The Relevance of Libraries

On April 10, 2015, KCUR’s “Up to Date” program interviewed Prof. John Palfrey about the future of libraries in the Digital Age, the day after he gave a talk on the subject at the Kansas City Public Library. During the interview, KCUR tweeted a question meant to provoke discussion about the future of libraries:

Prof. Palfrey offers an optimistic and robust vision for the future of libraries, but even he frames the discussion in a way that implicitly fuels the fire for those who question their relevance.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the data and I have to say—I can’t understand how the relevance of libraries has come into question in the first place. It bothers me that we’ve allowed this question to define the discussion about their future. I can’t think of any other public or civic institution or service that can boast the kind of numbers that libraries do. I tweet-stormed some of the most powerful:

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Logos vs. Branding

My rant last week about library logos arose from a discussion I had with a co-worker about branding libraries.

Too often, people seem to think that their logo is their branding. Or that coming up with a good logo is the most important first step in creating their brand. The conflation of logos with branding is such a universal issue that there’s a whole school of thought dedicated to correcting this misunderstanding. Google “branding is not a logo,” or “brand vs logo,” and survey the results.

Whenever I discuss library logos, someone always brings up the New York Public Library’s lion as an example of how effective a logo can be. But the reason the lion works so well as a logo is because it was already an iconic image of a library with a deeply rooted history in the community. It’s specific to the NYPL and encapsulates the reputation and history the library already has.

The purpose of a logo is simply to reference the larger identity of an organization.

That larger identity—not your logo—is your true brand. Your brand grows out of the interactions you have with your patrons and the role your library fulfills in its community.

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Death to Book Logos for Public Libraries!

Survey the websites for public libraries in the United States, and how many do you think feature some kind of book as their logo? It’s got to be well over 50% of them.

Some of my own favorite library systems use book logos. Take a look:

Oak Park Public Library in Oak Park, Illinois
Mid-Continent Public Library in Missouri
Garfield County Libraries in Colorado

These are fantastic libraries that do great work in their communities. I follow their work avidly. But seriously—what’s with the book logos?

I’ve developed an almost visceral aversion to seeing book logos on library websites. Why?

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Prohibitive Library Signs

In the library world, few issues are more divisive than the use of prohibitive signs.

On the one hand, there are those librarians who see prohibitive signs in libraries as a very bad thing. This post by Michael Stephens is a good example:

Ten Signs I Hope I Never See in Libraries Again (posted on Tame the Web on July 7, 2006)

And of course, there are the obligatory “Passive Aggressive Library Signs” boards on Pinterest:

On the other side of this debate, librarians point out the necessity of having rules—we need to maintain a safe and clean environment for all our patrons and for the maintenance of our collections.

I agree that rules are necessary—but I don’t believe that explicitly prohibitive signs are a useful or healthy way to communicate those rules to our patrons.

Even worse, such unilateral prohibitions punish patrons who don’t deserve it.

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Everything to Everyone, or: Why Library Websites Are So Complicated

“Everything to everyone is a very confusing mixed message.”

This is one of the last lines in this post from UX Magazine:

Five Customer Experience Lessons Coffee Taught Me by Tyler Wells (posted on May 5, 2014)

As a digital librarian, my library’s website is the entrance point for the Digital Branch. So it’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about library websites and following discussions about the subject. Sometimes, I even write about it.

A couple of years ago, I noticed a lot of people comparing library websites to Amazon.com. Amazon has far more stuff in their catalog than any library system (probably—I don’t actually have any numbers to back up this statement) and yet they manage to maintain a site that’s much more user friendly and highly functional than most library websites; their information architecture, their UX design, and the ways they leverage their product metadata puts most library websites to shame.

Why can’t library websites be more like Amazon?
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Library Stories vs. Library Advertising

One of the most important tasks libraries have is to tell our stories, and the stories of our communities. To show the difference we make in people’s lives. This is the best way for us to show why libraries are important.

But as soon as telling these stories crosses over into calculated advertising for your library, it destroys the message.

Consider:

This past month, there was a video that went viral online, featuring Derrick Coleman, an NFL running back for the Seattle Seahawks, telling his story of struggle being a deaf football player:
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The Answer is the Library

Jason Kramer nails it!

The Downside of Being Universally Liked | Advocate’s Corner (posted by Library Journal on May 15, 2013)

Some excerpts:

In the highly competitive and aggressive world of politics, no enemies usually means no allies. In my experience elected officials (and staff) have nice feelings about libraries, not strong feelings. As a result libraries, politically, suffer from benign neglect. The warriors don’t go where there is no war. …
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