This post started out as a comment on Kathryn Greenhill’s latest post, Like a Virgin? If you haven’t read it, you should. In it, Kathryn talks about the concept of ‘fast’ – in a recent post, David Lee King identifies a number of services that are direct competitors for libraries, and Kathryn astutely points out that the defining characteristic of these competitors, and the characteristic that makes them such strong competitors for libraries, is that they get the idea of ‘fast’. Customers want what they want, right now, and the competitors that David Lee King lists get that.
I think what our customers want often goes beyond fast, into the realms of immediate. As the hyperconnected generations become independent library users (ie users in their own right, rather than kids brought along to libraries by their parents), they’re going to want immediacy, because they’re used to it in every aspect of their lives. I think that’s going to extend to the physical items we hold, too. If they have to go on a long hold list to get a popular book, as David Lee King suggests in his post on competitors, are they going to be willing to wait? Will they actually care about format at all, if they can get something in one format faster than in another?
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is agility. My greatest concern for the future of libraries is that I’m not sure we’re positioned as an industry (or as individual organisations, in some [many?] cases) to be agile in meeting the challenges that face us and the opportunities that await us. We’ve been playing catch up for too long. We need to take some giant leaps. This goes hand in hand with Kathryn’s notion of fast: we need to be able to act fast when opportunities or challenges arrive. We often just can’t do that.
So how can we address this? We need to kit our staff out with the skills they need to drive web based services and non-traditional service delivery and collecting models. We need to build the infrastructure required to sustain robust online services. We need lightweight policy frameworks that allow wriggle room. We need leaders that value innovation. Without all of this, we’ll never have any hope of being agile.
Kathryn also talks about marketing our strengths to ensure our future. I agree, we need to sell ourselves, to our funding bodies and to our customers. Public libraries, for example, already have some of what our customers are looking for: downloadable media, fast and free wifi, latest release dvds… but how many people in our communities actually know all of this? Do our funders even know what a rock-star job we do on some of this stuff?
For me, the keys to ensuring the future of libraries are agility, good marketing, and the ability to immediately satisfy customer needs. Becoming an agile industry is perhaps not an easy task, but it’s certainly something we can aspire to. When it comes to marketing – well, that’s not easy either, but how many libraries exist within larger organisations that have their own marketing departments, and how many of us make use of them? How many of us willing talk ourselves up, both as individuals and as organisations, by going after media, speaking at conferences, writing articles? Perhaps the hardest thing of all is going to be the immediacy issue: with limited funding, how can we satisfy our customers’ desire for immediacy? It’s not always feasible to buy more books, and how else do you meet demand? But even here, there are things we can do: think outside the square, like mpow has, and put in place programs designed to ensure the latest and hottest titles are on the shelves. Or run customer programs that teach people about how great eBooks are, so demand increases for this lower-priced format.
So, be agile, talk yourself up, and give your customers what they want, right now, then the future of the library is guaranteed. Piece of cake, right?!