Marketing Libraries: Insights


Here is another paper I wrote for my Library Marketing class, LIBR 283.  As always, my comments are meant to be constructive and from the perspective of a SLIS graduate student.

Marketing for nonprofit organizations has its own distinguishing aspects that help differentiate it from commercial entities.  Nonprofits are not only exchanging economic measurements, they are asking individuals to change their beliefs and perceptions for an ideal the nonprofit organization believes in and has a vested interest in maintaining and growing.  In this way nonprofits are marketing their ideas and values to individuals and other organizations.

Libraries are a shining example of how dynamic marketing for a nonprofit organization can be.  Like many organizations, libraries have many stakeholders that are affected by their marketing efforts.  These stakeholders include their immediate customers, the library staff, the communities they operate within, and their state and local governments.  Understanding their unique environment and their customers’ perceived costs and benefits is paramount to the successful marketing of library services.


Nonprofit Marketing Characteristics of WSUL

The nonprofit organization I work for is Washington State University Libraries (WSUL), an academic library system.  It must deal with many of the marketing characteristics unique to these types of large organizations, as described by Andreasen & Kotler (2003, Pgs.28-29).  In the case of the library the issue is marketing its services and values in a way that affects not only its patrons’ and users’ behaviors, but also its community and its multiple supporters.

One of the many services WSUL provides is consortia borrowing of library materials, patrons have access to over 35 other institutions for informational materials in a variety of mediums.  This service is not new to WSUL, however with the transient nature of the university community and with the influx of freshman and transfer students every semester the library constantly needs to market how this complex service operates and the potential benefit to patrons for their informational needs.  This process is one of the more complex performed by the library on the behalf of the patron and requires an extensive explanation of services.  For instance, consortia materials are viewable in the shared catalog, but this does not mean that these may be requested.  A requested item may take up to two weeks to arrive and be placed on the hold shelf.  Once the item is checked out, the patron has the item for six week, but cannot renew the item to use it for additional time.  Finally, patrons may request multiple copies in order to overlap checkout periods and lengthen their use of the material’s information.

As with many of the services provided by the library the benefits resulting from a certain sacrifice are not always realized right away or at all.  One of the underlying, implied values of the library is that it is a space where patrons and users may use, where there will not be a large amount of unnecessary noise and distractions, where patrons can take advantage of an environment that promotes contemplation, reflection, and scholarly efforts.  This is not an aspect of the library’s services that needs to be marketed or that is marketed to patrons, but it is undeniably a valued aspect of using the library and sometimes requires placing signs in specific areas to promote a general behavior among patrons that results in them being quiet, quiet areas.

Another service WSUL provide is access to print materials.  Patrons check out print materials for a specific period of time, the benefit, and must return them by the end of that term, the sacrifice.  When a patron has an item that is recalled by another patron, the first patron must sacrifice their continued use of the material so that the second patron may benefit from its information.  The second patron is realizing the benefit of the recall policy/service, while the patron who had the material first does not benefit from this service in this case.  The first patron would benefit from this policy/service if they recalled print material from another patron.

The availability of secondary data on our patrons and what services they prefer is hard to come by as opposed to that available to commercial organizations.  WSUL is constantly surveying its users for information regarding the services they need and how to best provide those services, since there are no other sources of data to draw from on our specific users and their perceived informational needs.

Finally, one of the most unique marketing characteristics for WSUL is capturing the benefit of having multiple locations on campus.  At this time, the WSUL system is considering closing three of the seven library branches on campus, each with its own distinct, specialized collections and unique patron needs.  While the collections will not be lost and the library staff will continue to work at a different location, these locations will no longer exist.  The benefit of maintaining these branches to the larger university community is difficult to convey in light of continued looming budget cuts.

Costs and Benefits

As described by Andreasen & Kotler (2003, Pg.27), consumers could possibly pay four different kinds of costs in order to use the library.  These costs are part of the exchange that takes place between the nonprofit organization, the library, and our patrons and users.  The costs can be broken down into economic costs, sacrifices of old ideas/values/views of the world, sacrifices of old patterns of behavior, and sacrifices of time and energy.

For an academic library, such as WSUL system, the economic costs could be the proportion of the taxes collected by the state government from state residents.  A proportion of the state funds awarded to the university are then allocated to the libraries, as the library system supports research efforts and the education endeavors of the attending Washington State residents.

Sacrifices of old ideas, values, or views of the world could be characterized by how patrons must sacrifice their preconceptions regarding access to information via the WSUL’s services.  Many patrons are not aware of the amount of information available and therefore act as though the library cannot adequately serve them.  Patrons need to sacrifice this view in order to use library services effectively.

Patrons must also sacrifice some of their old patterns of behavior.  For instance, patrons must be quiet and not talk on their cell phones in designated areas.  Our users come from many different walks of life and may have prior library experiences that allowed them to be much louder than is expected in our libraries.  In this case patrons are sacrificing a social behavior that could be acceptable in other libraries so they do not disturb other patrons studying.

Lastly, WSUL patrons must sacrifice their time and energy in some way.  In our case, patrons and users of the library’s services must wait to use certain materials, such as reserve items for specific classes.  These items are checkout to patrons for a short period of time and other patrons wanting to use them must wait their turn.  This also could be said for all the print and physical materials in the library, they are used on a first come first served basis.

The benefits patrons receive in return for their sacrifices or the costs they have incurred, as mentioned above, can be broken down into economic, social, and psychological benefits, according to Andreasen & Kotler (2003, Pg.27).  The economic benefit to patrons is that they gain access to materials online and in print that they would have to pay for on their own.  With two million items in print materials and access to online databases and electronic journals, WSUL patrons would have a difficult time gaining access to this same information offering on their own financially.  Also, WSUL patrons benefit by being given access to library computers, scanners, media theaters and equipment, and the library systems physical space and furniture.

There is an inherent social aspect to and provided by libraries, generally, that should not be ignored.  One of the social benefits to patrons from their sacrifices is that the library provides a space or place for them to meet other patrons in their classes to complete assignments and group projects.

The last of the benefits that could be realized by WSUL patrons are the psychological benefits offered by the library.  With access to a large body of information and multiple avenues of discovery available to them, patrons will not have to worry they will not find the information they seek. Also, patrons can be assured the library environment will be conducive to the scholastic efforts, since it has designated quiet areas.  Both of these benefits have the potential to cut down on patron stress levels.

While Washington State University Libraries have to contend with the unique marketing characteristics afforded nonprofit organizations that can make marketing for the library system more difficult than those efforts put forth by commercial enterprises, the library system is still able to thrive and effectively market itself and its values.  Also, whether or not patrons are aware of it, their behavior is being influenced by the costs they incur and the benefits they realize as a result of the organization’s marketing efforts.  Hopefully the WSUL system can maintain and even further their marketing efforts to continue to enhance their patrons’ experiences and how they are perceived by their stakeholders and patrons.

As always, I would love to hear from you.  What are your thoughts?

Thanks for reading!



Andreasen, A.R., & Kotler, P. (2003). Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations (6th ed.). NJ: Prentice Hall.


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