If Your Library Closed Tomorrow Would Anyone Miss It

There’s a clever Cronk of Higher Education post that pokes fun at how all of us working in higher education think of ourselves as being indispensable. Surely our students and faculty, not to mention our institutions, have no hope of surviving without us. Wrong. As the post suggests, in a humorous way, our institutions would probably get along just fine without is.

And some communities are learning to live without their library. Libraries are closing all the time. Not so much academic libraries, but branch libraries, school libraries and sometimes even entire library systems are closed for good – with the one in Camden, New Jersey among the most recently threatened with closure (fortunately given a reprieve) for now. In the world of consumer goods there are also products and entire businesses that disappear forever from the landscape. A blog post from a Harvard Business Review blogger raised a good question that we should all be asking ourselves on a regular basis. If our library closed tomorrow would anyone miss it? More importantly perhaps, what would they miss and why? Would what is missed reflect the business we think we are in.

When many branch libraries were about to close in Philadelphia, neighborhood residents protested. Even when there was a library branch within two to four miles from their own branch, they still insisted on keeping the library open (and many are despite greatly reduced hours and staff). But many residents wanted the library open because they needed a place for their children to go after school. Sounds like it was more about child care than connecting people with information. That may be presumputous because the afterschool activities could involve homework research, learning how to use resources or technology – not just babysitting. Nowhere did I hear or read anything to suggest the library workers at these branches would be missed – though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the neighborhood residents weren’t concerned about the plight of the staff members.

For whatever the reasons might be, those neighborhood residents felt loyal enough to their library to get out in the street to protest the plan to close it – and that’s the type of loyalty we’d like to instill in all of our community members. We want them to feel that their library is indispensable to the community. In an age when those same community members could get their information just as easily from other resources, how do librarians go about creating loyal community members? In a blog post about developing customer loyalty Joseph Michelli, user experience consultant and author of books about organizations such as Starbucks and the Ritz-Carlton, describes the customer engagement ladder. The bottom rung on the ladder is customer satisfaction. The highest rung on the ladder is “sense of loss” if the brand were to cease to exist. In this post Michelli discusses a recent study by Epsilon that revealed some interesting findings about industries that are moving customers up or down that ladder. The report indicates that consumers are primarily non-loyal to brands, and that they’ll jump ship readily with some products (e.g., credit cards) but will be more loyal to others (e.g., auto insurance). Given these realities Michelli asks, “So are your marketing and customer experience strategies resulting in something up the food chain from simple satisfaction.” How would we move our libraries up the ladder from good customer service to would they miss us if we ceased to exist?

If you think about it for a minute, you can probably come up with some product that you were quite loyal to which suddenly ceased being available for purchase. Just recently my local supermarket stopped selling a brand of pasta that was my favorite. Why? Just the usual competition for shelf space, and while I really liked that product apparently not many others did – so it became expendable. Then there was a brand of men’s clothing that I really liked, and there was a retail store in my community. But it just up and closed one day as the retailer went out of business – not even a web presence was maintained. We encounter these experiences from time to time when our favorites brand that have earned our loyalty just disappear. We may miss them, but eventually we just move on to other brands or give up on those products all together.

I imagine that’s what happens when our libraries close. The community just finds some other place to get their books, DVDs and articles. It might be a library farther away, it may be they depend more on their social network or they may make heavier use of Google, Wikipedia and Netflix. For me, the takeaway from Michelli’s post is that we need to be thinking about getting to a place beyond customer satisfaction on the ladder of customer engagement. Yes, customer satisfaction is good. We want them to be satisfied. But a satisfied customer, given the findings of the Epsilon study, isn’t necessarily a loyal customer. What we want, is the type of customer who would really miss us if we ceased to exist. Those are the library community users who will fight to make sure that never happens.

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