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Is Marketing Really So Easy Even Librarians Can Do It?

I’m sure many of you have come across the businessy librarians who get excited by anything that comes from the world of commerce, whether it be marketing strategies or job titles or bulleted lists of inspiration. One I saw recently got terribly excited that libraries are doing almost as much with social media as top corporations are. One could shout, "Yay!!" Or one could just say, "who cares?"

That kind of wide-eyed longing for acceptance by people who go out into the world and make money is fine, as long as librarians don’t do it in the periodicals room and annoy people. The comparisons that I find most ludicrous are those urging librarians to act more like business people and get all excited by "marketing," "branding," "hierarchy-of-effects theory," and the "five forces model." The assumption seems to be that reading a few blog posts and attending a workshop at a conference will make us all businessy.

That’s not the only preparation we have, of course. There’s also that library management course taught in so many library schools, usually by people who – surprise, surprise – have never been nor ever will be library managers. But when it comes to library management courses, where there’s a textbook, there’s a way!

Thus, your average well-prepared businessy librarian comes to the library armed with a library management course, RSS subscriptions to three or four fluffy but pithy blogs written by so-called gurus, and the Wikipedia. And they wonder why we’re not all impressed with their broad learning and deep thinking on the topic.

One question I have is, if this business stuff is so easy, then why are there entire degree programs dedicated to it? We could ask the same about library schools, I know, but that would just be mean!

Besides, the best universities don’t have library schools, but they do have business schools. According to the U.S. News rankings, the top 10 MBA programs are Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Penn, MIT, Chicago, Berkeley, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale. Nary a one in the bunch with a library school, but surely these programs are teaching something difficult and intellectually challenging.

Of course, there are numerous online business schools that don’t teach much and are just there to hand out master’s degrees for money. But surely those are more comparable to most library schools than the top 10 are.

Given that business administration is a discipline unto itself, and must be at least as difficult as library science, then why do so many librarians seem to think that we can all become master marketers without the necessary education? Is it really all that easy? Are those schlubs at Harvard and Stanford going through MBA programs as easy as so many MLS programs?

The answer is most likely "no," which leaves the businessy librarians in a tricky situation. They’re not trained marketing people, yet they clamor on about marketing as if they’re experts of some sort that we should defer to. If we don’t defer to them, it’s because we don’t have the extensive experience they have in taking a library management course, reading some blogs, and looking up terms in Wikipedia.

The solution to the problems of businessy librarians isn’t to bring MBAs into libraries. That’s the last thing we need. The culture of MBA students is to sacrifice everything for profit, but libraries can’t run that way because they don’t make profits. Even the libraries at for-profit "universities" like Phoenix don’t make profits. In fact, they’re a drain on the profits, which would explain why those places have such pathetic libraries.

(From the U. of Phoenix eLibrary page: "Tap into the online University Library and you’ll find literally thousands of documents catalogued and ready for your use." Wow! Thousands of documents! Now that’s what I call a library!)

The solution to the problem is for librarians to start trying to run libraries well and stop pretending libraries are something other than they are. Libraries aren’t businesses. Their goal isn’t to make money. MBA types would probably be appalled at the effort librarians exert to give stuff away for free, and that’s the way it should be.

If you’re a librarian who goes all gooey inside when you think about Ansoff ‘s Matrix or market segmentation, then you’re probably in the wrong field. And, as I always say when ending a tedious relationship, the problem isn’t me, it’s you.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. Don’t every innovate.

    Don’t try anything new.

    That is my message for anyone thinking about an MLS degree.

    Learn how to type catalog cards.

    Learn how to put your hair up in a bun.

    Learn to say shush.

    Learn the librarian hand.

    Learn that books are the only answer and that collection development should revolve around the ALA guidelines and nothing else.

    If you want to innovate go try that internets thing.

  2. AL, normally I read this column and laugh. But this one hits me right where it hurts. I got my MLS degree in 1992 and worked for 6 years in public and school libraries for ridiculously low wages. Eventually I moved into the business sector where I was able to actually stop living paycheck to paycheck. Last year I completed my MBA degree through the University of Phoenix. The business classes taught there did not espouse “sacrifice everything for profit” but explained business principles. We even *gasp* learned that these principles apply to non-profit companies. Understanding where your money comes from and how to market your services is extremely helpful no matter what sector you work in.
    You may be surprised that business ethics are covered in most MBA programs. In my program students were encouraged to draw my own conclusions based on research and their work experience. Amazingly people actually had to have real life experience to join the MBA program.
    At UW library school I was told that we had to follow every dictate of the ALA, including all the censorship silliness you ranted about in your previous post. MLS professors encouraged us to make our libraries inviting to the homeless, all material (pornography or not) open to all ages, and god forbid you have a collection development policy that allowed buying books that promoted creationism or anything so provincial. So before making fun of us MBA folks (especially those that went through the University of Phoenix) try taking some of those business classes and learning the joys of thinking.

