library marketing

On 12 January, 2012, I attended the 2012 Libraries@Cambridge conference, the annual one-day meeting of librarians from the university’s 100+ libraries.  This year’s theme was ‘Blue Skies… Thinking and Working in the Cloud’ with a focus on what users expect from libraries and how libraries can change to avoid obsolescence.  All the presentations were stellar and gave much food for thought.  There is excellent coverage of the breakout sessions at the Libraries@Cambridge blog.

This post will focus on the keynote address by Deborah Shorley, Directory of Library Services at Imperial College, London.  Her address resonated very strongly with my current questions and concerns about the future of librarianship.

I thought that Deborah Shorley’s talk, entitled ‘Bibliotheca agilis: Survival of the fittest in libraryland’ was provocative.  Her comments about how libraries must change were spot on.  Her main point, that research libraries must radically restructure to meet changing times, not just tweak existing services, was excellent.

It’s time perhaps, she mused, for libraries to do away with subject specialists — ‘subject’ being a bit of a dodgy term (to use Shorley’s wording) in today’s interdisciplinary world and the fact that subject specialist librarians often only dimly understand their researchers’ topics.  Libraries can better use their resources on more useful services such as text mining, disseminating information on behalf of users and helping organise digital research output.  To Shorley, libraries exist to connect users with information, and if libraries don’t do it well, others will — users won’t notice or care — and libraries will become extinct.

Shorley noted some other factors that will compel libraries to change such as shrinking physical collections and growing digital ones (thus creating new possibilities for our physical spaces and driving the need for open access); evolving models of scholarly communication  (here Shorley mentioned a favorite of mine, Mendeley, the social networking reference manager, as an example); and the rising costs of journals and other services, such as cataloging, which will require consortial efforts on the part of libraries to control costs and duplication of effort.

What matters, she says, is that librarians must be out there more with their users, talking with them about their research processes and partnering with them on their projects.  It simply is not enough to sit back and wait for enquiries while curating a physical collection.  And, to be fair,  a lot of research libraries are attempting to do just that, my place of work — the Judge Business School Information & Library Services — being one.  We are, for instance, interviewing faculty about how they seek information, producing regular and helpful information pieces on our blog and offering workshops about finding information using social media.

But there is a serious nagging feeling on my part that we (my library, that is) could be doing more, and I guess it is that sense that will compel us continually to evaluate the effectiveness of our services.  Luckily, some major library organisations also are brainstorming how to change for the better.  Shorley highlighted some important initiatives:

  • The Libraries of the Future project, sponsored by the British Library, JISC, the Research Information Network (RIN), Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL). This project envisages scenarios for research libraries in 2050 and encourages libraries to use them for planning and strategic development.
  • Transforming Research Libraries from the US-based Association of Research Libraries (ARL) also contains future-looking scenarios (out to 2030) with detailed descriptions of four possible futures for libraries and very helpful ideas for how to use them for organisational planning.

Academic librarians should read the reports and recommendations of these initiatives and think hard about whether they are positioning themselves within their institutions to take advantage of current and future trends in research and publishing.

It’s always exciting for me to be in a roomful of Cambridge librarians, as they represent a wide-range of libraries, backgrounds and opinions.  There is an idea ‘out there’ that as a group (with some bright exceptions), Cambridge librarians don’t want to change and are perfectly happy to continue to curate their dusty old collections.  But this is a crude over-generalisation, and I know that many of my fellow librarians embrace the idea of changing.  The problem I think is that we/they are not sure exactly how to and where to begin.  Many will need to retool their skills.  Many will need to conduct far more outreach to faculty and students than they are perhaps used to or feel comfortable with.

And, to be fair, I think that most research libraries try hard to provide easy access to information, but are constrained by the premium silos of information they (we) subscribe to which must be offered as individual search sites, instead of being able to offer the ideal Google-like search.  That type of search, which searches across databases and presents information intuitively, is certainly the holy grail of the library world at the moment.  Everyone knows it’s what’s needed, but no one has yet to accomplish it well.  We heard a brief description of Summon by Serial Solutions (owned by ProQuest, one of the conference sponsors), which is a new attempt at solving this problem, and fingers crossed it’s a step in the right direction  (but I have yet to see this work well from any vendor).

But we must change: I feel very strongly about that.  I could have written Shorley’s address, though she did it far more eloquently than I could have.  Shorley used the term ‘evolution’ a lot in her talk, and illustrated her presentation with images and examples from bird life — especially (not surprisingly) with those of extinct dodo birds — where libraries are going if they don’t experiment with radically new services — and soaring eagles, where libraries will go if they get a new mix of services right.

