Annoyed Librarian
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Reading is Hip

The AL often depends on the kindness of strangers, whether it’s obsessive stalkers who drive up blog traffic or kind readers who send great stories.

From one kind reader comes this delightful story from Chicago: Chicago Public Library’s ‘Library Lounge’ Nights Aim To Make Libraries Cool Again. Chicago, as you might know, is a toddlin’ town, the kind that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down, and the Chicago Public Library wants to take advantage of that.

As part of a “Not What You Think” campaign (and by god you had better not think of books!), the CPL is heading to local bars to hand out library cards and tell “young, professional urbanites” all about the library. I think it would be better to host parties in the library itself, but maybe there’s a rule against that.

Having been a young, professional urbanite myself once upon a time – at least if you count librarianship as a profession – I can only applaud and approve. It’s a great idea to associate libraries with alcohol and good times.

I myself frequently sit on my balcony sipping wine and reading an improving book. Not today, of course, since the weather where I am is much too wet, but frequently.

However, while Lounge Nights might be a great idea, this story promoting them is pretty bad from beginning to end.

The title is just weird. When were libraries ever cool? If they were never cool, they certainly can’t be cool “again.” Isn’t the writer familiar with library stereotypes?

Sadly, I don’t think the writer is familiar with library anything, and as usual we have a news story promoting libraries written by someone who hasn’t set foot in one for decades.

For example, it begins, “If the last time you saw your library card was senior year of high school, then there’s a good chance it’s still tucked away in your “East of Eden” paperback.”

Huh? Maybe if the “young, professional urbanites” went to high school in the fifties or sixties, but which of them is likely to have read “East of Eden”?

We also find out that “In addition to having the opportunity to sign up for a library card, Chicago residents can also learn about the valuable resources available to them at CPL. Hint: it’s much more than the microfilm we all sifted through for term papers in the ‘90s.”

Again, huh? Did we all sift through microfilm for term papers in the ‘90s? Something tells me the writer’s experience with libraries is very limited.

To be fair, she’s most likely prompted by the CPL’s Director of Marketing, who tells us about the public library collection: “We get to show off the fact that we have popular music; you know, our music is not all classical, our movies aren’t all black and white from 1945.”

That’s pretty much been the case in libraries for decades, so this is hardly news to anyone who has used one. It also seems to imply that classical music and classic movies are somehow bad, or maybe just stuffy. Classical music is great, and classic films are way hipper than any library.

The marketing director naturally enough has to give out the standard promotional line for libraries these days: “we are kind of not what people originally thought; we are very relevant, we are hip.” We wouldn’t want people to think that libraries weren’t hip. That would be a tragedy.

Librarians have been saying that for decades, and nobody seems to be listening. Millions of people use public libraries, and even they probably don’t think libraries are hip.

The problem with a lot of library marketing (if marketing is really the word for it) is that it’s hard to market an incoherent brand, and librarians are doing all they can to confuse what used to be the most coherent brand of all.

What are libraries for? Reading. That’s why the ALA has those goofy posters with celebrities that say READ. The posters don’t say, WATCH, or LISTEN. Reading. Literacy. Books. Magazines. More books and magazines than you could ever afford, and a wider selection than you would likely see elsewhere. Everything else libraries do is secondary.

And reading is hip. Think about the huge public discussion of books everywhere from Amazon reviews to Library Thing to book blogs. Books are hip. Reading is hip.

You won’t hear that from librarians very often these days, though. Libraries are apparently relevant and hip because of all the stuff they do that has nothing to do with books or reading. Unfortunately, “a whole bunch of stuff that isn’t about reading” isn’t a very catchy slogan.

I suggest instead a new slogan. Instead of “libraries are hip because they have a mishmash of things unrelated to reading,” libraries could market the one thing they do very well and that everyone already knows about.

Reading is hip.



  1. Whenever I hear librarians talking about how hip and cool they are the phrase “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” comes to mind. Of course none of those librarians would know what that means since figuring it out would mean opening a book or watching one of those stuffy old plays they don’t want to be associated with anymore.

  2. This is like the nerd trying to take off her glasses to reveal she’s really a smokin’ hot babe in all those bad 80’s movies.

