Is the Toronto Public Library its own worst enemy?

Library supporters see Doug Ford — Toronto city councillor and the mayor’s brother/muse — as a sign of the apocalypse (and he may be; has anyone checked for a cloven hoof?). Until that’s verified, however, I wanted to point out that Vincent Lam’s well-intentioned article in today’s Globe and Mail has one very serious flaw: he takes for granted that “modern citizens know a library’s worth.” Museums and other cultural organizations – most nonprofits, in fact – have the same mistaken assumption: they expect people know “who we are and will support us.”  They don’t, and won’t.

Doug Ford isn’t an isolated example of a sheltered politician.  Wealth and position aside, he’s a better example of the common person; an everyman.  The TPL better pay attention: when a politician like Doug Ford – who is an agenda-setter, and a purse-string influencer – says he doesn’t “have a clue” who Margaret Atwood is and, by extension, doesn’t see the value of libraries, I’d say libraries have done something very wrong. Instead of blaming government, we should be pointing the finger at the library itself for failing to persuade people of its value.

The problem is that libraries – like museums – habitually wear a cloak of sophistication, but this veneer obscures the fact they aren’t very good at expressing their public value. Library and museum managers expect support on the basis of some nebulous claim that their work “is important,” yet can’t go beyond this cliché to make a compelling case. The marketing gimmicks to which they default build the wrong kind of identity, and don’t produce meaningful connections and long-term success.

And that’s where the Doug Fords of this world see a hole (a black hole), through which they try to drive their Mack truck. Fortunately, in this case, Margaret Atwood has stepped up to block the path. But the fact remains, libraries are just one more cultural institution that have to do a better job of communicating their public value.

If they are indeed valued public institutions worthy of support (and, for the record, I believe they are) they should be taking steps to put themselves at the centre of a vital public conversation; should be trying to challenge audience thinking beyond their walls, sustain intellectual interests, establish communities that want to stay connected and want to support their work. They must transcend their physical spaces and communicate their unique value in ways they aren’t at present. A strong brand is a form of protection: build one.

Unfortunately, left to their own devices, they’ll continue relying on the same-old tired, ineffective tactics. You can’t differentiate with sameness, yet their tactics never seem to change. Social networking may be providing a new gloss, but I have no confidence that it will end up being anything different unless unique content is put to better use in an effort to create a broad mission-supporting brand.

Don’t grouse about being seen as irrelevant, or under-valued, do something. The sector’s organizations need new approaches that help them better differentiate, communicate, and effectively build communities that will support their work. Even though the TPL has a great set of measurable numbers that speak to its impact on Toronto society, it’s hard to connect with an organization that doesn’t effectively and substantively tell its story.  If the TPL wants to be indispensable, it should concentrate on communicating why.  At present it may think it does, but the message isn’t getting through to the “everyman.”

Read Vincent Lam’s article: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/modern-citizens-know-a-librarys-worth/article2147704/

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One Response to Is the Toronto Public Library its own worst enemy?

  1. pushingrock says:

    Let’s applaud Atwood for standing up, but let’s not demonize Doug Ford. It’s not fair to blame him (you don’t, others do) for the fact that TPL hasn’t been properly communicating its value to citizens.

    If TPL had a strong brand — if the community it served could easily articulate its value — they wouldn’t be a target. By not taking control of their brand they’ve allowed their brand to be controlled by others. Shame.

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