Friday, March 10, 2006

Article Note: On Guerrilla Librarianship (oh, and there are some roaches too)

Citation for the article:

Macke, Barbara. "Roaches, Guerrillas, and 'Librarians on the Loose.'" The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31.6 (November 2005): 586-589.

I read the article via OmniFile.

This short piece is a reminder that librarians need to be swift and mobile in providing service. I think I wrote a draft longer than the article itself, but I have to say that this article inspired a lot of thought for me, so this post may get a bit long. If you just want my recommendation, it is that it is thought provoking and worth a read.

The article opens with a story about Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was having trouble selling its Ant and Roach Killer spray in Minnesota. After a little research, Wal-Mart learned that women in Minnesota saw roaches as a sign of a poorly tended home. While in Southern states, a can in the pantry is no big deal, up there apparently it is seen as an admission of a problem. Wal-Mart then modified its marketing campaign by removing the pictures of roaches from the cans of bug spray. Sales increased. According to Macke, this story has a lesson for librarians in academia: "the Wal-Mart story teaches us that successful service in the retail world can sometimes depend upon 'taking the time to ask why'" (586).

I will be pointing out some quotes from the article that I found significant with some comments on my part.
  • "There is a difference between providing information and providing information in a palatable format, and this difference frequently involves the act of interpretation. In the undergraduate academic library, we may have the illusion that we are dealing with books, articles, and reference materials, all rich with information, but we are really dealing with the immediate and pressing needs of our students, and the accompanying need to tweak those information sources to make them understandable, more accessible, and in many cases, even appealing" (586-587).
The biblioblogosphere is full of writers who argue for the need to make libraries more like Google or like other online social services. Readers can run a Technorati search on Library 2.0 and similar concepts to confirm this. Much of those arguments are based on the need to appeal to patrons. All I will say is there are tools, but tools have to be wielded, and they have to be useful. What really interests me about Macke's idea above is that it really reminds us academic librarians about who we are really dealing with. We are dealing with students and their needs. Those tools are the weapons that we wield to meet those needs. They are the weapons we use to dispel their ignorance and satisfy their need. It falls to us to make those tools appealing and accessible. Some of the ideas behind the Library 2.0 movement fall within this. But it is more than tools and movements. It takes some marketing and selling on our parts. I like to see it as education. I like to see it in terms of helping students break through the clutter, to help them find what they want while leading them to it in the quickest way possible. This is one of my principles when I teach classes. I often work at making our resources more appealing than Google. I don't speak ill of Google; I simply show them how much more work they have to do in terms of research when using Google. It often works.

Macke goes on to discuss the concept of guerrilla marketing, a concept devised by marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson. The key ideas are speed and multiple tools when it comes to marketing. This may seem strange in relation to librarianship, but Macke reassures the reader:
  • "While it may seem strange to apply such war-like terminology to library services, remember, guerrilla tactics tend to be most useful and effective when you have a small, somewhat invisible force confronting a large one" (587).
By the way, this also reminded me of ideas from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which I read a while back. It sounds like I may want to revisit that book as well. The idea from Macke should sound familiar: it's the reference librarian at the reference desk confronting the many students and their multiple requests. The desk can be literal or virtual, but the principle applies. We are a small force, and we should be agile and mobile. This means we need to know our services and know them well. We should have familiarity with our reference collections, and we should be able to deploy our expertise across databases and the expansive field of the Internet. Multiple weapons, and the right weapon for the right target. And if you don't hit the target the first time, you move and try something else. This is unconventional, and I personally live for this. I think a lot of librarians and teachers do this as well.

