“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.” -Miyamoto Musashi

Finally, another update!

One of the things my fellow MLS students and I talk about outside of class is maintaining the relevance of libraries. Actually that’s wrong way to put it, because we wouldn’t be in this program if we didn’t think libraries were relevant ipso facto. But it’s a two-part issue. On one hand, there’s the need to stay relevant in the digital age by providing services and information to users in a digtal environment — which the profession as a whole is doing, I’m pleased to say. On the other hand, there’s also a need to shape people’s perception of libraries, to let them know that libraries are changing and evolving to meet the needs of their users.

To put it another way: the stereotype is that libraries are warehouses for dead trees, and who needs that when everyone has the Internet in their pocket? In fact, libraries are about helping people find and evaluate information – a task which is arguably MORE important now that the Internet is so commonly used – and about doing so with the iGadget in your pocket…So how do we get that message across?

Last week, I went looking for some answers. The OCLC industry group was giving a presentation at the downtown Portland library on “Perceptions of Libraries,” the results of a national survey they commissioned on why people do (or don’t) use their local libraries, and what kind of services they expect. That report can be downloaded here as a PDF, in full or by section, but in this post I’m going to go over what some of the highlights were for me.

One of the things the report focused on was impacts of the Great Recession. Library use has increased 37 percent overall, and the number-one reason that respondents gave for increasing their visits was “to save money.” People are forced to cut back on spending, so they’re checking out books, movies and music instead of buying them. Meanwhile, what about the effects of technology? This was another focus for the report, and “the Internet in your pocket” isn’t much of an exaggeration – by 2012, shipments of smartphones will outpace shipments of PCs. The good news is that libraries are making the transition: at present, 44 percent of academic libraries, and 34 percent of public libraries, offer mobile services.

The problem is that we’re building it, but they aren’t coming. According to the survey, only 14 percent of online searchers wind up at their library’s website – even though 80 percent of those who do arrive there, find what they were looking for through the library’s website. What’s the number-one reason why people don’t use the library website? “I didn’t know they had one.”

(This is partly a generational thing – people under age 24 are more likely to use search engines than the library catalog, or to surf “Ask an Expert” sites like About.com instead of e-mailing the reference desk, because it’s faster and easier…but they are aware that online library services offer more accurate and reliable results! So it’s a conscious trade-off – you don’t need to ask a librarian, these days, to find out who won the Battle of Hastings…but I’ll return to this a little later.)

So people may not use libraries to help search the Internet – but they do rely on it to use the Internet. Nearly seven out of 10 libraries (to be precise, 63 percent) report that they are the only free source of Web/computer access for their community…and that most people who use the library to get online would not otherwise be able to do so. (This is known as the “digital divide,” and it’s also one of the reasons for the increase in smartphone use…)

On the other hand, the “library brand” is still strong when it comes to books, and those (books/music/movies/etc.) were cited as the library’s most important assets across all age groups, followed by community information (events/classes/job skills training/etc.); literacy training; and Internet access. So the challenge going forward is to find a way to pull users towards the library’s existing holdings and online services… Facebook?Online book clubs? Adding user-created tagging to the catalog? These ideas and more are already being tried out…

So, the take-away:

– “Books are our brand. E-books are still books.” (On a related note, there seemed to be a consensus among attendees that it may be time to start adding video games to the collection, along with music and movies…)

– ADVERTISE! Social media (see above) is cheap and effective, and it meets a need library users have (especially younger ones).

– Librarians need to market themselves as “Personal Information Trainers.” You can answer a lot of basic questions with a Google search…but when you get bogged down? Returning to the “fast & easy” vs. “accurate & reliable” issue, 83 percent of those surveyed thought that librarians added value to the search process. We need to run with that. People are going to want to search online anyway – the goal is to make them aware of the library’s online databases, ILL and other search tools, and to do so in the online environment.

– Be the third place. In a physical sense, libraries are already doing this (study space, classes, etc.) — but as the use of social media reaches saturation point, they need to become an “online third place” as well.

– Focus on the needs of the local community – particularly when it comes to meeting the needs of those who’ve been adversely affected by the recession. At the same time, the library needs to continue to provide connections to the non-local infosphere, aka the World Wide Web.

A challenge? Perhaps, but it could always be worse