I’ve been doing some reading about the “library” brand and branding in general. I found the 2005 OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources very interesting and suggest you take look at it–even if you just look at the conclusions. I think it’s time to do some thinking about our “brand” and whether we want to try to do something about it.
This post will be some speculation about how the general public might characterize the â€œarchivesâ€ brand. In the OCLC survey:
We asked the open-ended question: â€œWhat is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?â€ 3,785 verbatim comments from 3,163 respondents were grouped by main theme. Roughly 70 percent of the respondents, across all geographic regions and U.S. age groups, associate library first and foremost with books. There was no runner up. [p.3-31]
If we had a survey asking that question, I think the response would be an overwhelming â€œold stuffâ€ (or perhaps the real first thing they might think would actually be nothingâ€”they might draw a total blank). What are the words we hear associated with archives (and archivists)? Musty, dusty, old, crumbling yellowed? In his post â€œWhat Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like?â€ Richard Cox wrote of the way archives (as places) are portrayed in fiction:
Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten.
Just as librarians have to fight their stereotype as a bunch of bun-wearing shushers, I think archivists have a reputation as being more actively engaged with the past than with the present. Here Cox summarizes the characteristics of fictional archivists:
They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.
I also think that if asked, most people probably wouldnâ€™t think of most archives as places that collected â€œnew,â€ in other words almost-current, stuff. For example, I donâ€™t think most people would associate archives with electronic records. I think that possibly a lot of people would say that archives (as institutions) are a lot like the things they think we holdâ€”antiquated and sequestered, unapproachable with our rules and white gloves. They are probably glad that weâ€™re hereâ€”glad that someone is saving â€œthat stuff.â€ But archives are places they probably have never been to and probably will never go to. You donâ€™t take out of town guests to an archives, as you do to a museum. You donâ€™t go there on a Saturday morning with the kids to check out picture books for them and The Da Vinci Code for you. Weâ€™re not a part of the fabric of peopleâ€™s lives. (Except possibly for genealogists, and even that, I think has declined.)
Am I painting it too bleakly? Itâ€™s not all bleakâ€”I think people are glad that we exist. And once you explain to someone at a cocktail party what it is you do (after you get the initial blank stare), they might say something like â€œthat sounds cool.â€
Another interesting aspect of the OCLC survey was that the words used by librarians to describe libraries and library services were not those used by the survey respondents. The librarians used â€œtrust,â€ â€œprivacy,â€ â€œauthoritative information,â€ â€œquality information,â€ â€œeducation,â€ â€œlearning,â€ community,â€ and â€œaccess.â€ In the survey:
We reviewed the over 3,500 verbatim responses from 3,163 respondents to the question â€œWhat is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?â€ to see how many times â€œtrust,â€ â€œquality,â€ â€œauthoritative,â€ â€œeducation,â€ and â€œprivacyâ€ and other often used library attributes were mentioned as the top-of-mind library image.
The words trust, authoritative, and privacy were never mentioned. Community was mentioned in one response. Quality was mentioned twice. Education was mentioned four times; learning was mentioned nine times. Free was mentioned 70 times. Books were mentioned 2,152 times. [3-33]
You can imagine the same kind of thing might happen in a survey of archivistsâ€”the public isnâ€™t going to mention authenticity, provenance, arrangement, accountability, finding aids, description, or processing. I think we might have some overlap on â€œhistoryâ€ and â€œpreservation.â€ What do you think our brand attributes are?
The last words of the conclusion of the OCLC report are: â€œIt is time to rejuvenate the â€œLibraryâ€ brand.â€ In future posts Iâ€™ll talk about rejuvenating the â€œArchivesâ€ brand.