For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
June 26, 2002 - The Four Tiers of Library Service
I talk with a lot of librarians around the country, and I've concluded that there are four levels or tiers of library connections to the community.
The first, and most basic, happens when someone opens the library doors. There is a building. People work there. The library has a collection of books, magazines, videos, CD's, and, these days, Internet terminals. There are meeting rooms and study areas.
Throughout America, most libraries at this level provide not just these tangible community assets, but that extra something that makes it truly valuable: a dedication to quality service.
This strategy is almost guaranteed a 50% population base. All the usual suspects for library use will show up: young parents with small children, young adults who need to work on their homework, the folks who need a steady diet of new fiction and nonfiction, people trying to track down consumer and investment information, and so on.
However, a library that depends solely on this tier of service is liable to stagnate. It may even begin to decline. Why? Maybe the community ages. Maybe an aggressive push of video stores and movie theater changes recreational patterns. Maybe Internet use displaces a certain percentage and type of reference demand.
A second tier of libraries adopts the practices of promotion. These librarians send out press releases. They produce and actively distribute attractive and readable brochures and calendars advertising reading programs, new materials, reference services, local history, and more.
Publicity is a good thing. It lets people know what you've got. It can boost library use by 5-15 percent, if only by encouraging the people already inclined to be interested in libraries to take another look. On the other hand, PR probably won't persuade people who are NOT interested in the library to change their minds.
The third tier of libraries takes the step from advertising to marketing. That is, their librarians actively track social indicators. They survey both the people who use the library, and the people who don't. They test new services, and evaluate them according to several dimensions. They try to understand their markets and build new markets. They not only gather library statistics, but work hard to understand what those statistics are saying.
This strategy -- if translated into actual library offerings -- can push that community use up by another 10-20 percent. Why wouldn't it? Marketing keeps the library in closer step with its potential pool of users.
The fourth, and rarest, tier of library service happens when librarians step outside the comfort and limitation of the library building. In line with some of the ideas I mentioned in an earlier column ("answering the community reference question") they more actively engage in their communities. They're not just librarians talking about the library to other people. They are active committee members of other groups. They serve as moderators, and volunteer coordinators, and the extra pair of hands that every community group needs. And, on occasion, they bring library resources to bear on these local partnerships. In the process, they build new relationships with non-librarians.
As a result, the library finds that only now is it in a position to reach ALL of its community, and thereby to demonstrate the sweeping value of its institutional resources.
Obviously, I believe our library, the Douglas Public Library District, belongs in that top tier of library services. It's a lot more work. But it's a lot more interesting, too.