I try to call my family at least once a week, even though – because we’re all living in a real-world Groundhog Day – we end up discussing the same things every week. Have you gone for any nice walks? Did you watch that thing on telly last night? How’s your newfound hobby coming along? Is your sanity holding up?
My favourite question by far, though, is: What are you reading?
On a call with my granny recently she told me that she’d blitzed through 5 or 6 eBooks she’d bought for 50p on her Kindle. Any more than 50p was too high a stake to bet in the risk of not enjoying the book, and consequently wasting money. Due to this personal policy, my granny waits for books she fancies reading to be reduced, or to be included in a discount bundle offer. Sometimes, particularly with recent releases, this wait can be a long one.
I told her that anyone with a library card can borrow eBooks and audiobooks through the local library, and with a couple of apps they can be accessed remotely, and downloaded straight to any device.
“Really!?” She gasped in amazement.
I wondered. Here is the local library: a free public service, an institution that presses for equitable access to information and knowledge, a place that boasts a myriad of tools, services, and activities besides free books (although, free books alone is a great selling point) that goes largely unnoticed.
But why is the public library slipping under the radar of the general public?
For a small assignment on my course last term, we had to research an information service. My group chose Canada Water library, which is a branch of the Southwark council library network.
While I investigated how they promote their services, I found that the library has an online presence on many platforms (Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and most actively on Twitter), but it is mostly operated through a generalised Southwark Council profile, or through the centralised Southwark library network. You can also sign up for email alerts about upcoming events on the Southwark Council library website.
After corresponding with the very informative library manager at Canada Water, it was noted that the library doesn’t have a designated marketing position, or an ongoing promotion project. Alongside an internet presence and internal promotion (advertising events within the library to its existing users), the library also distributes hard-copy literature within the local community to reach those who may not have access to the internet.
Canada Water library boasts incredible resources, from the expected physical books, eBooks audiobooks, DVDs and CDs, to other digital resources such as eMagazines and eNewspapers, and even a film streaming service. The library also hosts online events such as children’s rhyme time, craft workshops, and business skills seminars. It has a heritage collection and a family history program which allows access to local historical records such as electoral registers, deeds to properties, and newspapers. Patrons can use the business reference advisor site COBRA, and study resources for the British citizen test and driving theory test.
It’s important to note here that Canada Water library is not a uniquely plentiful service… most UK public libraries offer similar resources!
With all this and more, why aren’t more people using the library?
I’m especially thinking of young people when I say that the issue with the above sort of advertising is that it is asking the potential patrons to come to the library’s page, rather than bringing their page to the potential patron. Young people aren’t using Flikr, or even Facebook as much anymore.
Advertising in the GLAM sector for young people does not get much more effective than museum TikTok. Over the course of the past year or so, museums on TikTok partook in trends and memes on the social media site which led to huge interactions from users. The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley was perhaps the most successful institution in the process, which at the time of writing has 7.7 million followers on TikTok. The museum’s communication manager Abby Bird stated, “Part of us being accessible as a museum is being in the spaces that young people are digitally.” (The Guardian, 2020) The page is not so much about explicitly promoting its services, but about situating the museum within the digital world, connecting with potential users, and interesting them into carrying out their own research into the museum.
Of course, a library can’t implement an entire marketing campaign on TikTok. If they did, there’s certainly no way my granny would be any the wiser. Promotion should be resourceful, innovative, and far-reaching. It should make use of every available tool (digital and analogue) and apply it to its advantage.
There are seldom dedicated roles for marketing or communications within public libraries, as funds are exponentially decreasing. The problem is not that public library is useless, no, the problem is that not enough people know the extent of the public library’s usefulness. Hariff and Rowley (2011, p. 347) assert that public libraries need to demonstrate their worth to encourage new patrons and gain more funding, as with usage of the services decreasing, budget cuts, redundancies, and closures come creeping ever nearer.
It’s a paradoxical situation, then: to increase funding, a library must spend money to advertise. To spend money to advertise, a library requires increased funding.
There will be a way around this puzzle somehow. And I’m determined to find it.
The Guardian (2020) How a Dudley museum became a TikTok sensation. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/dec/13/how-a-dudley-museum-became-a-tiktok-sensation
Harrif, S. and Rowley, J. (2011) ‘Branding of UK public libraries’, Library Management, 32 (4/5), pp. 346-360. doi: 10.1108/01435121111132338