Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Mary, Queen of Libraries?


Anyone unfortunate enough to miss the latest series of Mary, Queen of Shops (BBC) missed a treat. You also missed several lessons that all librarians could heed.

For those who know nothing of the series, retail guru, Mary Portas visits ailing local shops in the hope of turning their fortunes around and being able to prosper in an age of retail giants such as Tesco, Sainsbury's etc. What has this got to do with libraries? Well, quite a lot.

In the first programme Mary takes on a feisty old baker who has "been in the business 36 years, darlin." Her inability to move her business on since the 1970's sent shudders of recognition down my book spine. Be honest, how many libraries have you been in (or more likely walked past) because they looked like something from "Life on Mars"? (Oh come on, I don't have to explain this programme as well do I?).

Of course most libraries these days have had some form of refit in recent years but this is no reason to get complacent. As the series illustrates, this is not just about a new shop front and new interior, it is also about product. What services are we offering today that we were offering 30 years ago and have they changed in any way? As I watched this particular episode my mind jumped to the many books on our shelves which never get borrowed or used but we are required to keep by lecturers because they are "classics".

Indeed all episodes have a salutary lesson for us: whether it is knowing our customers; ensuring we are meeting customer needs rather than our own; the importance of drawing up a business or strategic plan; discovering our unique selling point; or simply not cluttering up our shelves with unwanted junk just in case someone, one day, may pop in thinking they need it.

Libraries, like corner shops are struggling for an identity in a rapidly changing world. Even so, Mary Portas offers some solutions.

If we consider the library as the struggling local shop in the high street and Google as Tesco then we have a workable parallel. What do we offer that people can't obtain from Google or online? This is our value. It is here that we should concentrate services and activities. Stop trying to compete with the giants at their game and start considering our differences as our unique selling point.

In some respects we have it easier than local shops who have to compete with the professional customer service of the retail giants: all we have to compete with is a search box. This is not to say, of course that we do not need to provide the very best in customer service to our students/readers etc. Far from it. The lessons from this series are that shops, like libraries, can survive and prosper by offering what the giants cannot: service, specialism and the whole social experience of entering and being part of a library or shop.

In the current economic climate, libraries of all types are have to demonstrate their value to their parent organisation and the importance of their product. Failure to do so will see us ignored like the run-down, boarded up shops of the old high street. As the focus of cuts turn to the public sector, there are question marks above the heads of all public services not just libraries.

With this in mind, I am starting a one man campaign: that the fourth series of "Mary, queen of..." examines the role of public sector services in general and includes a library as part of its remit. Mary Portas may know nothing of libraries or other services but then again as the last episode illustrated, she knew nothing of hardware shops yet she was able to make a difference. The campaign starts here for "Mary, Queen of Libraries."

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