When attempting to brand a product or service it is important to first consider what position that product or service already has in the minds of the customers. If it has been around for a significant number of years, in the same way that libraries have, then it is possible that the public perceives it as having an already established brand. Because of this, one of the first things we should consider is that it is possible that the library is already branded. By this I mean that because libraries already convey a certain emotion, perception, and impression in the minds of the community then the community might already have a perceived inherent value placed on libraries. Since all of this is what a brand does, then the library is already branded. But a few questions arise from this. The first; what is the perception of the library in the community? The second; is this the brand image that we want to continue to convey? And the third; If not, then what can we do to change our brand image in the minds of our patrons?
To find the answer to the first question I will first look at the current brand image of the librarians themselves. Librarians convey to the public a specific set of perceptions, emotions, and impressions of the library in the same way that the workers of such companies as Abercrombie and Fitch convey that company’s brands image. When the public thinks of an individual Abercrombie and Fitch worker they generally visualize an attractive, “cool,” outgoing, tall, white male or female. In the same way, when the general public thinks of a librarian they generally visualize a very different set of attributes. I am not arguing that libraries should follow the hiring standards of Abercrombie and Fitch, but I am arguing that we need to recognize that we are branding the library without realizing it and without any attempt to control it.
So what is the brand image of a librarian? Stephen Walker and V. Lonnie Lawson discuss the stereotypes (brand image) of the public’s view of a “typical” librarian in their article The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies. In this article they found that:
‘To the general public the word “librarian” is a readily recognizable label. The label need not include those aspects of librarianship that librarians want to claim. Several years ago on the “Family Feud” game show a group of 100 people were surveyed and asked what they believed to be typical “librarian” characteristics. The top 5 Characteristics disclosed showed that librarians were:
5) In Glasses. (Kirkendall 1986, 40-2)
“American Libraries” has a semi-regular column (”Image: How They’re Seeing Us”) with a quote, advertisement, cartoon, or other reflection of society’s view of the librarian. Some of these examples are positive reflections, but more often they reinforce the negative stereotype librarians repudiate.’ (1993)
When we recognize this brand representation of librarians as the norm we then must decide what characteristics of this brand we can change (or at least control) if any. If it is not possible to change the view of the librarians then perhaps we can change the public’s perceptions of the library itself. So what are the public’s perceptions of a library?
To answer that question we can see that in a letter from the ALA’s past president, Nancy Kranich, she noted that:
“In 1999, ALA contracted with BSMG Worldwide, a New York-based public-relations firm, to develop a major public-awareness campaign. BSMG’s first step was to assess public perception of libraries. Not surprisingly, they found that libraries are popular and well liked, accepted often without strong feelings or real understanding. Libraries are everywhere, rooted in nearly every school, campus, and community, but they are most visible when under siege. They noted that libraries are unique, playing a role of no other institution in our democracy, but not always able to communicate that uniqueness. And, on the negative side, they found that consumers see libraries as somewhat archaic, their resources limited and dated, and their facilities intimidating and difficult to navigate.” (Kranich, 2001)
There are a number of things to note within this quote. In fact, it points many of the positive and negative public perceptions of the library. For example, we can see that libraries are viewed as well liked, important, and integral to a community by a large percentage of the population but they still have a perception of being archaic, limited, dated, and intimidating.
Now that we recognize the current state of the library brand we can ask ourselves if this is the brand image we want to continue to cultivate or do we want to change it and begin to cultivate a very different brand? Since there are some negative perceptions of the library in a few areas I would argue that it is time to change the way we present ourselves to the public through a change in our current brand image. Finally we can ask ourselves how it is that this is accomplished or the third question as previously mentioned; what can we do to change our brand image in the minds of our patrons?
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