I am absolutely committed to being the eagle (as it were) — I didn’t get into librarianship because I love books or physical collections, I got into it because I love connecting researchers with the resources they need to do their work, and I love managing the technology for doing that (complete ‘how-I-became-a-librarian’ story here). There are so many ways librarians can support the efforts of researchers these days and really partner with them in their endeavours.  I fantasize about a library where faculty regularly consult with us before, during and after their research projects to learn about how/where to seek information, how best to organise the tools and fruits of their research, and how best to curate the output of their research.

It all comes down to promotion, as Shorley notes.  We must be out there more talking about research data management and show that we are competent allies.  We are not just dim support staff — never were, but somehow have gained that stereotype.  Librarians must get more involved and prove their worth, or there will be no place for libraries in the future.

I am going to tell you a story about how the library website at my place of work went from this:


to this:

new blog with new edits

in 18-months.  I thought it might be fun to take a look behind-the-scenes at how the site developed.  Describing the process may help other designers — or at the very least make for a good laugh or cautionary tale.


As many have noted, it’s hard make a good website for a library.  You need to provide access points to all of your services, resources and information silos, all in a clear and clean format within the tiny real estate of about half a computer screen.

Even if your library serves just one school or department, you usually still have the problem of varying audiences (such as students in various programmes, faculty and staff). And, of course — for us, at least — there is the need to convey that we are not just a dusty repository for books, but a responsive and tech savvy organisation, key to academic and employment success.

So, what’s a library to do?  Most seem to solve the problem by grouping resources by type with, for example, major navigation categories for ‘databases,’ ‘catalog’ and ‘services.’  We surveyed the library websites for major business schools around the world, and nearly all take this approach.

Either this or they use a LibGuide — which is very good but, no matter how you configure it, always seem to look like a LibGuide — which is to say, solid, but not terribly customisable and a bit formulaic.

Both approaches seemed unsatisfying to us.

Version 1

I began working for JBS Information & Library Services in January 2011.  Four months earlier, the library site had moved from a text-based portal of resources that required users first to authenticate.  The interface was based on the University VLE and was virtually uncustomisable except for text and links.

The old VLE site looked like this:


And there is not much to say about it except that it was dreary , behind a firewall and uncustomisable — i.e., not even minimally fit to be the base of a library website in the 21st century.

Version 2

In the summer of 2010, Andy Priestner and his team at the Judge decided to change all that and create a publically available site with links to services and resources all consolidated onto the interface of a blog — a move inspired, incidentally, by his participation in a 23 Things @ Cambridge programme that summer.

The new site looked like this: blog main page

And it was a massive leap forward.  The library could customise the site’s look and feel (up to a point, which I’ll talk about later), update it in real time with announcements and changes in links, and provide access to its social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook and Delicious.  The team created descriptions to databases, various help guides and information about library resources.

But the problems with the site — despite its incredible advances in terms of access and customisation — were that it was basically grouped on the major navigation categories mentioned above — meaning it was more based on what we had instead of what we do or what users wanted most.

And it wasn’t actually all that user friendly — the header and blog took up nearly all the ‘above-the-fold’ real estate, and it it didn’t provide a means of interacting with us.  The blog, as well, was mostly boring announcements without lively graphics which we doubted anyone actually read.


The more we talked about it, the more we realised we needed to change our look and content.  Our mantra at the Judge has always been that we are not merely custodians of a physical collection but partners in the school’s mission to provide world-class business education and research.  We provide access to information, yes, but we also assist in the creation and dissemination of that information, and offer particular expertise in social technologies that help students, faculty, and staff work more efficiently.

We needed our website to reflect that mission and brainstormed how to do that. A website based on ‘what do you want/need to do’ and ‘what are our most popular services’ is very different from just saying ‘here’s what we have, just in case you might need it.’  And while there’s nothing novel in making a task-based website , it was new thinking for us and quite refreshing.

In terms of content, we wanted a way easily to be able to point users to how to do their research, based on the types of questions our users most frequently ask.  This led to the development of four things:

  • ‘Wiki-style’ pages that explain the differences of various databases based on topic groupings
  • A ‘popular links’ section with links to content users need most
  • Database links that only require one click to get through to the database
  • Blog posts more like news stories accompanied by really good graphics

The idea was to create an actual destination that users would want to come back to continually for reference and to check for changes and updates.

