The Library: It’s Boxy but It’s Good

I’ve been reading a Time Magazine article on Starbuck’s attempt to freshen their brand: Starbucks Looks for a Fresh Jolt. There are library blogs out there that talk about marketing and branding and such, and I usually like to steer clear of business talk, but I was struck by a line from the past and current CEO of Starbucks.

From the article: “The three of us stand and look at the area by the cash register–a clutter of CDs, breath mints, chocolate-covered graham crackers, chewing gum and trail mixes. ‘There’s no story,’ Roberts says. Schultz adds, ‘We’re selling a lot, but the point is to take a step back and ask, Is it appropriate? We’ve been selling teddy bears, and we’ve been selling hundreds of thousands of them, but to what end?'”

The first thing I thought of was my own local Starbucks and the way I’ve seen it transform in the past few years from a coffeeshop into something resembling an upscale convenience store. The breath mints, the teddy bears, the special CDs–all with the Starbucks brand on them. It seems to offend some people, but I actually like Starbucks coffee, and while being only a moderate coffee drinker I’ve certainly bought my share of grande coffees over the years. What I haven’t liked is everything else. Sometimes I even get in a very un-Starbucks mood and wish the people in front of me would just order a cup of coffee instead of whatever fancy drink they ordered, not because I begrudged them their half-decaf, fruit-filled, skim mochaccino, but because I’m in a hurry and just want my straight cup of coffee. Most of the time, though, what I don’t like is being bombarded with all of the cutesy or cuddly non-coffee crap they also sell. So, I don’t go to Starbucks as often as I might.

After the brief meditation on my own Starbucks experience, which lasted less time than it took to write the previous paragraph, I thought about the many librarians trying to brand or perhaps rebrand the library. I blogged last year in Conceptual Incommensurability and Video Games criticizing attempts to turn the academic library into a social space. Libraries can open up pubs and hold square dances, but that will never make them any more popular qua libraries. The old library brand is, I suppose, Books. My library has millions of books and buys tens of thousands more every year, but Books doesn’t work well as a brand because it captures only a portion of what we do. Information is too broad. Perhaps Scholarly Research would be the best brand, because the library and its resources are central to and indispensable for scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences.

If Scholarly Research is the brand of the academic library (and I’m arguing it should be), then do we dilute our brand if we focus on other things? I think we do. Usually when I see discussions of the problem of branding, they’re talking about public libraries and trying to make the case that libraries have more than books. However, academic libraries have some of the same issue problems. Should we create blogs? Should we be on Facebook? How can we appeal to and more importantly communicate with students? Having a mission–Scholarly Research–helps answer some of these other questions. Should we have a space on Facebook? Sure, if it helps the mission, but not if it’s just to have a page up to show that we’re hep to the latest fashion. Should we blog? Definitely, if it serves the mission of scholarly research somehow. Our mission is scholarly research, and that should be central to how we brand ourselves.

Scholarly Research may sound like a humdrum or humorless mission, but it has to be the identity of the academic library. It might not appeal to 18-year-olds as much as something trendier, but the library is what it is, and the struggle of marketing is to make things popular, not to change the things into something else. We can experiment with and investigate trends and fads to see what might help us in our mission, as long as we remember the mission and don’t get caught up in frivolities that we think might make us more popular. It might be best for our image to sell scholarly research as the worthwhile endeavor we all think it is than hanker for something sexier. There’s an old Dudley Moore movie about an advertising executive who ends up in an asylum, Crazy People. One of the crazy ads he comes up with is, “Volvo: We’re Boxy But We’re Good.” We will probably be better off selling the library as what it is than trying to pretend it’s something else.

The Library: It’s Boxy but It’s Good.

2 thoughts on “The Library: It’s Boxy but It’s Good

  1. Of course, it’s a bit different for us scitech library types. Scientists and engineers (social scientists to some extent as well, I imagine) don’t really do their scholarly research in the library, they do it in the lab or in the field or as part of a huge team using the LHC. The word “research” doesn’t really connect to the library and really never has. Branding as the “Boring but necessary literature review part of the research process” is a slightly different angle on “Boxy but Good.”

  2. I agree it’s very different for the sciences, which is why I said it was indispensable for the humanities and social sciences, and I don’t know what it should be for the sciences. The “boring but necessary literature review” doesn’t have the same connotations as boxy but good, that’s for sure. Even with some of the social sciences it’s a stretch. With humanities it’s simple. The humanities are usually about dealing with texts of some sort, and most of these come from libraries. Some social sciences are more data-driven, and that’s not necessarily a library issue. Our library houses a data and stats service and buys data sets, but I understand that at a lot of universities this isn’t a library function.

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