Subject to Change and Libraries

He who falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
~Benjamin Franklin

On January 29 I attended the annual joint meeting of Baynet and the San Francisco SLA chapter. The main speaker at this event was Sarah Houghton, who is the director of the San Rafael Public Library and maintains the Librarian in Black blog. The title of her talk was “The Wrong Love.” Her subject was a critique of the common “I Love Libraries” marketing messaging. She made the argument that this is completely turned around from what library messaging ought to be, that libraries instead should be promoting the message “Your Library Loves YOU.”

During the questions after the talk, a corporate librarian asked for Ms. Houghton’s take on how “your library loves you” could be applied to a corporate environment, since the culture in many special libraries is different from that of most public libraries. Ms. Houghton addressed this by saying that a more corporate spin on this message might be focusing on the library’s service orientation and letting patrons know what the library can do for them. Even in a more formal businesslike environment, one of her main points, “focus on the community, not on yourself,” still applies. I found both the talk and this question/answer very thought-provoking in terms of libraries demonstrating their value to their communities, and it was interesting going through the readings this week with this recent talk in mind.

In Subject to Change, Merholz et al discuss how one view of customers is simply as consumers, as a means to make a profit (Merholz et al, , 2008, p. 41). Libraries don’t see patrons as a source of profit, of course, but it struck me that the “I love libraries” message–urging patrons to give libraries their “love,” their support, their votes for bond measures!–is a kind of nonprofit version of viewing them as a source of profit. Rodger argues that libraries need the larger entities of which they are a part (whether those are a city, a university, or a business), and they need to give value back to their host systems (Rodger, 2007). This seems like another way of saying “your library loves you”–that is, a library needs to offer what is wanted by the members of the host system. It is certainly advantageous to do some marketing to convince the host system that the library is valuable and desirable, but focusing exclusively on how “lovable” libraries isn’t as useful towards this goal as showing people what desirable experiences the library has to offer. (“Think not what the patrons can do for you…)

As for other views: I don’t think libraries are particularly disposed to view patrons as sheep who are waiting to be told what to do. Tasks and goals orientations or rational actor views are probably more common, especially in academic or special libraries, where people usually are pursuing specific professional goals. This type of thinking is fairly useful, since we do need to allow patrons to accomplish goals, but without knowing more about people, its hard to anticipate tasks and goals that patrons would appreciate, but haven’t thought of yet. Public and school (K-12) libraries probably have the most focus on the human factor. Seeing patrons as whole people is necessary for being able to develop new desirable experiences. If we focus on tasks and goals–”that patron wants to check out children’s books”–we might simply have a checkout station. But if we realize, “that patron wants to enrich her children and also make her life easier by finding something to amuse them, even though it is a struggle to get out of the house with little kids”–we might put a bead roller coaster next to the checkout station so that she can take a few minutes to check out books without being distracted by fidgeting toddlers.

During her “Wrong Love” talk, Ms. Houghton pointed to the “I Love Libraries” website. She asked the audience, “and who does it sound like this website is for?” The answer was that it sounds like it is a site for library patrons, which she agreed to but then said, “But if you look at the website, it really looks like it is a site for librarians.” That is, it’s a site for librarians to cheerlead themselves. I was reminded of the Bain Company survey mentioned by Merholz et al where they found that while 80 percent of companies thought they offered a “superior experience” but only 8% of customers agreed (Merholz et al, 2008, p. 104). That is a pretty big disconnect between the service provider and the customer. Sadly the number didn’t really surprise me; I have worked in a lot of high tech firms, and the internal messaging, especially at company wide meetings, is often focused on how awesome the company is (or how “lovable”). Maybe it’s fine as a way to cheer ourselves on, but it is an error to mistake this pep rally type of talk for reality.

Research helps reduce this disconnect between how awesome we think we are (because of our good intentions), and how awesome the experiences we provide actually are.  We need research to see what is, not what we assume is true or think should be true. Quantitative research (like simple surveys or demographic analysis of a population) can provide a useful framework–the Bain Company survey is certainly a wakeup call, for example. Qualitative research methods, however,S get at a deeper understanding why things are happening (Merholz et al, 2008, p. 61).

Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.