These exercises led us also to realise that has its limitations, and we decided to switch from to  It’s important to note the differences between and  You can get started with a blog from in about 5 minutes.  It is free and hosted on the site.  For basic blogs this is great, but you cannot easily customise the site, use tools called plugins which massively extend WordPress’s functionality, or have a custom domain that doesn’t have the word ‘wordpress’ in it. offers those features but you must either host the blog yourself or pay someone to host it for you.  We decided to do that latter as we’d be able to get to work faster on our blog that way.  And so, we were off…

Version 3

And then of course we were staring a blank canvass in the face.  How were we going to construct this thing?  The first few iterations were a bit of confused mess.  We started with a very blank black and white WordPress theme — the theme is the bulwark of a wordpress blog and there are thousands of free and paid ones to choose from.  We also chose one that had built-in navigation tabs and lots of spots for widgets.

The raw theme out of the box, called ‘Pico,’ looked like this:

pico theme

And this was all good, except that our first couple of goes were flat, black and white, hard to understand, and really boring.  Discussions about how to jazz it up lead to some nice innovations — such as moving the blog content to the left and adding the drop-shadows in the margins — but also led to a busy and difficult-to-understand interface.

During this time, at my darkest moments in the middle of the night, I really regretted not going with LibGuides, which would have been far simpler to configure!

However, many hours later of playing with the theme’s style sheet and various WordPress plugins, I have come to realise that we made the right choice.  With nearly every time we said, ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this’ there was a way, such as easily making sortable tables, java-script toggle lists, rotating our information-rich blog posts, and displaying our latest ebooks.

Our first real go at the site looked like this:

new blog pre-usability testing

And we were pretty chuffed about it…

But obviously the ultimate test was whether our users were going to like it, so we embarked on some quick-and-dirty usability testing.  We sent an announcement to the student body asking for volunteers and offered a £10 voucher to Amazon.  We recruited six students from the various programmes in the school and did 30-minute tests consisting of about 10 questions that asked students to complete a task or make comments about various parts of the site.

The testing was really instructive.  We generated a huge amount of comments and suggestions from the students, most of which boiled down to, ‘simplify the interface dramtically’ and to make links to what they need most easy to find and open.  Though we thought we had been doing that all along, the students pointed out ways that this could be improved.  They confirmed our suspicions that they more-or-less never read the announcements on the blog and surprised us with looking for links to services that we thought they generally didn’t use.

The result, by July 2011 was a site that looked like this:

new blog post-usability testing

Though it is based on a blog infrastructure, the blog part is minimised and now consisted largely of what-we-hope are very informative posts, with catchy writing and compelling graphics.  The rest of the site is devoted to making the process of getting to our most frequently-used resources as easy as possible.

For people who actually want to read about which databases we feel are best for finding particular kinds of data, we have the wiki pages, but for those who want just a list, we’ve got that, too.

In terms of being able to interact with us, we now have this chat widget, which we staff religiously during our open hours. The service has been up since last summer, and it is very popular.

Version 4

But nothing in library land ever stands still, does it?  No sooner was the site launched, when our public affairs office — rightly so — stated that the site needed more of the school’s look and feel.  We had designed the new site without using the school’s colour scheme, but this had not been a conscious decision.  We were making a site that felt right for our users’ needs.

But it made obvious sense for the site to be instantly recognisable as being from the Judge, so the public affairs office, who designs and maintains the schools main site, changed our site’s style sheets to match the colour scheme and branding of the school’s.

The results are quite nice:

new blog with new edits

Overall, the site looks professional and clean, and perhaps even closer to our original (circa January 2011) idea of a black and sexy site.  At the same time, we also moved the site from the third-party host to the school’s servers, so now the site is just one of the many sites that our IT department maintains.

Foremost in our minds during this process was how independent the site ultimately would be.  We have long felt that our web presence needs to be in our control.  We need to experiment with new content, services and interfaces, and though the site has all of the correct JBS branding, we still maintain administrative control over the site’s content, layout and services offered.  We are lucky that we have been able to strike this balance.

For the past 3 months, the site has had an average of 400 unique visitors per day, so surely there are many people finding our pages who are not affiliated with JBS.  We think that’s fantastic.  We strive to make the website interesting to anyone doing business research or currently a business student — and thus we try to minimise announcements and posts about items specific to our collection.

Plans for future development include finding better plugins to enhance the site and finessing our SEO (search-engine optimisation).  The content of the site is ever-evolving as we experiment with different ways of not being a boring old library site.  There is much room to improve — but we’re proud of how far we’ve come.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how a library chat service is a great way to promote a library.  It inherently has elements that makes your library look good: It’s prompt, friendly, convenient and provides real-time answers to questions without a trudge to the library.

We quietly rolled out  a chat service late this past spring and it steadily has been attracting users during the quiet summer months.  Come autumn, we anticipate a heavy increase in use.

