Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Commercial Ads in Libraries

In the classic 1975 film Rollerball, giant evil corporations govern the world. There are many other films and books with such a premise, but they didn’t pop up on Netflix when I was home with a cold a few weeks ago, so they don’t get a mention.

I bring it up because of the recent story about two libraries accepting paid ads from businesses to bring in more revenue. This could be a brief fad, or it could be the first step to a dystopian future where library walls look like billboards and library staff like NASCAR drivers.

In Toronto, the libraries are putting ads on the back of date due slips, but in Port Chester – Rye Brook, NY the ads are on toilet paper, which a Kind Reader alerted me to. Toilet paper ads, because those businesses want to go where the library patrons “go.”

In a bit of confused reporting, the article briefly implies that the chair of ALA’s professional ethics committee agrees with the librarians in Toronto selling the ads, but it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t, saying, “Is the loss of the library’s reputation within the community worth the potential advertising revenue?”

I guess the answer to that question would depend on what the reputation was before the advertising, but you get the point. The idea is that libraries are places where commerce doesn’t belong, probably because libraries are supposed to be for everyone and not just those who can afford to pay.

It’s a nice sentiment, and I can see the logic behind it. Commerce is inherently exclusive.

Corporations often make a lot of money because people buy their expensive products so they can deliberately exclude themselves from the people who can’t afford them. All the BMW driving librarians reading this on their iPads will know what I’m talking about.

Libraries are about inclusivity, embracing the middle class, tolerating the underclass, and hoping to get donations from the upper class who never use them.

Unfortunately, the anti-commercial practice disappeared from libraries a long time ago.

For example, one popular feature in libraries is ebooks. Most of them come from Overdrive, and Overdrive is branded, and every Overdrive page I’ve seen looks pretty much like another, with maybe a few colors different.

Then there’s the very popular database provider Ebsco. Every Ebsco page I’ve ever seen looks exactly like, colors and all.

Another popular database provider is ProQuest. And ProQuest always looks like ProQuest.

Ebrary always looks like Ebrary.

Libraries pay a lot of money for these products, only to have the products then brand themselves to draw attention from the library.

The head of the ALA professional ethics committee asks another good question: “Would advertisers’ messages appear to give them a place of privilege when a patron asks for a list of all local establishments in that line of business?”

I would think not, but who knows. Regardless, we could ask the ALA the same question. Does the ALA privilege Gale for providing the buses at conferences, or Cengage for providing branded badge holders, or Ebsco for providing branded tote bags?

ALA publications have all sorts of ads from library vendors hawking everything from books to furniture.

The ALA isn’t a library, you might say, but it’s still a member-funded organization that takes in ad revenue without consulting the members. Have they ever had a member vote on whether we want Ebsco printed on all our tote bags? When will we have a resolution from SRRT about that one?

Anyway, back to ads in libraries. It’s too late to object, because the corporations providing just about everything for libraries have already branded them. Many of the online interactions library patrons have with libraries already take place in a corporate branded environment.

So what difference does it make if the physical interactions are any different? If libraries are already about Overdrive and Ebsco, why shouldn’t they also be about pizza joints or personal injury lawyers?



  1. anonymous says:

    We may have to put up with the branding you refer to, but that doesn’t mean we have to add to it. As it is, we lose some control when we deal with vendors; imagine how much more control we would lose if we were beholden to Coca Cola (or BMW or Nike or whoever). If Verizon is your major advertiser, what is to stop them from threatening to pull funding if you buy a book about the history of AT&T?

  2. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    It’s a bit of a stretch to equate Ebsco, Gale & Overdrive branding with regular types of advertising. The average (and I would venture) above average library user has no clue what these companies are and what they do. Are people really going to run home to get their own subscription to the Gale Virtual Library after seeing it at their local branch? Did we cover up the brands on the printed material for Gale when we handed them to patrons in the past? If Target sponsors a program or event, that may actually bring in some more shoppers.

    I do have to wonder how Star Toilet Paper tracks the effectiveness of their advertising product..

  3. The advertising has always been here – books have the publisher imprint right on the spine. I think there is a difference between selling ads and allowing companies you do business with to brand their products.

    Additionally, a careful sponsorship policy should be able to allow local businesses to contribute to a library and allow for a simple logo to appear somewhere on a flyer or webpage. If the library is about the community, and a vibrant business climate is essential to the community, it seems like there is a place for partnership and a necessity for acknowledgement.

