By Meredith Farkas | April 10, 2009
Yes, I knew I’d have to teach people how to use email. And unjam printers. And help people use copiers. But I don’t think I ever understood in library school how important sales and marketing would be to the success of our profession.
Within a month of starting work as the Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University four years ago, I was painfully aware of that fact and felt woefully unprepared to play the role of salesman.
I laugh at how naive I was back then. I just assumed that faculty, who were complaining about the poor quality of sources students were using for graduate-level research, would welcome my offer to teach their students how to find and evaluate information resources. I assumed that if I put up information about all of the library resources and services available to them, students would look at it. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. True, some faculty/administrators were very interested in information literacy instruction, and some students were really up on what the library had to offer. But for the most part, I found I had to do a lot more “selling” than I’d ever anticipated.
Steven Bell talks about this a bit in his post Academic Librarians Are Not Salespeople – But They Should Be:
Somewhere during the discussions one of the participants said something along the lines of “Academic librarians are not good salespeople.” I can’t quite recall how that came up but it struck a chord with me because I’ve thought the same exact thing for quite a few years. Frontline librarians need to do more than just respond when the end users are looking for information. They’ve got to be out in the field spreading the word, and making the sales pitch for why the library’s resources are vitally important to the teaching and learning process.
Here’s an example. I was at a meeting last week of our Distance Learning Advisory Group. Our leader asked me to say a few words about how the Library supports online learners – and where we need to improve. As I finished one faculty member blurted out “I had no idea I could do at that with your resources.” How many times does that happen? Too many. We’re also doing LibQual+ and there are far too many comments with suggestions for what the library should be offering – that we’ve already been offering for two or more years.
I’ve seen that in our assessments too, and it frustrates me to no end when I see that we are offering something they want and they just don’t know it. And a lot of the time, I’m not quite sure how to tell them about it. It’s not as difficult with our undergraduate population, because we reach nearly all of them as Freshman with library instruction, and we deal with them in the physical world all the time. But there is no “captive audience” element with our distance learning population. They don’t even have any required synchronous components to their program where we could come in as guest speakers and make our “pitch.” All of the information is there for them, but they have to choose to look at it. The online graduate programs are in the process of redesigning their online orientation and we’ve been able to insert library learning activities for students to complete where they can’t get to the next section of their orientation until they do them. This will at least get them looking at our website and using some key resources in their discipline, but I still don’t feel like it will do enough to make them aware of what we have to offer.
I feel strongly that library schools need to teach marketing and salesmanship to future librarians. We don’t all come to the profession with those skills, and the idea of selling library services to faculty can be daunting for the new professional. We go into library school thinking that we’re going to help people who want our help, and then we find that we have to convince people to accept our help, which is a whole other kettle of fish.
When I was in Iceland, I talked about the importance of LIS schools teaching marketing, and Ken Haycock (Director of SJSU’s SLIS program) mentioned to me that they offer a marketing class and it receives very low enrollment. This tells me that there is a real disconnect between what skills libraries need and what library school students think librarians need. Maybe they don’t see marketing enough in job descriptions and job requirements. Or maybe marketing shouldn’t be its own class. Maybe it should be taught as part of classes on public librarianship, academic librarianship, school librarianship, law librarianship, etc., with information on how to “sell” to the stakeholders in each area. As you can see in Stepping on Toes: The Delicate Art of Talking to Faculty about Questionable Assignments (from one of my favorite blogs, In the Library with the Lead Pipe) many librarians feel uncomfortable putting themselves out there and making suggestions to faculty.
In terms of what Steven Bell wrote, I think it’s more about advocacy, persuasion, outreach and marketing than “sales” in the business sense (or is that just a semantic distinction because we don’t want to feel like used-car salesmen?), but I’m sure we could learn a lot from salespeople that would inform our ability to market library resources to our patrons. And whatever you call it, librarians and LIS educators need to make it clear to LIS students that marketing/outreach/advocacy is a critical skill for all professionals.