Will What Worked For Groucho Work for Libraries

Reading this Seth Godin post I had to contemplate the situation librarians have found themselves in as the type of experience the users want has shifted to low fidelity, high convenience. As it exists today the library experience is best described as mostly high fidelity. Our profession is urged again and again to change its practices to meet the current market expectations for information search and retrieval. We’ve heard that convenience trumps quality every time, and that we need to follow suit and go low fidelity.

Godin almost perfectly describes this exact predicament in which we librarians find ourselves:

Perhaps the most plaintive complaint I hear from organizations goes something like this, “We worked really hard to get very good at xyz. We’re well regarded, we’re talented and now, all the market cares about is price. How can we get large groups of people to value our craft and buy from us again?” Apparently, the bulk of your market no longer wants to buy your top of the line furniture, lawn care services, accounting services, tailoring services, consulting… all they want is the cheapest. The masses don’t want a better PC laptop. They just want the one with the right specs at the right price. It’s not because people are selfish (though they are) or shortsighted (though they are). It’s because in this market, right now, they’re not listening. They’ve been seduced into believing that all options are the same, and they’re only seeing price. In terms of educating the masses to differentiate yourself, the market is broken.

At one time we certainly were the kings of information delivery. When our user communities needed anything beyond a basic encyclopedia, a phone call or visit to the library was standard practice. But now all information and those who provide it are the same to the average citizen, and there’s no clear rationale for using the library. As Godin states, we’ve been focusing too much attention on trying to figure out how to get them “to buy from us again” instead of figuring out how to fit into their world so that we are of use to them on their terms – at least enough to build the relationships that can be our bread and butter. But can we librarians make the shift to the next big thing in a seamless fashion – as Groucho Marx did? Godin explains it:

The Marx Brothers were great at vaudeville. Live comedy in a theatre. And then the market for vaudeville was killed by the movies. Groucho didn’t complain about this or argue that people should respect the hard work he and his brothers had put in. No, they went into the movies.

Then the market for movies like the Marx Brothers were making dried up. Groucho didn’t start trying to fix the market. Instead, he saw a new medium and went there. His TV work was among his best (and certainly most lucrative).

It’s extremely difficult to repair the market. It’s a lot easier to find a market that will respect and pay for the work you can do.

That last section should really resonate with us librarians. As hard as we may wish for its return, the old model in which we served as the gatekeeper and primary information intermediary isn’t coming back. We’ve tried to repair the market and it hasn’t worked. How would we replicate what Groucho did in his career? What new service or platform could we move to in creating a completely different environment for library services. In some ways we are doing that now. Students learn in online environments supported by courseware. We are there. People text each other to chat, share ideas and ask questions. We are there. People use Twitter to communicate. We are there. In these ways we are moving on to the new media – just as Groucho did when the last big thing collapsed and he moved on to the next big thing. Groucho was probably highly effective at trendwatching and knowing what move to make next – or he had the right people doing it for him.

So we may have the capacity to change our stripes, figure out where the market is headed and find a way to integrate ourselves and our services. It fails if we only do it when it’s too late, and we get there screaming and kicking the whole way. But there may be something of value in leaving part of what we do in the past. Godin closes his post with a simple but meaningful caveat for librarians:

Please note that nothing I wrote above applies to niche businesses. In fact, exactly the opposite does. You can make a good living selling bespoke PC laptops or doing vaudeville today, even though the mass of the market couldn’t care a bit.

We need to remember that while it’s important to follow the market and trends and be there, there’s value in differentiating ourselves from all the other ways and sources people can go to for their information. Want to get help finding information from a skilled human – that’s the library’s niche. Want to get access to highly specialized information products – that’s the library’s niche. Want to build a relationship with someone who can recommend books and movies – that’s the library’s niche. Want to have a caring person read a story to your children – that’s the library’s niche. It may require us to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, but if we can play it both ways that’s only going to make the experience we deliver all that more memorable.

5 thoughts on “Will What Worked For Groucho Work for Libraries”

  1. That’s the LIBRARIAN’S niche. As long as we keep thinking that the issue is how to keep the LIBRARY relevant and well-positioned we will continue to miss seeing the tremendous opportunities before us.

  2. It isn’t up to librarians so much to market library services as it is for librarians to market THEIR SERVICES.
    Too often I hear comments as, “I can’t find anything in a small library” while not having asked a librarian, only perhaps the non-librarian volunteer at a reference desk.
    Parents and teachers need to give students early on, a library experience that actually results in helpful success for whatever project they have. Without a great experience, adults will often rely on their old idea of a bad experience…and not use the library.

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