    By the way – was I appalled at the UOP library? Nope, it was all online and it was really well organized. It had a very thorough business collection. I was dismayed that my classmates (mostly professionals in their 30’s or 40’s) had clearly never been exposed to a library and had difficulty navigating through the “thousands and thousands” of items.

  3. Dr. Frankenstein says:

    Marketing libraries leads to socialism and socialism leads to the downfall of western civilization as we know it.


  4. mark gochnour says:

    Marketing our materials and library services is a good thing. It is “the how” we do it which needs some reflection and cost analysis. Marketing, Web 2.0, and the next new idea has things we may be able to use but not all of us have the time, the expertise, and the commitment level to participate in them when we are not working on a public service desk, nor do we have time when we are not on the desk. We need to be mindful of what is out there and then decide how we can use what we can now and be ready in the future if that is a better time. We need to make sure the hottest new trend is not something that takes us over so that we forget our core mission. We should cannibalize what is good from the latest innovation; apply and utilize it to our best advantage. Jumping on the latest bandwagon may not get us the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck!

    I remember when computers were first being used in the libraries and people were not sure what to do with them. Computer technology evolved and people became familiar with how to use computers and it changed the world and us as librarians in how we do things. The ordering of materials, cataloging, writing memos and making multiple copies for dissemination, making fliers and publicizing our programs, indexing, providing access to information, searching for books, holds, and checking out and returning materials have been changed by computers but we are still doing these same tasks, just in a different way. What I am doing right now is a product of years of technological changes. I can revise what I am writing, spell and grammar check this document in Word until I think what I have is perfect and then paste as a comment. Typing this on a typewriter and letting you (the world) read it thirty-five years ago would have been almost beyond belief except in science fiction books.

    No matter what, for the foreseeable future, people will be reading or searching for information. The question for us, as librarians, is how we will be involved. We had better market ourselves to the taxpayers and those who pay us about what we have to offer and then make sure what we do is done our work in the very best way with excellent customer service. Otherwise, no one will choose to consult us for help and our funders will eliminate our jobs and I, for one, do not believe in self service libraries. (

  5. Perhaps the problem is the the public does not like libraries as they are and stays away, not because of librarys’ failure to market, but because it opposes the way they are run and the policies they operate by. Maybe the healthiest thing libraries could do is to disregard selected ALA guidelines to make libraries a safe place for children, and invite input rather than being adversarial.
    Here’s a business principle that probably also applies to libraries: if you are nasty to your customers, they will not come back.
    Its a truism that children are the future of the nation. Seems to me that children are the future of libraries, too, and if the majority of children stay away the future of libraries looks bleak.

  6. THE Library God says:

    I will not tolerate input from the public.

    They are uneducated and do not know how libraries operate.

    They only should come into my hallowed halls when they want a book or their snot-nosed brat has a project due. Then, they should listen to my authoritative lecture on what is good and bad.

    I am sure they don’t go to church or have any morals or education so I have to make sure that they get what they need.

    Fear me, for I am the Lord of Information.

    I shall smite down anyone who DARES to defy me.

    My SHUSH! is mightier than any word in the world.

    Now, be gone, mortal.

  7. Techserving You says:

    Ignoring the substance of this post, I do have to point out that the top universities in Canada, such as McGill, Toronto, and UBC do have library schools. To those of you who don’t know anything about Canada… yes, these are major research universities which are highly ranked internationally. (Also their MLIS programs are longer than US programs.)

  8. Techserving You says:

    (Also Columbia used to have a library school.)

    This is not to say that I think library school is hard. I’m just sayin’.

  9. Techserving You says:

    If you’re not joking, then that is an incredibly ignorant comment.

  10. Ugh … Someone with an MBA should screen these ignorant posts before they’re published. They don’t teach you about making money in business school. They teach you how to think. They teach you to solve problems, to make processes more efficient, and to make strategic decisions. Graduates of my (full-time resident) MBA program came from a variety of backgrounds and pursued careers in a variety of areas. And don’t worry, MBAs never last long in libraries. It’s not the effort to “give stuff away,” it’s the pervasive, stunning incompetence.

  11. Seth Stephens says:

    I think you are correct AL. Often what we librarian call marketing has nothing to do with understanding and knowing our services and customers. Librarians seem to believe promotion and marketing are synonomous. Marketing is much more than creating a flyer and writing a press release.

