The points raised in this TedX Charleston  2014 talk by BibliLabs CEOndrew Roskill are as apt today as they were 7 years ago.  Seeing libraries through the eyes of those in business is, and always has been critical. We look at libraries as libraries, as public institutions, as inherently beneficial for communities.  Yet how easily the public positioning of libraries can be eroded. Look no further than the UK. While no public libraries have been closed in Canada, we are headed into severe economic restraints in cities and municipalities. Even before the pandemic public libraries were constant negotiating for funding, especially in small or rural communities. Libraries compete every day for people’s attention. Jane and I have talked for years about the need for libraries to think, plan and act as businesses: in how they operate, build relationships, measure and report.

So does Roskill.  He points out that while Whole Foods does not have the selection or pricing of other grocery retailers, it does have the appeal, service and elegance that attracts and retains customers.  “Be the Whole Foods” he says to libraries.  “Have a sense of urgency,”  he encourages.  He then looks at how libraries can be an essential element in helping people cross the economic divide by building their digital skills – the digital literacy so important to work and live today:

  1. Be mobile
  2. Ensure services and spaces are easy, elegant & engaging
  3. Focus on content not available else, the “green fields” that people can’t explore elsewhere, from local authors, small presses, etc.
  4. Curate. YES! Curate by building collections that put content, images, and sounds into context — particularly context that is tailored to your unique community
  5. Leverage your physical presence.  This is what Amazon and Google don’t have. Physical places where people can work, read, study and gather.  Host special events that bring people in, and amaze them with what you have when they arrive.

Roskill’s concluding remarks should underpin any library’s relationship building and positioning.  He encourages the audience to go to their library, “This is your tax dollars at work, and usage drives priorities.” True.  Too true.  There’s a sense of urgency to drive the usage and lift the priority.  It isn’t enough for people to “think” public libraries are important (see the Pew Research).  Their experiences with public libraries need to demonstrate that libraries are important.