Focusing the Library Experience: The Members You Have Or The Ones You Want

It happens to all of us who do library instruction. For one reason or another we must decline an invitation to meet with a class. It happened to me earlier this semester when I had to pass on meeting with an evening class of doctoral students. Their instructor made an unusual request. She asked if I would conduct a video review with her, after the class met, to respond to students’ library questions. She planned to do the basic instruction herself. The video review with me would cover the content she was unable to adequately explain.

Great idea I thought. Let’s encourage faculty to take responsibility for library instruction, and then offer our expertise in support of their efforts. The video review went well. The students came up with good questions, and the time spent with this faculty member was enlightening. I was extremely impressed by her depth of knowledge – not only the content options but how to use the resources as well. When I observed her using field tags to search it was clear she had considerable experience. She knew exactly how to structure a search strategy. She understood the benefits of field searching. Despite her obvious ability with various research tools, she was completely respectful of academic librarians and the skills they bring to their practice.

I observed two positives. First, the doctoral students were in good hands. If it had something to do with becoming better researchers this instructor would guide them correctly. Second, this was someone for whom there was no need for outreach. She was already a passionate library user, and I anticipated she would expect the same level of research skill from her students. It brought to my attention the challenge of outreach. How do you know who really needs it and who doesn’t? As conducted by librarians, we apply outreach equally to all when it comes to trying to turn them into avid users. It’s only when we truly know our community members well that we can fully grasp whether our work should emphasize selling them on the value of our services, or whether it is possible these members can promote the value of the library on our behalf to their colleagues and students. If anything, knowing the motivated, advanced library users creates the opportunity to deliver more specialized services, such as updates when new resources are available or occasional reminders about unique features.

As librarians continue to encounter resource challenges they will want to determine where to invest their energy in advancing the library within the user community. Outreach activity is one area where efficiencies are possible. Consider two options. Current outreach efforts are typically unfocused as it casts a broad net in attempting to connect the library with any community member who is a potential library user. It’s difficult, given the number of library staff members, to reach out to so many individuals. On the other we know that it’s unlikely many community members would respond to outreach efforts under any circumstances. So why are we bothering? Because the lure of gaining new members is attractive to us. We want more Facebook friends, higher door counts, and more activity in general. The more the better. Perhaps we’d be better off by just focusing our outreach on those who are already committed community members who might better appreciate learning more about the library and in turn becoming advocates for encouraging others to use it. Put another way, do you focus on your existing loyal new community members or spend your time trying to convert non-members into new loyal members?

Industry confronts this question regularly, and the costs of launching products or services designed to capture new customers is significant. In an article titled “Convincing the Swing Vote: How to Lure Non-customers” the author says we should know our existing customer well enough to understand what their needs are and how to give them better service and products that provide solutions to their problems. The real challenge is doing the same for non-customers – likened to “swing voters” who may or may not have an interest in what you offer. When it’s possible to identify those who are “underserved or neglected”, it may make sense to reach out with some new offering. This article offers multiple examples of companies that decided to reach out to new customers with a variant on an existing service or something completely new. Southwest Airlines added “business class” to reach out to the business traveler. Nintendo created the Wii specifically to obtain new customers who never played video games. Anheuser-Busch introduced Bud Light Lime to appeal to drinkers who wanted a sweeter tasting beer. Each case required extensive research, product development and serious risk taking. Success followed, but who knows how many other companies failed in their efforts to reach new customers.

Given the challenges in connecting with new community members, academic librarians need to think hard about whether it is worth the necessary resources to mount an effort to find out where unmet needs are and then offer some service that would better meet that need. It’s possible it could be done with limited effort, and that would depend on the particular opportunity. Perhaps it might be recognizing that an academic department is starting a new program where faculty and students could be in need of previously unanticipated research support. The alternative is to concentrate efforts on making the library experience even better for those who currently use the resources. With a known population, it’s far easier to make incremental improvements that would likely be appreciated. If done well, our existing community members may just do the best job of pointing their non-library-using friends, the ones we all want to turn into library users, into the new members we really want to add.