April 19, 2018

Confronting the Brutal Facts

You know that chapter in Good to Great? That’s what came to mind when one of my favorite youth librarians came into my department and said: “You have to blog about this!”

She had the latest issue of Voya, the library magazine for those serving young adults. The article: “Market Your Library Like a Bookstore.” Great idea. And really good content. But. If you look at the photos, the brutal fact is that this is a long way away from a bookstore.

Do these both look like bookstores? I hate to say it, but the answer is the first one no; the second yes.

Granted libraries don’t have the same resources. But are we using that as an excuse? Plenty of small businesses who are short on resources create great visual experiences with few resources.

And the reason that this matters so much is because it is your brand.And in today’s world where keeping your market share means evolving to reflect market trends….well, using tri-fold presentation panels isn’t sending the message you hope to send. Sorry to be the one to say it.

What gets me is that it isn’t really all that hard. If we take a practiced eye and look around and really see , I’m confident that pretty much everyone would agree that these two images don’t send the same message to our public.

If you deliberately choose to embrace a brand that is represented by the first image, that is all well and good. That is your decision. But to say that these two images are remotely the same…well, as an industry we need to confront the brutal facts. Our survival depends on it.

Your thoughts?

Alison Circle About Alison Circle

Alison Circle is director of marketing communications for Columbus Metropolitan Library. Previously she was an Account Director at Jack Morton Worldwide, a global branding agency, and her primary client was Target Stores. Prior to that she was the National Marketing Director for Minnesota Public Radio and "A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor." She has advanced degrees in English and Fine Arts, and is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.



  1. Hrmm… I’m not sure that this an apt comparision. That looks like a Barnes & Noble display to me, and really, it isn’t a very good one to my eye. It doesn’t appear to be in the children’s section (look at the books to the left–all adult novels) and the books are all quite varying in terms of kid appeal and age level (some YA, some chapter book, one graphic novel).

    I will agree that the tri-fold is hardly best practice either, but it seems more fair to compare it with something a public library would be able to replicate with Microsoft Publisher or something similar. There’s a reason that B&N’s sign just says “Noteworthy Children’s Books” and that’s because it is a permanent fixture.

    But what was the context in the VOYA article for using this picture? Your blog post doesn’t say what the caption or any referring text said about it and we don’t get that journal, so I can’t check for myself.

    • Alison Circle says:

      Sorry if I wasn’t clear. The article is entitled, “Marketing Your Library LIke a Bookstore.” The photo presented was offered up as a good example. My point was to be honest and say that the tri-fold was not good…and until we can agree to that much, we all have a long way to go. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Brandon Nordin says:

    Spot on:

    I always felt that Borders actually did an interesting job of co-opting the Library experience….and was able to change their image from a play to buy to a place to hang out. Given their recent demise, perhaps they were too successful.

    But if libraries want to remain a physical destination (vs just a URL gateway) they need to think about the combining the visual merchandizing professionalism of retail with that of the hospitality industry – I know this will against the grain of many academic librarians…but we live in a consumer marketing driven culture.

  3. Thanks for sharing your keen observations. I work in library administration, and working pretty closely with our communications department, I know they get push back from some departments who don’t appreciate the notion of branding. But PR and marketing is just as important to libraries as it is to any business – maybe more so. It was nice when libraries didn’t have to defend their existence, but that era is pretty much gone. Librarians must be proactive, or their reactions will be too little, too late. Your photos gave me an idea: I’d love to see some “100% OFF” stickers on some of our display books…

  4. Co-opting the good parts of the “bookstore experience” is a fine thing to do. But it’s foolish to pretend that a library IS a bookstore, and try to mimic the economics of Barnes-&-Noble or Wal-mart. We can’t match their speed and efficiency in moving truckloads of this week’s bestseller through the “store”, for the simple reason that each copy moved represents a one-time profit for the bookstore, and a continuing expense to us.

    Libraries’ trump card — their unique strength that no bookstore on earth can compete with — is the ability to supply both past and current books, periodicals, etc., not just whatever’s at the top of the charts this week. We forget this at our peril. Perhaps rather than trying to out-B&N B&N, we should pay attention to the “long tail” paradigm that serves Amazon and other internet retailers so well, and aggressively use the potent combination of well-chosen local collections, electronic access, and the magic of interlibrary loan to provide the maximum possible selection of materials to our “customers”. I want library users to have serene and justified confidence that whatever they want or need, however outre or obscure, their friendly neighborhood librarian can get them access to it, and that they only need to pay for a copy if they want a permanent personal copy to keep.

    PS. Following this paradigm, print-on-demand kiosks and other forms of on-demand access to the “long tail” of published material are the biggest threat to libraries — and thus, something that libraries should seek to co-opt, rather than ignoring.