    Not advocating inky toilet paper or billboards, just to be clear.

  4. We will see more advertising, branding, and naming rights applied to libraries in the future because the powers that be that control libraries (boards, city councils, city managers, etc.) are pressing library directors to “think outside the box” to come up with new revenue. This means selling advertising in the library, selling naming rights to library buildings, and more user fees. This is inevitable. These are called “revenue enhancements” which the powers that be prefer to “taxes.” Get used to it. The question is how much damage is done to the credibility of the library as an institution of learning when it sells its soul to the highest bidders.

  5. There is a difference between acknowledging a donation in a flyer, or on a webpage, and to be cheesy enough to advertise in a bathroom (putting the ad on a toilet paper just seems desperate to me). As Mary Jo says, a careful sponsorship policy can help create partnerships within the community.

  6. Having a sponsored Internet hot spot in my library has been beneficial to the library and to the patrons. The contract that was signed required that a corporate sponsorship sign be hung and a poster be displayed in the library. The company provided a hot spot and our wired connection free. The company has not produced the poster or sign and we have had free Internet access for 3 years.

  7. John Cohen says:

    I’ll gladly put a small “summer reading program sponsored by Joe’s Pizza” at the bottom of every flyer if it means I have more money for programming. I’ll gladly name a meeting room the “Jimmy Dean” meeting room if it helps pay for a needed expansion.

    Libraries need money. Naming rights and sponsorships don’t preclude us making a wide variety of material available to our patrons, they enable us to pay for things we couldn’t otherwise afford.

    I said as much in my interview to be director, and they hired me anyway. So my board, at least, is on board with advertising. There’s a line you don’t want to cross (anything that creates an exclusive scenario where you can’t buy something because someone donated money) but in this age of budget cuts and tax caps (at least here in NY) you need to do what you can.

    In a perfect would taxes, fines, and donations cover everything? Sure. We don’t live there.

    • Yes, corporate sponsorships can help pay for needed expansion, but admittedly, putting an ad on a roll of toilet paper is going too far. Acknowledging donations, and sponsorships is completely different than putting ads and coupons on the back of a due date slip.

  8. I don’t think this “trend”, if it is one, can be dismissed with “get used to it” “the new reality” or any other irritating we-don’t-want-to-fight-against-it phrase. Firstly, if you’re going to prostitute the library, make sure you are getting top dollar. Patrons really do associate those business names with the library and all the good feeling libraries engender. Businesses know that. Don’t be like the schools with the box tops and soup labels etc, giving tons of free advertising for a lousy hundred bucks in donations. Second, asserting that it doesn’t matter to your librarianship practice if you accept ad revenue is breathtaking in its hubris. Ben Goldacre talks in Bad Pharma about the effect of freebies on doctors’ prescribing habits (the effect is startling, and doctors who take freebies don’t believe it’s affecting them, but it is, to the detriment of patient health.)
    I agree with a previous poster that database branding is not quite the same thing, although we should probably get them to tone it down, AL is right. In addition, I’d just like one damn ad-free space in my life.

    • Kate, I tend to agree with you here. We can’t accept ad money and then pretend it doesn’t impact our credibility. I have often wondered about LJ accepting publisher ads and then running reviews of the books advertised in those ads. Seems to me to be a clear conflict of interest. What do you think?

    • Purdue Pharma is a huge sponsor to the public library I work in, and donates thousands of books we would never be able to afford to buy on our own. To help thank them for this donation, we keep these books on separate shelves with a small plaque that says generously donated by Purdue Pharma. After a year these items then are moved with the rest of the collection.

    • Drug reps are longer allowed in the hospital for sales calls where my partner is employed. I think it is good policy. The best outcome would find a company that supports an aspect of the library mission, which I think has happened in a few cases here. AT&T simply advertising, is much different than AT&T advertising it’s supporting literacy explicitly. That sends the right message to the client. One that implies that the library may not support every position the corporation may take, but they have agreed to join forces on particular issue/s.

  9. John Cohen says:

    What you call prostituting I call partnering. I have to admit, despite by use of Jimmy Dean up there, I’m far more comfortable going with local businesses, but in the end, we can’t do what we do without money.

    I am always, always, going to fight for as much money from the town and tax base as I can. In the end though, there are things we want to do that get done with money that comes in from other sources.