Macke goes on to cite thirteen marketing secrets from Levinson's book Guerrilla Marketing. There are four secrets that I highlighted when I was reading the article. See page 587 of Macke's article for the complete list.
  • #6: "You must see that marketing is an assortment of weapons." This should be self-explanatory for librarians who know how to wield the weapons of their profession.
  • #8: "You must aim to run your firm in a way that makes it convenient for your customers." I think much of the Web 2.0 and L2 memes have this idea at heart (the attitudes often leave a lot to be desired in those memes, but that is not part of this post). However, this is something that libraries strive to work on, even if their paths diverge.
  • #9: "Put an element of amazement in your marketing." I just think that line is totally cool, maybe even if one replaces "marketing" for "librarianship." It is certainly I often try to do in my classes. Then again, I am also big on embracing chaos when necessary.
  • #13: "You must be skilled with the armament of guerrillas, which means technology." Now, keep in mind that Levinson's book came out in the 1980s, so technology has come a long way. Now, before the ubertech gurus begin frothing at the mouth and chanting "I told you so," we need to consider this: yes, librarians do need to keep up with current developments and thinking. They need to gain familiarity and comfort with various tools. They also need to be selective and somewhat judicious. Just because the latest 2.0 toy is hot, it does not automatically follow we have to implement it. In addition, I would suggest that technology ranges from 2.0 to computers and databases to books and periodicals. What do all these things have in common? They are all tools; some are more high tech than others, but they are just that, tools. The guerrilla librarian knows his/her tools, what they do best, and when to use them.
I will add that, like guerrillas, librarians travel light. They are not hampered by the heavy hardwared or equipment. Guerrillas select the best tools for their attacks, and so should we when it comes to serving our patrons.
  • "It is important to remember that most of the time we are not marketing the product, but our knowledge of the product, our ability to understand a patron's needs, and our willingness to participate in their research conversation" (588).
Librarians bring added value to reference and instruction work (as well as other services). This is the little detail that the "visionaries" predicting the demise of the library and its books always fail to see. Then again, to be fair, a lot of librarians who buy into the visions fail to see their own value as well. When a patron comes to us with a need, they want an answer or some information (or maybe something else. Just ask The Feel-Good Librarian about some of the other needs). Now, patrons come to us for our expertise, for our ability to cut through the chase, and very often they come because we will listen. Google may do a lot of things, but it can never replace a well armed, savvy and compassionate librarian willing to take the time to really ascertain a need and then fulfill it. Our strength is not so much in the tools. It's in what we know about those tools and how we use them. Additionally, our humanity is our strength as well.

On reaching students outside of the library, Macke writes,
  • "Library instruction need not always occur in the library in front of a computer. More pertinent locations may be an English Composition classroom, an online library chat session at 10 PM, a course management discussion board, or a library corner in the a campus coffee shop" (588).
I can proudly say I have done all of the above except for one, and that is the coffee shop idea. However, give me a wireless enabled laptop and some time, and I'd be there too. And if my director or colleagues happen to read this, I don't mean right this second. But it would definitely be something I would be interested in for a very near future.
  • "While technology has made our skills eminently transportable, librarians often seem reluctant to say, 'have information, will travel'"(588).
I wonder if some of this may be lack of resources. You can't be mobile (in a technological sense) if you don't have the resources to do it. But some of it is just fear of the unknown, fear of breaking tradition. In my case, I am willing to jump. After all, what's the worst that could happen? I take a bad fall? Just dust myself off and try again. I think my experience as a teacher works for me in this regard. I've had enough lesson plans misfire that I am comfortable dusting myself off and starting over if necessary. Now, if I could reassure others that risk taking is fine. As the saying goes, he (or she) who dares, wins.

The article has a few other good points. It is a short piece, but one that sparked a lot of good thoughts and ideas for me. There are some ideas I would like to develop in further writings, but those will come later. If nothing else, it inspired the inner guerrilla warrior in me.


Mark said...

Nice thoughts Angel. Looks like something I should read when I get a chance.

I certainly agree that we must get out from behind our desks. There's another article in this month's C&RL that bugs me. It's about finding out what's really needed by our students and suggests taking a class, but I decided to leave it be. I just shake my head somedays.

And despite not much liking martial metpahors anymore, maybe that is a bit of what I'm up to in some of my blogging. Or maybe I'm just brave and stupid. Well, we'll find out one of these days....

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mark: Been a bit bad about replying to this, but I have been in a sort of a funk, some of it local, some of it biblioblogospheric. At any rate, I saw the article you mention, and I printed it out, but it is sitting on the now larger perpetual stack of articles to read. If I do read it, I'll make a note of it. Will look forward to see if you read it as well. As always, best and keep on blogging.