:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Library Brand


   It's likely that few professionals worry more about how their services
   are perceived than librarians. Lawyers may have more reason for
   concern, but many of them laugh all the way to the bank. We have little
   if not our reputation. So the new report published by OCLC,
   "Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources," deserves notice.

   OCLC commissioned Harris Interactive, Inc. to survey Internet users
   worldwide. The responses, gathered online, represent a significant
   portion of our user communities. The survey--asking such questions as,
   How are libraries perceived by today's information consumer? Do
   libraries still matter? On what level? Will library use likely increase
   or decrease?--generated heartwarming comments but also much to cause

   Sample findings

   The report states a key finding bluntly: "'Books' is the library brand.
   There is no runner-up." In an age where many people are accustomed to
   successfully retrieving information over the web, even while using
   library-licensed resources, this is disturbing.

   But there's more. The survey shows that respondents pretty much equally
   trust the information they found using Internet search engines and the
   information they received from their library. And even worse, we appear
   to fail even on service: "Respondents indicated that search engines
   deliver better quality and quantity of information than
   librarian-assisted searching--and at greater speed."

   Several recurring themes surfaced, according to the report: users are
   not aware of the electronic resources libraries make freely available;
   users are as comfortable using web information sources as library
   sources; and "The library brand is dated." Indeed, just six percent of
   total respondents said they are satisfied with the library and the
   services offered.

   The bright side

   All is not gloom and doom, however. George Needham of OCLC, in a
   podcast interview by UK vendor Talis, said, "Seventy-five percent of
   the respondents actually have library cards and they have very positive
   ideas about libraries, although their perceptions about libraries were
   primarily formed in about the 1950s, I think." Many respondents had
   rather outdated views of library services.

   "The biggest message that comes out of this report," Needham continued,
   "is that we have to do a better job of advocating for libraries and
   [of] merchandising and marketing and getting the word out about what we

   This report, as well as the Environmental Scan that came out over a
   year ago (which people are still talking about), is an excellent
   example of the kind of strategic leadership we need. OCLC is trying to
   help us all puzzle out what it means to be a modern library and to
   identify the challenges and opportunities before us.

   Tip of the iceberg

   Quotes from the survey (e.g., "Don't be so uptight about kids hanging
   out in the library," complains a U.S. 17-year-old) and tabular data are
   sprinkled throughout the report, but Appendixes A and B (which make up
   nearly half of the 290-page report) collect the supporting data tables
   and many survey respondent statements. These are only a sample of the
   data available, however, as OCLC retains a trove of data that staff
   will continue to mine.

   We have our work cut out for us. Our support is in most cases directly
   connected to how we are perceived by our users--as it should be. If we
   are not there for them in ways they expect, or if we can't expand their
   expectations to meet our new capabilities, then we will find ourselves
   no more than the repositories of books many people apparently believe
   us to be. Given the statement, "In this world, convenience will always
   trump quality," Needham's sensible rejoinder is, "So it's our job as
   librarians to make quality convenient."

   That's an excellent start, and something I have long advocated. But
   this report also brings to light more urgent challenges. Many
   respondents clearly don't know what their libraries currently offer. We
   must revamp our services and our service posture to align with current
   user needs and expectations and then find ways to spread the word about
   our improved services to a much broader constituency.

                           For more information...
   Environmental Scan
   /2003escan.htm George Needham Podcast
   /12/george_needham.html Perceptions of Libraries and Information