Is It That They Don’t Care? Or Just Don’t Want It From Us?

&tJessamyn asks “do library users care about our new initiatives?” It comes from a survey done by the Wisconsin Public Library ConsortiumOn one hand, if you interpret the results literally you could make a decision to reject technology and focus on building a collection around personal enjoyment for Wisconsin residents. On the other hand, these same results may suggest that initiatives and library services need to be marketed in such a way that resonates with current conceptions of a public library. To this end, I would suggest an exploration of branding Wisconsin library services to more effectively market services. But, regardless of the direction taken from the juncture, a heightened focus on Wisconsin public library customers and customer service is essential in order to expand and maintain your current brand loyalty.

Jessamyn raises a number of good arguments — the limited awareness of how connectivity limits people’s interest in or ability to use online services like downloadable audiobooks — but I got fired up with a few of my own.

First, we’ve got to recognize some of the challenges of user perception that we face:

  • We’ve done so poorly leveraging current technology that our users can’t imagine us offering novel services online.
  • So far, the new services we’ve offered — downloadable audiobooks and full text — have been presented so poorly, and our general web presence has been so weak that people just can’t imagine using traditional libraries online.
  • Many of our library services are mediated. Yes, we offer great opportunities to browse or read in peace, but we’ve also built this culture that expects patrons to interact with librarians. The web, on the other hand, is about freedom and self service. Our patrons may have trouble imagining a library delivering the things they value online.

So what can we do?

  • Let’s make sure our in-library services are outstanding. Invite teens in, reach out to the community, and generally do the things that make libraries valuable members of a community.
  • Let’s start small and make our library websites and catalogs as welcoming and easy to use as we want our physical services to be.
  • Then, perhaps, we can add a reference blog to help answer questions before they get asked. Perhaps we can offer some copy/paste code to allow users to embed books from our catalogs in their blogs or MySpace pages (think of how easy YouTube makes it to link back to their stuff). But, whatever we do, we’ve gotta make our basic online services great first, then we’ll have the experience and knowledge (and user receptivity) to push new services online. And we’ll grow and evolve our services from there.

In short, before we start looking at investing in downloadable audiobooks, let’s get the basics working. Our users don’t trust us to deliver online, and we have to earn it. Using downloadable media as an example, it’ll be hard for libraries to compete against the likes of iTunes, but if we’re going to do it, we’ve gotta recognize the challenges and be prepared to meet them. And we should probably get some practice doing the easy stuff right first.