    The difference is, it’s not the glasses that make her the nerd. It’s the cats she owns, and the snort when she laughs, and the fact that she dresses up as a minor character from the Harry Potter series. Oh, and the fact that she’s a nerd.

    This is the library. We can’t just take our glasses off and hope the hot boy will take us to prom.

    • Nerdiness and hipness are not mutually exclusive categories, though. If they were, people like Felicia Day (gamer, filmmaker, actress) and Nathan Fillion (gamer, actor, cult-tv-show star) wouldn’t exist.

      Trying to make libraries cool by obscuring what’s still at their core–the books–really is like giving the nerd a makeover. And you know what? In those bad 80s and 90s movies, the makeover was usually a prank.

      But we (nerds, librarians, and nerd-librarians) don’t need a makeover–we just need to own it. Geek chic is in. We like big books and we cannot lie. Et cetera.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Ravenclaw cloak to hem.

    • Sarah-


  3. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    Alternative title to this piece: “Defining ‘Mission Creep'”

  4. I want to vomit when I read a quote from a librarian saying that we’re hip. NO ONE says “hip” anymore. Why are we trying to be the cool kids? I didn’t try that hard in high school.

  5. Collectively, our public libraries are larger and better funded than the most successful corporations. They have nearly 17,000 outlets across the country, annual operating budgets of $10.7 billion (IMLS Public Library Survey, FY2008), hundreds of millions more dollars in grants and donations, and a globally recognized brand.

    It absolutely baffles me why it has been so difficult for the library community to leverage these incredible assets, and why the best they can seem to come up with are initiatives like the one described in this post.

    Through the Library Lounge Nights, the CPL will probably get a temporary uptick in its metric for new library cards issued — and consider the initiative a success as a result. I’d be interested to know if they have a plan for converting the new card holders to users, and users to advocates who naturally promote the library to others (as they do for other services they use).

  6. Does anyone know if those READ posters actually cause people to read?

    Do acceptable use policies actually cause people to act acceptably? As to the CPL, since we’re talking about that, convicted sex offenders have free and legal access to pornography at Chicago libraries:

    “Online pornography is so clear and evident at Chicago libraries that we could actually see a patron looking at porn simply by standing on a city street and looking through the window. …. But what he did was legal because there are no guidelines against viewing pornography at Chicago libraries. Even convicted sex offenders can use those computers to access sexually graphic images. One-third of the offenses involve people masturbating while at computers. …. We repeatedly tried to get an interview with Chicago Public Library officials. Instead, a spokesperson gave us a statement [quoting] library policy.”

  7. About those ALA Read posters – a friend of mine saw them and said, you know, restaurants (even cafeterias) don’t have signs up that say “Eat” because that’s why you’re there, for goodness sake.

    I have them in my library anyway, but it did give me pause.

  8. Stop make “Libraries Are Hip” happen! It’s never gonna happen!!!

    (doesn’t make me love them any less, though)

  9. Peter Atkinson says:

    @ Jean I fear the reason we can’t leverage our assets is because we don’t really know what they are in the minds of our users.

    Seeing so many people still talking about books and reading is part of the problem. When we put up posters saying ‘Read’, we reconfirm stereotypes, shout at our users instead of listening to them and devalue the many other reasons people come into libraries.

    Though libraries have great recognition they have a really poorly-developed brand. And this continually hampers us. We waste time with silliness like claiming to be ‘cool again’ when we never really were. We might be exciting for a new reader or helpful for someone doing research but cool is something else altogether.

    More to the point, we desperately need leadership – ideally at national or state/provincial level – to develop the library brand in the purest marketing sense of knowing who and what we are. Hint; ‘read’ doesn’t do it.

    I’d suggest that we might do better focusing on results. I’m less interested in how much reading a patron did than in how our library has helped enrich and improve a life. They might have learned a new skill that got them a better paying job watching online how-to videos. Someone could earn a degree online at our public internet stations. Would that be such a bad outcome to be able to say we were part of?

    If I’m trying to sell a pencil, I don’t tell you it has an eraser. I tell you that if you make a mistake you can easily correct it and keep going without wasting time. We need to focus less on our features and more on our benefits. The value of our features is subjective, the value of our benefits is not.

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