Behind the scenes right now, we are planning how to staff the service, the best chat technology to use and how to market the service.  All important stuff.  But what really gets me excited — and where I think the library promotion bit comes in — is in thinking about how best to interact with users via the service.

Talk with Me

The more I think about it, the more I think the success of a chat service comes down to individual conversations.  You might think it’s easy to chat (i.e., instant message) with a library user, but over the years at other libraries I have found that it entails tact, informality and gentle handling — a combination of relaxed writing and careful attention that the user receives excellent customer service — which is surprisingly hard (for me at least) to get right.

But here is the cool part: I have found that when a chat interaction goes well and a user swiftly gets what he/she is looking for, the interaction creates a satisfied user who is not only likely to use the service again but to tell others about it — thus creating highly desired ‘buzz’ or word-of-mouth marketing for the library.

It’s true: I’ve often seen it over the years.  For users, the utility of the chat service is fresh and often a bit surprising: Their answer comes quickly, from a sincerely friendly librarian, and the user simply had to ask a question via a chat screen.  This tends to create a lot of repeat customers.

OCLC Report

But don’t take my word for it.  A recent OCLC report ‘Seeking Synchronicity: Revelations and Recommendations for Virtual Reference’ essentially states the same thing.  Based on years of research, the authors contend that the ‘ideal blend of convenience and service’ of virtual reference builds lasting relationships with users.

marketing intelligence graphicThey state that for virtual reference to work well for users, libraries must focus on the relationship-building aspects of virtual reference: that is, they must improve how they market the service and how they interact with users virtually.

The authors’ insights and recommendations include:

  • Apparently, the main reason people do not use chat reference services is not because they don’t think such services are useful, it’s because they simply don’t know they exist.  Once people know about chat services, they tend to use them because they’re friendly and convenient.
  • Following from the first point, libraries should market their chat service whenever possible, including, and perhaps most importantly, during face-to-face moments.  To reinforce the message, libraries should hand out business cards with a QR code to the chat service.
  • The authors also found that users really appreciate good customer service.  In chat interactions, therefore, libraries should be positive, sympathetic, personalised and to emphasise what users can do instead of what they cannot.
  • Also, humour and informality are very important.  Users appreciate it when a librarian is (or attempts to be) witty, not overly formal and avoids using canned scripts.  This tends to lead to the most friendly and personalised chat interaction for the user.
  • Users are very sensitive to rejection and often worry they’re bothering the librarian.  Therefore, librarians must take care not to end chat sessions abruptly, reprimand users, limit the time of the chat session or send users elsewhere without providing any helpful information.
  • Users of chat services want answers quickly.  Therefore, librarians should include search or information literacy instruction only after providing an answer and then only if the user seems receptive to receiving the information (determined by asking him/her).
  • However, though users want answers quickly, librarians should ask at least one open-ended question early in the chat transaction to clarify (if needed) what the user is looking for.  The report authors found that this increased users’ satisfaction with chat services tremendously.

Finally, and I think most importantly:

  • Libraries must make access to chat services as ubiquitous as possible.  Not only should access be from the library home page, but also from within VLEs, the university web pages, and online catalogs and databases.  Also, ideally, chat services should be 24/7 (oh how I would love to see such a service in the UK for academic libraries!).

The report confirmed my sense that library chat services are all about the conversation.  When the exchange goes well,  users ‘are quick to virally market our services if they have had a successful encounter — and just as quick (or quicker) to spread negative reports if they have not’ (pp. 71-72 of the report).

Chat services can build ‘respect’ and ‘credit’ for the library (so says the report), but only if libraries sincerely try to build rapport with users and understand their needs.  Providing accurate answers is just a part of the interaction.

Warmth and Humility

For me, the question isn’t whether we ought to provide a chat service — or virtual/mobile applications for that matter — it’s the 21st century, and for goodness sake — yes — we ought to as our users tend to be delighted when we do.  The question for me is how to make the user experience the best it can be (short of giving out free candy).

For me, the question is how best to build relationships.  In a chat interaction, it helps I think to be as sympathetic as possible to a users’ needs, and not just an expert purveyor of information.  Users need the expertise, of course, but they do not need (or desire) a seemingly cold or disinterested librarian.  This isn’t what it’s all about in the new world of social media.  It’s about a conversation laced with warmth and humility — users will appreciate it, use the service again and, most importantly, tell others about it.

Now if we could just get more libraries to provide chat services and to market them better.  More about that in future posts!

keep your conversation cheerful

Always keep your conversation cheerful!

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License ‘ask the brain’ image by  Thomas Hawk 

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  ‘marketing intelligence’ image by  Intersection Consulting 

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  ‘keep your conversation cheerful’ image by  clotho98 


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