Readers’ Advisory as the Library’s Brand – David Vinjamuri in Vancouver

Tim McMillan is the acting Head of the Fraserview Branch of the Vancouver Public Library and an Adult Services Librarian. He is keenly interested in readers’ advisory as he finds it to be the library professional’s most challenging and essential task. He enjoys reading non-fiction, especially classics of Classical scholarship and hopes to one day connect a reader to a long forgotten 871 from compact shelving.

On May 20 the Vancouver Public Library hosted Forbes Magazine scribe and New York University adjunct professor David Vinjamuri for a colloquium on branding, merchandising and discovery in public libraries. While many of us may shy away from commercial-lingo, what stood out most from David’s presentation was his identification of our brand as being  readers’ advisory. Having library-professionals identified as the one indispensable resource by an expert from outside of the sector was most encouraging.

Vinjamuri defined Brand as “a promise of authentic and consistent expertise delivering a product or providing a service.” For us, this means our unique and deep understanding of reading trends and preferences. It is what makes us special. The statistical data he presented showed that people are aware of the full range of library programming and services, but that our knowledge of books is what defines us in the public’s eye. Since this is what we are known for, we have to be the best at it.

Easier said than done in today’s information saturated world! What is particularly challenging for library professionals is the sheer volume of books being published. The acquisitions of American public libraries in the 1950s could keep pace with the annual output of American publishers at the rate of approximately 11,000 volumes a year. In the 2010s, the latter number has increased exponentially. Today, public libraries are prevented from acquiring all but a fraction of what rolls off the presses of big publishers.

If individual systems are incapable of acquiring the totality of books produced, what chance do we as individual librarians have at reading our way through this mass? More importantly, how are we to know what to recommend to interested readers? How are we to be the best at readers’ advisory?

Vinjamuri offered a few suggestions. First, libraries should stop playing catch-up with best-sellers. The reading public is already well aware of the Kings, Baldaccis and Pattersons; these titles do not need a librarian to put them in the hands of their next reader. Instead, we could focus on mid-list titles that much of our user community may be unfamiliar with. By omitting the heavy-hitters from our reading lists and bulk acquisitions, we could concentrate on higher impact, lesser known authors whose buzz we could help nurture.

Anythink logo

Visual merchandising our collections could offer public libraries a means of paring down the reliance on best-sellers while providing opportunities to showcase rarely seen areas titles. Facing severe budget cuts, the Adams County Library in Colorado downsized their collection and re-branded itself as Anythink. The centrepiece of their new approach is visual merchandising and they have made their Visual Merchandising Guidelines freely available online. With a relentless focus on the user as a customer and a vocabulary steeped in the language of commercial retail the document’s subtext is that libraries must adopt the visual layout and tactics of the bookstore to successfully compete for the public’s attention.

A Naked Singularity            Wool

The burgeoning self-publishing market offered by the online giant Amazon was recommended as another area where librarians could refine their brand as reading experts. Author-published titles have come a long way since the days of vanity press: Sergio de la Pava’s Naked Singularity and Hugh Howey’s original Wool novella are critically acclaimed and literary examples of titles whose popularity has outstripped many titles by recognized authors from established publishing houses. With an English-language title base that is manageable enough to individually vet, self-published works offer opportunities for public libraries to promote their advisory expertise. The recent example of Illinois public libraries’ Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Project of 2013 was particularly compelling: the Chicago Public Library system and two other urban systems in Illinois curated a successful contest to discover the next great self-published book.

David Vinjamuri’s presentation gave the audience a great deal to think about. Certainly, several British Columbia libraries have successfully adopted a more retail-centric approach to promoting their collections and the example of a library-curated self-published author search is feasible for a large system. Hopefully, the Anythink Libraries Visual Merchandising Guidelines will prove useful to smaller systems as well.

For more information please see the slides from the presentation, linked here with the kind permission of the author:

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