  12. Anon poster says:

    I agree with Seth Stephens. In my LIS management class, we had an open discussion on the terms marketing and advertising. The students decided the two are synonymous and the professor certainly didn’t object!

  13. If you have to advertise your service, then it shouldn’t be paid for with tax dollars.

  14. The thing that bugs me about library “management” lit, is that it fails to modify anything from business management lit—libraries are not businesses! Why did everyone teaching at my MLIS program think we had “customers” or that we were “competing” with Google?

  15. MLS Dropout, great job of perpetuating the stereotype of the ignorant American. Perhaps you had to drop out of library school because you never mastered the skill of finding data to support your claims? Or of accepting data that refutes them? According to international data, a U.S. high school diploma isn’t worth much. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the international benchmark for this, and you’ll find Canada’s high school students listed as scoring “significantly above the OECD average” in science, reading and math. The U.S. is conspicuous by its absence on these lists of top scorers (all their data is available online at if you’re interested). There are also two Canadian universities in the top 50 in the Financial Times’ rankings of top business schools, but I suppose you know something they don’t.

  16. I love how simply pointing out facts makes me “anti-American.” The reflexive insult of those who can’t defend their rhetoric with logic. And I never mentioned Obama, so I’m not sure how how I got classified as his “worshipper.” Actually, I’ve always thought he was over-rated; typical of the American political culture of building up a politician into a celebrity, then worshipping him. As for socialism, every two-bit pundit who thinks they’re “conservative” and vilifies “liberals” and “socialists” (who are apparently the same, according to your thinking) should take political science 101 and discover what these words really mean before (mis)using them.

  17. Well, I certainly never intended to get into marketing, but since I’ve been told that’s in my job, I’ve been doing what I can to learn that trade. It’s not easy, but I’ve discovered that it’s actually kind of interesting.

    The most interesting part is that nothing libraries call marketing is what marketing people call marketing. Most of it is “doing your regular job of explaining resources to patrons.” It’s true, there are a lot of things the public tends to like when they hear about them the first time, but that’s… information. Which is what we do. Maybe “outreach,” if you want to get fancy and proactive. Do we especially need advertising?

    Eh, maybe for some of the things we have that users just don’t know about. Most are thrilled to find out they can look up periodical articles and read them full text from home with no subscriptions necessary, and it hadn’t occurred to them to look. So, yeah.

    But they never really focus that way. Exactly whose “customers” are we planning to lure away to use our “brand”?

  18. Almost Librarian says:

    “If we don’t defer to them, it’s because we don’t have the extensive experience they have in taking a library management course, reading some blogs, and looking up terms in Wikipedia.”

    WRONG! It’s because so few of ANY library management has ANY job experience outside government. I’m on my third career and the first two were in the real world. Library “marketing” is usually just librarians playing at a new fad like LIB 2.0. or changing the REFERENCE sign to INFORMATION.

  19. Jesus was a socialist Jew. says:

    LIS degrees are a joke is a Glenn Beck Sheep waiting for the Theocracy of the United States of America to overthrow this bastion of Satan and those annoying injuns out in Utah.

  20. PBR librarian says:

    “The solution to the problem is for librarians to start trying to run libraries well and stop pretending libraries are something other than they are. Libraries aren’t businesses.” – Word.

    I feel like we are running around in circles like a headless chicken at my branch: “Has anyone updated the Facebook page today? Quick, someone post something on Twitter! Be sure to tell every teen you see today about our Teen Health database because no one is using it. In fact, go tell those teens quietly playing checkers about it right now!”

    Ugh. I feel like if we concentrated our efforts and focused on doing our jobs and perhaps improving our website (which is a dull mess) then we wouldn’t need to bother with these things. I want my job to be about providing good customer service, not trying to reinvent myself as someone in marketing and desperately trying to play catch up with the latest social media sites.

  21. Just face it.

    We are the buggy whip makers of the information age.


    It doesn’t matter if we are hip or if we are square.

    We are dead.



    If you are not a dusty old hippy, tenured, librarian who will die with the library; you better have a resume ready so that you can go out there and market yourself.

    Either that or wind up asking reference questions like “Do you want fries with that?”

  22. The Bewildered Public, Library says:

    Just face it.

    We are the data mining purveyors of the information age.


    It doesn’t matter if we are hip or if we are square.

    We are eternal.



    If you are a dusty old hippy, tenured librarian you will die while the library thrives; if not, your future precludes the need for a resume it’s so bright.

    Either way, asking reference questions like “Do you want fries with that?” will be laughed at derisively.

  23. Jesus was a socialist Jew,

    That’s true! He was also a wealth denying, charity giving, community organizing, peace loving anti-war, pro-tax activist who not only hugged trees, but died on one, as well.

