Changing the way librarians think about the future

Thomas Frey spoke at LIANZA14 recently,  I didn’t attend but if the tweets were anything to go by, the audience was distinctly underwhelmed. As one of them said, yes in the future things will be different.

I’ve just revisited an article by Brian Mathews called The librarian as futurist: changing the way libraries think about the future.  In it Brian doesn’t speculate on what is going to happen in the future but suggests that librarians should focus on how things could change by using scenario planning, being change literate and being comfortable with ambiguity.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ideas in his essay is around change literacy. For students change literacy is an advantage as they enter the workforce – being able to monitor information, identify strategic insights, apply and adapt ideas. For librarians it is an opportunity for us to move beyond keepers of information and even collaborators in knowledge production, to facilitators of change. Brian acknowledges this may seem out of place for us but he points out libraries have been role models for organisational change through what we have done with learning spaces, collection migrations and new literacies. Furthermore we would continue what we have always done, help simplify complexity, enrich information and generate ideas through conversation within our communities:

successfully embracing and enacting a future-orientated program will position librarians not only to demonstrate a capacity and comfort with change, but the ability and expertise to help others shape their futures as well

There is a  well what does it all really mean aspect to this term change literacy, and if you have other insights it would be great to hear about them. For Brian, libraries could fill a niche around gathering and synthesising information into insights, and devising future road maps:

In short, librarians could serve as futurists by providing strategic foresight support to aid success for our parent institutions.

Or as he also puts in librarians becoming practitioners of futurist knowledge creation.

In many ways this is not too far from some of the work that librarians do, particularly in special libraries, around monitoring future trends, and reporting on these. Or in this example where QUT Library looked at a trend report and created a new tool for customers.

I found some other gems in the article.

This point seemed particularly pertinent when we are thinking about our how we develop our services around research, teaching and learning. Do we really do enough of this?:

We should not concern ourselves with the future of libraries. Instead we should focus on the factors driving change within the communities we serve and partner with

And what would this look like, as we work towards ways to measure our impact and demonstrate how we deliver value?:

We are witnessing an interesting shift in the library profession toward more anthropological assessment measures – perhaps this will help us inject new thinking beyond the dominant quantitative mindset. When libraries served more as warehouse utilities, data-driven decision-making was crucial, but now as more of our work increasingly revolves around forming complex relationships and ongoing interactions, a more humanistic approach is required for growth and improvement

Measuring the impact of marketing activities in academic libraries

The question of measuring the impact of marketing efforts is a fraught one, even in the business world. Check out what Farris et al. have to say on the subject from Marketing Metrics: The Definitive Guide to Measuring Marketing Performance (2nd ed, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2010):

In business and economics, many metrics are complex and difficult to master. Some are highly specialized and best suited to specific analyses. Many require data that may be approximate, incomplete, or unavailable.

Little wonder then that many libraries don’t tackle it – in the US, one study found that less than 33% of academic libraries evaluated their promotional campaigns.

Farris et al. offer this:

Under these circumstances, no single metric is likely to be perfect. For this reason, we recommend that marketers use a portfolio or “dashboard” of metrics. By doing so, they can view market dynamics from various perspectives and arrive at “triangulated” strategies and solutions. Additionally, with multiple metrics, marketers can use each as a check on the others. In this way, they can maximize the accuracy of their knowledge … Being able to “crunch the numbers” is vital to success in marketing. Knowing which numbers to crunch, however, is a skill that develops over time. Toward that end, managers must practice the use of metrics and learn from their mistakes.

Brian Mathews in Marketing today’s academic library: a bold approach to communicating with students (American Library Association, 2009) offers up some of the potential components of that dashboard:

Response-based advertising
For instance getting a customer to visit a website, or take advantage of an offer. The website could be a campaign-specific secondary page to better track statistics.

Market share
This could be calculated by counting the total number of users and dividing them by the total student population. For instance if 4000 students checked out a book at least once during the year out of a total student population of 10,000 then the market share would be 40%. And then we might think about the other 60% who didn’t borrow anything and how to reach them.

How did you hear about us?
This involves inviting students to share their experience. This can be done face to face or by using a follow-up email.

Web analytics
Analyse total hit rates and click-through rates to your website via tools such as Google Analytics.

A customer service survey administered by the Association for Research Libraries (charges apply).

A technique that can be used in focus groups, surveys or one-to-one interviews.

Dorm (hostel) surveys

Longitudinal studies
This involves tracking student usage over time – how do they find out about our services and how do they use the library over time? Mathews’ example involves selecting 6 new students each year, who he meets with once a semester throughout their degree. He notes this isn’t scientific but it allows him to get a feel for selected user groups and to learn about their experiences.

As Mathew’s says, ultimately there is no silver bullet when it comes to measuring impact and as Farris et al. suggest we need a range of metrics. Critically we also need to remember that this is part of a bigger task – we need to figure out what success would look like – which is all part of the goals we set as to what we want our marketing activities to achieve – right back at the start of the cycle of our marketing activities. For Mathews:

… success, from a marketing standpoint, is a combination of familiarity along with usage, across the span of a student’s tenure. The longevity of library use from day one until graduation is what matters


I feel instead of simply focusing on generating awareness or even just increasing use of resources, we should approach communication more philosophically by viewing our marketing as a chance to elevate the role of the library in our students’ minds. In this manner, our advertising encourages them to expect more from us. We are not just providing more books, more journals, more computers, or more staff to help them, but rather more relevance. We should aspire to smash their preconceptions of what a library is and instead demonstrate what it can become.

He proposes the following:

1. List all of the library products and services that are relevant to undergraduates
2. At the end of the academic year ask a random sample of thirty students from different classes and ask them to
a) tick the products and services they have heard of and
b) tick those that they have actually used.

This allows you to track the effectiveness of your communications and the usage of your library.

What tools do you use to measure the impact of your marketing activities?