March 16, 2018

The Innovator’s Dilemma – what it means for libraries

I’ve been re-reading this classic title, The Innovator’s Dilemma’s by Clayton Christensen, as I continue to think deeply about libraries and marketing and now as Chief Customer Experience Officer. It’s nothing less than a textbook for libraries as we move into an ambiguous future turned upside down by eBooks.

I know, I know. You’ll say that eBook users are only 25% of readers and that data suggests that people reading on eBooks read more. To that I say: start reading this book right now.

eBooks represent what Christensen calls disruptive technology. In the short term these innovations are more fringe than mainstream, underperform in some ways, but in the near term transform behavior permanently. Some great examples he cites:


Established   Technology                               Disruptive Technology

Printed greeting cards                                            Free greeting cards via the internet

Offset printing                                                         Digital printing

Graduate schools of management                       In-house corporate management training

Cardiac bypass surgery                                          Angioplasty

Standard textbooks                                                Modular digital textbooks


But here’s where we really need to pay attention. Why did companies fail to adapt – like Sears, Kodak, etc.? Because they did the same things that make companies succeed: they listened to their customers.  And I’d suggest that, like many in libraries, we listen to ourselves: because people who work in libraries do so because they love books, they are blinded by their own beliefs and aren’t seeing what is happening.

I was talking recently to a group of staff and talking about how eBooks represent serious competition to our industry that traditionally hasn’t faced competition and so doesn’t recognize it. Oh, no, they said. People in our neighborhoods don’t have eBooks and so that isn’t relevant. But guess what? The taxpayers who fund our work are buying eReaders and are beginning to ask why should they fund an outmoded institution. Seriously. I’ve had this conversation several times this year and it is scaring the heck out of me.

But rather than run scared, I maintain that’s where marketing plays a key role. Marketing helps define value and then – through multiple channels – communicates that value. And we need to make sure we emphasize that value as something much more than books. It will be hard work and we have a lot of people to get on board, but I believe it is possible.


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.

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  1. Joneser says:

    Staff are “customers” too. Does anyone think about their “experience”?

  2. Spongebob Librarypants says:

    The line “eBooks represent serious competition to our industry that traditionally hasn’t faced competition and so doesn’t recognize it” is not entirely accurate. At least since the mid 1990’s, when the internet really began to take a foothold in many public libraries, we have faced competition. Google,, LSSI, all of these entities have been around for years and have, at one time or another and in one way or another, been viewed as competition for libraries.

  3. Info Ninja says:

    “The taxpayers who fund our work are buying eReaders and are beginning to ask why should they fund an outmoded institution.”

    I agree with the core of your argument, but I believe that most of the people who are asking this question are not library users (and in many cases, never were). That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to turn them into library users, but it’s my experience that a lot of the ‘why do I have to pay for libraries’ talk in the current economic and political environmental can be translated into ‘Other people use libraries. I don’t, so cut them. But if you come after a service I care about, I’ll scream bloody murder.’