  24. I just like the Heather and MMMM MMMM MMMM part. Heather is such a sexy name. And Canadian too! As they say in Quebec; oo la la

  25. Yes, some should be able to do it.

  26. LIS Marketing student says:

    ROF-LMAO! I am a MLIS student in a Library Marketing class. I found this blog researching my Internet marketing paper. I also have a BS in Business. I absolutly LOVE this post. It is so spot on regarding the ‘wide-eyed turn your library into a business’ attitude I see in my classes, notably taught by instructors desperately trying to distance themselves from libraries before we all go extinct sometime this year.

  27. You know, I thought I was getting a MLS so I could be a librarian. I had no idea I had to be a marketing expert, a manager, a social worker, and protector of democrasy. Just because I’m a good reference librarian does not mean I am automatically an advertising executive or a qualified supervisor. Many librarians are forced into these extra-parametial jobs because there is not enough funding for someone that is actually qualified to do them. I have no problem with the branch manager actually being a manager that runs the people and lets the librarians run the library. Just because I’m a librarian does not mean I am automatically qualified nor williing to manage. Many librarians get shoved into managment positions whether they are actually managerial material or not – often times with crappy results. Not sure if this rant is relevant to the discussion, but I sure feel better getting it off my chest.

  28. And I need a spell-checker…

  29. I thought that they were “spill-checkers” in Texas.

  30. Default Blog Commenter ++ says:

    Odd, there have been few comments here lately. It must be the socialism in America that’s to blame.

    Come to think of it, my Starbucks coffee was a little cold this morning. This is a sure sign of a creeping socialism taking root in America.

  31. Just a Thought says:

    What if libraries finally got smart and changed the game. People want to be at Barnes and Noble with a Starbucks.

    They do not want to be in a smelly craphole filled with lingering homeless.

    So instead of begging for homeless and giving away useless crap to people to get them in, sell real services to pump money into making libraries good places to be. What is wrong with selling things and charging real fees, less than you would pay at a bookstore, but enough to generate some cash for libraries (to er, um hire (which means firing the current incompetents who had fugged up american libraries) qualified employees, create new services and grow, yes, grow, become nice places to be.

    You can even have really nice free, educational programs all generated by the , what, the huh, the money!!!!!!!!!

    It is still not for profit, but you can charge for certain things like food and drinks, rental or late fees. But you have to get people to want to be there…….. …………….

  32. Can you imagine the public paying for library services by means of their taxes and then being asked to pay more to use the library?

    Ha Ha Ha! Right.

  33. Learn to Read, not at a library says:

    The Poster said, new services such as cafes etc, a different model of a library, not adding prices to the already free services such as books and internet.

    The revenue being generated could help create better, “free programs” and options as well as nicer libraries for everyone to use, which in turn would pump more money into the libraries, which is exactly what they are lacking, I know I became redundant and other new grads cannot even get a call for an interview.

    The model sounds good to me. I have seen it in Europe at some really neat, beautiful libraries, even some with bars in them.

    It is that old timey dark ages mentality with total lack of business sense that is killing libraries today. Non-profits are still business that need money to survive. So keep it up and Yeah to bad service, no cafes, homeless attacks,and harassment, great combo. HA HA indeed.

  34. I Like Books says:

    My local libraries always seem pretty full when I get there– it can be hard to find a place to park, and inside it can be hard to find a place to sit. Their funding still gets cut, but they sure don’t have to beg people to come in through the door.

    I suppose that just means that the people whose continuing education has the greatest impact on the local communities are out fishing.

  35. The 1980’s were the old timey dark ages?

    Why does saying yes to cafes mean you have good service?

  36. Cafes generate money. WIth money you can buy things and pick and choose what you want and need, like better, more qualified staff. Without money you get less. A No Brainer.

    This is 2010, not 1980, in terms of technology and the new century hybrid of cafe-culture learning centers, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

  37. vv.richard6 says:

  38. Librarians not only can use marketing concepts in their work, they should. AL suggesting that we can’t because it’s part of an MBA program is ridiculous. I guess no one can recommend a book to another person without a library degree and I can’t teach someone to read without a masters degree in education. That’s silly. Nobody’s saying that marketing is easy, but it isn’t that hard. AL is revealing some ignorance of marketing in her discussion of profit. Yes – libraries, other public agencies, and nonprofits aren’t businesses – that’s why social marketing was developed 40 years ago in a successful attempt to apply marketing principles to organizations like libraries. Instead of offering platitudes like “start trying to run libraries well” the AL should read up on applying social marketing concepts to her work. I recommend the book “Social Marketing: influencing behaviors for good” as a place to start.

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