    Of course it affects how we do things. That’s the entire point. The question lies in the second part of that statement – can we be aware and minimize the negative impacts of attempts at control from the source of the money. That isn’t limited to businesses, by the way – the government tries to tell me what to do with the library’s money as well.

    Its not a “we don’t want to fight against it” phrase. Quite the opposite – I want their money. I want it a lot, because I want an awesome summer reading program with great performances, a new podcasting lab, and so on.

    But the money for the new podcasting lab can’t come with the stipulation that all podcasts end with “brought to you by company x” and the summer reading performances can’t have commercials in the middle. Its about carefully building the right relationships, including financial relationships.

    I get what you’re saying, I do. Certainly, if I were whoring out my library, I’d not want to call myself a prostitute, so I see how my protest that its partnering looks to someone who’s inclined to look at it in a different light than the way I see it. What I’m trying and perhaps failing to say is that it doesn’t need to be either the “brief fad” or “dystopian NASCAR future” that AL suggests, or even the “unwitting doctor” scenario you mentioned – it can be a useful, but non-dominating, additional source of income.

  10. I for one welcome the NASCAR jumpsuits. I’ll be much more flame resistant.

  11. I hope they’re getting those ad.s on the back of due-date slips cheaply. When I noticed that there was something on the back of my grocery receipt, I looked — once — saw it was “ugh, more ad.s” and never looked again. Nowadays we’re all well trained to recognize and tune out advertising in milliseconds.

  12. I Like Books says:

    Today’s Story Time was brought to you by Budweiser, the King of Beers; by Brylcream, a little dab’ll do ya!; and by the number 7.

  13. dan cawley says:

    I have heard people say “I like the super bowl just for the ads.” When the day comes that someone says LIBRARY instead of SUPER BOWL, please hit me over the head with a shovel.

  14. This is the one big reason I left the library industry. There seems to be this major discrepancy among librarians: Those who wish to survive, but don’t want any help (ie, advertising). The point was made in the article: “Libraries are about inclusivity, embracing the middle class, tolerating the underclass, and hoping to get donations from the upper class who never use them.”

    Well, getting donations from corporations *are* coming from the upper class. If it came to me not eating dinner at night, or adding a small, “This program was made possible by [XYZ] Company”, I’d choose the latter. Also, I wouldn’t care if those donors never set foot in my building: I’m just glad that we’re able to continue serving our public.

    The industry is evolving, and we need to evolve with it. When funds from public sources are scarce, it doesn’t help us to view private sources as evil or pimps (or, evil pimps). After all, where do you think those “private sources” got their money?

    Many of you have mentioned this in your own comments: As long as the conditions on accepting the money don’t limit the access that the public receives (which can be avoided by careful negotiations), there is no problem. I love the idea of keeping the books on a separate shelf, and then moving them into the general collection after a period of time. I love the idea of having amazing summer reading programs, with *free* materials donated by [XYZ] company. I also love the idea of partnering with a local or national business, and the win is two-fold: They give back, and the library benefits.

    The library is a business like any other entity, no matter how you want to look at it, and as such, it needs to be treated like one. Taking money from private sources is by no means prostituting the library; it’s standard business practices, when one wants to stay afloat. Again, it’s the careful negotiating that will help ensure that the core values and missions of a library remain intact – not the money. I wouldn’t envision it as ads all over the due date slip – that doesn’t need to happen, if you’re careful to make that clear.

    I once had an amazing Library Director who had a strong business background – she taught me a lot, and I really owe that to her. I think that we as librarians need to stop picturing corporations as evil entities that don’t belong in libraries, and think about how we can *partner* with them, intelligently and competitively. We also need to be able to pivot when these changes happen, so we don’t cause our whole field to implode, just because we can’t get away from our long-held principles that make no sense in our current age.

  15. Get used to it. Libraries already do more advertising than you realize. Every forthcoming book poster, posting of bestseller lists, and Gale or Ebsco Info card is a form of advertising, albeir free advertising on the library’s part.

  16. Librarian in Texas says:

    I haven’t read all of this nor the comments, but this is nothing new. Approximately 1990, a city in Texas was having budget cuts. The library, instead of whining about cuts to collection development sold their magazine subscriptions to area businesses. Then the business was recognized by their logo on the magazine protective covers. Often the magazine subject was matched to the donor…. History is only repeating itself.

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