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If we challenge each other; we all win February 18, 2010

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Those that read my last post know that I recently attended a lecture where the speaker more or less told me that my question was not important.  This obviously did not make me happy and I came home and quickly sent an email to this individual as well as making a post that addressed the issue.  I then wrestled with whether or not it was politically a good idea to call someone out by name when disagreeing with their position on an issue.  After some time for reflection, I decided that while I thought it was clear that I was not engaging in any sort of personal attacks it was just a better decision to leave names out and focus solely on the content of my argument.

I just want to provide some additional details that may have lead to this speaker dismissing my question.  I am doing this to create a segue to another point so please do not feel that this is just going to be a continuation of the topic I discussed last time.  That being said, the additional details have to do with a lecturer beforehand asking us to think up really tough questions because apparently this speaker liked tough questions.  So, I went out and read like crazy and found a book where this speaker is quoted saying that new names for libraries are fine and then a few chapters later saying that libraries need to hold on to the name ‘library’ because it is a strong brand.  As a result, I presented the speaker with what seemed like a contradiction and asked if he could clarify which position best reflected his actual belief.  If that seems like a hard question, it’s meant to be; partially because that was what we were asked to do and partly because this speaker said that there is no such thing as maintaining a neutral position and anyone who tried to do so actually had no position.

Afterward, I wondered if I would have been better served lobbing up a softball about government bureaucracy’s affect on the public library agenda.  Then, I remembered this speaker’s call to action.  This individual asked us to rise up to the level of other professions.  The speaker continued by saying that students of medicine, law, and business come into school with big aspirations but library students, relatively speaking, do not.  If you look at the world of medicine, law, and business it is full of people asking each other the hard questions because when they challenge each other then everybody becomes stronger; everybody wins.

Here is the problem that I have with this speaker telling me that my question on library branding is not important.  In my case, I am challenging this person’s position (or, in this case, lack of one) but in the case of the speaker, this individual is simply devaluing the topic that I brought up.  To take this a step further, I have taken a clear position on the Amazon Kindle as well as e-readers place in libraries.  If someone disagrees with me, I would welcome a discussion where we could both present evidence to back up our opposing views and see if we can change the opinion of the other person.  What I am getting at is that because I have decided to publish my opinion then I feel that I have an obligation to back that up.  In the world of social science, where librarianship sits, there are no absolute correct answers and everything is debatable so all we have is the data, research and evidence to try and show that an idea is relatively better than another idea for a given situation.  It is really the best that we can hope for.  Therefore, if we are going to get to the best solutions to problems that we face then we have to be willing to ask the hard questions of each other and we have to equally be ready to back up our positions.  To finish with my example, what I don’t feel is an option for me now is to just say e-readers aren’t important, there are more important issues, don’t ask me about the Amazon Kindle, don’t challenge my position.  At the end of the day, we all really just have opinions backed up with varying degrees of evidence.  If we challenge each other and look at evidence that supports another point of view it adds to our knowledge base even if it doesn’t change our opinion.  In short, we gain from these types of debates, we are more able to add content to the general knowledge base that benefits from being more clear and robust, we all win.  However, when we just dismiss each others questions, we contribute to the stagnation of the knowledge base and perpetuate the peddling of stale, tired ideas.

Compare the novel, cutting-edge research that comes out of the medical and business sectors with the mostly safe, uninspiring reports being issued from the library sector.  (I’m speaking relatively of course, I know there is some extremely cutting edge ideas coming out of the library world.)  I don’t think this is because there is a lack of new and interesting ideas in the library sector but I think it is because we are not challenging each other enough.  If we follow this speaker’s words, and not his actions, we can aim our sights higher and aggressively pursue new ideas that will benefit our users, and then we can all win, not just those of us who work in the library sector but those who could benefit from libraries, and that includes everyone.

Library Branding. Important or not? February 16, 2010

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So, if you do any reading on how to make yourself stand out in a crowd, many professionals will advise you to write a blog.  However, the one caveat that often accompanies this advice is: keep it positive.  It’s a sound warning.  No one wants to listen to someone constantly complaining about everything that’s wrong.  Moreover, if one of the reasons for your blog is to grab the attention of potential employers than it’s important to consider how your blog makes you look.  Who would want to work with someone who is always whining and negative?

It is with this call for caution in mind, that I enter into this blog post with some trepidation.  I want to make it extremely clear from the outset that I have no personal problem with the person who claimed branding was not very important.  However, when this person opened up the floor for questions, I asked whether there were any benefits or drawbacks from branding libraries by other names such as: Idea Stores, Discovery Centres, Learning Commons, etc.  This person responded that libraries have much more important issues to worry about at the moment.  While I say again that I have nothing bad to say about this person as a person I was more than a little offended that my question was so casually dismissed.

