Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Library Outreach, Advocacy & Marketing - close cousins or poles apart?

Last night I took part in a very interesting #UKlibchat discussion on the topic of Outreach and Inclusion on Twitter.  Many of the comment revolved around whether, and how, librarians should use marketing knowledge and techniques to better achieve outreach goals.  Even on the topic of social inclusion, marketing was being cited as a useful means to an end.

There were several comments indicating that some librarians either didn't have the knowledge about marketing (or business concepts in general) or were reluctant to consider using marketing techniques.  Reasons for this were given variously as fear of incurring costs, lack of time/staff resource or a feeling that marketing, in a commercial way, went against the ethos of a 'purely cultural' institution or meant that libraries would be competing against each other, which was inherently wrong and would lead to 'chaos'.

So is marketing the close cousin of outreach and advocacy of library services, or are they poles apart?

I believe that it is possible, and indeed essential, for librarians to learn about marketing concepts and techniques, and then to apply them sensibly to the situation in which libraries find themselves.  In an age of scarce funding resources and rapid technological change, when politicians, budget holders and society at large are questioning the role and place of libraries (and indeed education as a whole), I think it is imperative that librarians 'shout out' for libraries, for their value, and for the benefits they can bring to their communities.

Whatever name or label you give it, this activity is marketing.  You can try reinventing the wheel and creating campaigns called 'outreach' from first principals - or you can learn about marketing theory and learn from past examples of marketing campaigns, and then apply those principles to the matching of library services to the needs of different groups in the community and to the promotion of those services.

Surely it is better to learn the best of what's available, and adapt and grow from there, rather than to dismiss all that knowledge as 'too commercial' and try and recreate a way of communicating with users from scratch?

Update 8 September 2012:

The discussion continues on Twitter (most recent tweets at the top):

What do you think?  I'd love to hear your thoughts so please do leave a comment if you have a view on the whole 'marketing, good or bad?' debate.


  1. I agree that we need to learn mire about Marketing and have lots to learn from businesses. In all sectors of the library we are doing great work and are reaching out to people but obviously not enough because many people still have that booky spectacled view if us. Now more than ever we need to sing about what we do to the rooftops so that those in high places see that as the world changes so do we.

  2. Hi Liz

    Thank you for commenting :) I believe it's important to make a distinction between 'using business techniques (like marketing)' and 'rampant commercialism'. I am definitely not suggesting turning libraries into tacky copies of bookshops!

    But I do think that investigating user needs, matching services to those needs (of various different groups), and communicating effectively to those different groups are all important activities and that libraries can learn to do these things better.