Matthew Ismail loves to challenge assumptions, and as Director of Collection Development at Central Michigan University for the last five years, with stints at libraries in United Arab Emirates and Egypt before that, he’s seen plenty of them.
“We librarians assume that patrons will come to us,” says Ismail, who holds four Master’s degrees, one being an MLS from Kent State. “In the 1980s, they had to come to us, there was no internet. Today, many students are able to complete their college careers without using the library at all. That would have been more difficult in the 1980s.”
The problem, says Ismail, is that, institutionally, many libraries are still living in the 1980s, the era of Tears for Fears and Tina Turner—a long time ago.
He points to the abundance of competition for readers and researchers’ attention—publicly available Government and NGO resources, preprint archives, open access journals, and pirate sites that enable people to download academic articles. “They’re all very easy to find,” says Ismail, “and they’re free.”
Ismail, who oversees 13 subject librarians at CMU, spends a lot of time thinking about how libraries can step outside their 1980s comfort zone. “User experience testing and focus groups,” he says, “those will provide answers.”
He says it’s important for libraries to first understand who their users are, to get a better understanding of how to address their problems.
“There’s a tendency, for instance, to look at each other’s websites and mimic them, rather than look at their users and figure out how they can construct websites that work for them,” he says.
Ismail suggests that librarians need more skillful interactions with faculty and students. “That’s something each library needs to do better—talk and interface with the users, and ask them ‘at what point do you find yourself frustrated by the library?’”
Once there’s a clear understanding of who the users are and what their challenges are, only then can a library begin the important task of marketing its services—another thing that Ismail has spent a lot of energy on, as when he recently spoke at the Charleston Conference on the topic “Research in the Real World,” about how libraries can best get their collections used.
“When we in the library world think of promoting ourselves, we need to tell people who we are and what services we provide, but the other side of that is going out and talking to people and asking, ‘where do you find your information? Who directs you to info?’ A lot of students just use their textbooks, and their assignments don’t require the library.”
Ismail says that libraries need an organized way to talk about marketing among each other, to better understand that there is more to it than merely saying “this is what we have.”
“Libraries need to understand that effective marketing relies on emotional criteria,” he says.
And the only way to understand the emotional criteria is to understand users’ needs, and how a library can be a part of their success.
“We really need to embed our communication within their express needs and desires,” he says. “To a very large degree that has been lost. We can say to them, we’re online 24/7, or, we’ll save you time. We need to engage them with things that matter to them, things that will trigger emotional responses.”
One marketing effort that Ismail and team employed that focused on users’ needs was an app called BrowZine, which allows faculty and students to organize their journals. “We used this as a marketing opportunity to be able to say to people that we’re not just about books: we have this app that will allow you to read and organize your journals. Part of the plan was just to help people do research on tablets and tell them we’re 90 percent electronic. We’re innovative.”
His team also created videos, in an attempt to reach out to students in a way that would make it more comfortable for them. “I talk to students who are first generation college students and they’ve never been in a large academic library,” he says.
The two videos, slickly produced and less than a minute each, titled “Learn, Connect, Create” and “Connect, Collaborate, Succeed,” offer clear illustration that Ismail and team are attempting to collaborate in their users’ success. The Library Leadership and Management Association agreed, acknowledging the effort with a PR Xchange Award for Advocacy (for a budget between $5,000-$15,000) in 2015.
If libraries want to remain relevant, funded, and able to compete for the attention of students and faculty, it’s increasingly important to identify their needs, which Ismail spends much time thinking about. “We’re trying to tell students that this library is for you,” he says.