What this person may not be aware of is an incident that took place in early 2009 and which was reported in ALA President Camila Alire’s blog where the mayor of Philadelphia was trying to justify the closing of eleven library branches by claiming that they were “knowledge centers” and “community-based learning centers” and thus not libraries.  Here we can see that for some libraries, their very existence is tied into how they are perceived in the public.  Politicians spend a considerable amount of time deciding just the right words for their ideas because words and brand do impact end-users perceptions.  When the term “bailout” was polling low the US Government had to aggressively flood the media with terms like “rescue plan”, “stimulus package”, and “economic recovery plan”.  The plan is the same.  The only difference is the name and yet it affects the feelings of message receivers.

In fact, this person referenced a survey where a number of people were given a set of questions and asked where they would go for information.  The responses included friends and children but did not prominently feature the library.  When it was revealed to these respondents that they could have found the information to answer all the question at the library they were surprised.  They then made the recommendation that Information Centre should be included in the name because they didn’t know about all the information-gathering services available.  This person scoffed at these findings saying that because they had put so many resources into gathering these results they felt they should change the name to Library and Information Centre but this person wasn’t aware if that made any real difference.  Well, I think it would be important to do some research to see if it has had an impact.  I think it is so easy to get lost in our library silos where we know every product and service offered and the value of those products and services.  However, if you ask people what they think and there is a disconnect the problem may very well be that we are not properly marketing and branding our products and services.

I am not advocating for the library to become the “Library and Information Centre” or any other fancifully creative name.  However, since some libraries are trying to create new brand identities I think it warrants investigation and I by no means think it is a trivial concern.  Why was there so much coverage of the iPad when it was released?  The most important reason is that Apple make high-quality products but secondly, they have a great brand.  Libraries already have the most important component of a successful business, we have a great product.  Maybe we just need a better brand.  I don’t know; but I do think it is at least important enough to talk about.

Kathy Ennis and Lyndsay Rees-Jones of CILIP say “Market your value as a librarian” February 10, 2010

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Today, we were fortunate enough to host Kathy Ennis and Lyndsay Rees-Jones from CILIP.  It was a great presentation, full of energy and enthusiasm and lots of content with no filler or reading from PowerPoint slides that audience members could easily read themselves.  At the cornerstone of their presentation was one simple message: Librarians are important but we need to market our value and showcase the unique skills we have to offer.

This presentation goes so well with my post yesterday about marketing the value of the public library.  In addition, we need to market the value of the public librarian and every librarian.  We had a discussion about what makes a librarian; what skills does a librarian have.  I think there is a tendency to be to modest when describing the role of the average librarian.  Some words that emerged were good listener, good customer relations, multi-tasker, team player, organised, etc.  All of these are true but in this tough economy if a local or council government or company is looking to cut corners and that is all you have to offer it is likely they will see you as replaceable.  We next looked at a different set of skills such as: collection development, metadata creation and integration, knowledge of classification and cataloging systems, as well as the legal side of information managment which includes understanding copyright laws, Freedom of Information, Health and Safety, etc.  In fact, seeing this list of specialised skills growing to cover the white board gave me a lot of encouragment and made me feel much more confident.

I wrote very early on about the constant question that almost every library student receives when he or she says that this is what they are studying and it is something around the lines of: you need a degree for that?  As much as you try to have a thick skin, I think those types of questions can get to you.  You start to think maybe I will be replaced by Google, perhaps I am becoming obsolete, I suppose anyone with a good set of general skills could probably be a librarian.  It’s not true though and seeing all the unique skills we bring to a position today really helped me see that.

In addition to hammering into us the need to stand up for ourselves and loudly proclaim how valuable we are they provided us with a number of practical tips and idea.  Some I had heard before such as clean up your online brand and try to make a distinction between your personal and professional identities on the Web.  Even so, I agree that this is an important issue and one that I am still working on.  Another was a classic piece of advice which is to get business cards.  Of course, I have always wanted to have some but I could never budget for them.  They let us know about a website, VistaPrint, which prints business cards for free.  In addition to just having business cards, they recommend that when you collect someone else’s business card that you write some information on the back such as where you met that person and what you talked about.  That makes so much sense but I had never thought of it before.  Lastly, they had us write some examples of what we have learned in the last six months.  There were some great examples and sometimes you are so busy in the present you forget how much you have developed and grown.  To help with this they recommended regular reflective journalling which I have been hearing a lot about but have not been doing enough of so this was good motivation to get going on it so I can better track my progress.

All in all, it was a great presentation with not even one dull moment.  If you get a chance, be sure to go to any workshops offered by Kathy Ennis and Lyndsay Rees-Jones.  It is sure to be a very worthwhile investment of your time.