~Jim Morrison

Design thinking and empathy can help libraries truly see people as they are, and “focus on people’s real lives” (Merholz et al, 2008, p. 100). Really seeing people will enable us to offer superior experience.


Merholz, P., Schauer, B., Verba, D. & Wilkens, T. (2008). Subject to Change: Creating Great Products and Services for an Uncertain World. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.

Rodger, E.J. (2007). What’s a library worth? American Libraries: September 2007, 59-60.


About mollificence

library student, writer, mom, Kindle addict View all posts by mollificence

11 responses to “Subject to Change and Libraries

  • Sarah Liberman

    Molly, so very much THIS. Houghton’s turning the question on its head by showing — or at least aiming for — how the library wants to help and serve people is the key. When changing or even evaluating services (and materials), UX with an eye towards experience should definitely help.

    I also agree that most libraries don’t view patrons (or users or members) as sheep, per se. Perhaps as groups of entities, which is not as ideal as groups of persons with needs and wants — if that makes sense.

    Thanks for such an excellent post. 🙂

    • mollificence

      Thanks Sarah! Good point about ‘groups of entities’–it can be easy to forget that we have patrons who have individual needs, not just thinking “parents want this” and “seniors want this.” We need to maintain consistently open minds in order to be able to discern needs, and revise what we thought we knew.

    • mollificence

      Also, just wanted to add–it was quite a funny talk. She made a very entertaining presentation about how dysfunctional it was to be basically begging people to love us! I tried to contain my snickering as I imagined a library version of “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

  • mlissairam15

    I was at the BayNet event also and was thinking about the concepts we were just starting to address during the talk. I also thought Sarah’s additional insight to communicate responsiveness, i.e., “We did that thing you asked X years ago”, is another technique that libraries can use to put the user at the forefront while continuing to demonstrate the “your library loves you” message that you noted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the great event!

    • mollificence

      Thanks Seema! You’re right, that was a great idea, about circling back to people so they really feel they are being listened to. People will feel like they really matter.

      (Also, it was fun that she shared some of the wackier requests they got, like putting a lemonade fountain in the children’s area–“children, sticky sweet substances, books, and computers–what could go wrong?”)

  • Aaron Schmidt

    ++++ Just want to pile on the positive comments here. Sarah is great, and I wish I could have seen this talk myself. The topic is a natural fit for what we’re reading, so thanks for bringing it in to the class.

    Great quotes too.

  • poegerl

    Hey Molly,

    Thanks for driving the point home that it’s we who should love our users. This past Sunday, my library had a “Love, Your Library” event where all we did was “give back” to the community and show them how much we appreciate them…instead of the other way around. We served food, had music, introduced a new media lab, and generally just talked and had a good time. We even had a valentine making station and a mailbox….we gave everyone who made a valentine a free stamp and took them all to the post office the next day. People loved it, and we didn’t ask them for a single thing in return. I’m glad to know that the Librarian in Black would approve!

    • mollificence

      What a great idea! Yes, she would have approved! 🙂 In part of her talk she outlined her library’s Valentine week activities, themed “your library loves YOU.”

      I love your Valentine making idea. I think Valentine’s Day never gets to be quite as much ever again as it was in elementary school, when you get to decorate your little valentine mailbox and make valentines and so on. Way to bring some fun into it! I must visit your library someday, it sounds pretty neat. Am I remembering correctly from Hyperlinked that yours has the firepit with the amazing view?

      Anyway–thx for the comments! 🙂

  • Christie

    Thank you for sharing your blog on the “wrong love” talk and relating it to libraries. It is interesting to compare libraries and corporations perceptions on their users “loving them”. I think the above might love the product or service but not necessarily love the entity that is providing it. Though smaller libraries, or businesses for that matter, can create feelings of community with their users that larger establishments tend not to do. When it comes down to it, providing goods and services to the user is the thing, and to do that we need to understand what they want. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about them loving us.
    Also, I enjoyed some of the other comments on this post. I wish I could have clicked a “Like” button!

    • mollificence

      Thanks Christie! A like button would be nice, I have seen some great discussion in this class. 🙂 Libraries or local businesses probably go generate more “love” from their communities, you’re right, but a more useful focus for us is meeting their needs.

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