addressing this issue of issues more comprehensively and conclusively, and soon, then in this leaner and less forgiving age, we may genuinely run out of time to get this message across. Earlier this month, this fact zoomed even more inexorably into focus for me, after hearing about sweeping staff cuts to a library service that I’d always regarded to be as safe as houses.
So where are we going wrong? Well for one thing I’m convinced we’re still not being bold enough about communicating the value we bring to our organisations, and for another that we’re still assuming that stakeholders have a better understanding of the myriad complexities of librarianship than they do. Yes we all have our champions and supporters, but they are far outnumbered by those who, if pushed for a description of what it is we do, would inexplicably trot out the old ‘stamp, shelve and shush’ cliches. We can no longer afford to be complacent or assume that our services will be eternally funded. Going back to an earlier post, like Bertrand Russell’s Christmas turkey, sooner or later we may stop being fed and suddenly find that we have no future.
So what can we do about it? Plenty. Its no accident that I spend so much of my time marketing my own library service through newsletters, plasma screen adverts, boomarks, online and printed guides, Youtube videos, consultation exercises, focus groups, teaching and training, our portal, emails, Twitter, surveys, Facebook, inductions, social bookmarking and internal committees. Rather it’s in recognition of the fact that I’m more convinced than ever that the services we offer need to be communicated and promoted in every way that we can, and that all the avenues that are open to us must be fully explored and utilised. I see accountability and statistics as equally key, so that we can incontrovertibly prove that our services and resources are sufficiently used, that our staffing levels are appropriate, and that our contribution to teaching and research is both tangible and vital. Of course, statistics do not constitute a cast-iron guarantee, but they’re incredibly useful safeguards against uninformed assumption.
Can we market ourselves too much? Can we spend too much time seeking to prove our worth? I don’t think we can. In a world where the activity of an information search has been popularly distilled into sticking a word a Google and hitting return, we cannot assume that our incalulably more complex raft of services will be understood, never mind embraced. And I suggest that this should be our other primary objective going forward: to simplify our services and to explain ourselves in as straightforward a manner as possible. This should lead to better understanding of, and more importantly, sufficient buy-in to, our services and in turn to some much-needed professional security.