Shift From Stuff To Meaning Is An Opportunity For Libraries

I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Seth Godin on Oct. 28. The program was sponsored by the New Jersey Library Association, and although I had to spend 7 hours (round trip) on multiple trains getting to the program at Ramapo College in Mahway, New Jersey, I was well rewarded for my efforts. Godin is an amazing presenter and he shared insights about tribes, the subject of his most recent book (I received a copy and Godin signed it – a nice plus). I would recommend the book because it’s a good read and you’ll get a few ideas percolating. There were many librarians in the audience and I imagine they were all thinking the same thing. How do I become the leader of a tribe that will be passionate about the library.

One thing Godin told us is that you will fail if you try to create an experience for everyone. That, he said, is what the Carnegie Libraries were all about – one library for all. Instead we should focus on the different segments of the libraries community as potential tribes, for example, gamers, honor students, departmental faculty (and for the public sector  tribes can form around many interest groups or hobbyists) for whom librarians could provide leadership in acheiving better productivity or academic success. This approach also makes sense because Godin told us that tribes are insiders who “get it” (think of a tribe of Deadheads or Harley riders) and you can’t have a tribe of insiders unless there are outsiders – people who don’t belong to the tribe. So can a public or academic library have one big tribe? Who would our outsiders be since we need to be inclusive of everyone in our communities – even the people who are not regular users. But if we identify and create tribes within the overall community, sure, there could be insiders and outsiders.

But I think there is great value in exploring the tribe concept where it intersects with user experience design. Godin never specifically used the word experience to describe why people join and participate in tribes, but I believe that obtaining a unique experience is largely what tribes are about. Tribes are people connected to each other by a cause or idea – and they have a leader they follow. An idea that really resonated with me was Godin’s observations about a major societal and cultural shift that is happening, brought on to an extent by the global financial meltdown. We are placing less emphasis on the accumulation of material goods – stuff – and more importance on establishing meaningful experiences in our lives. I think this could create real opportunties for libraries.

This idea is further reinforced by two readings I came across this past week. The first comes from John Quelch a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School. He sees a new type of consumer emerging from the collapse of the mass consumption of the last decade. Now, says Quelch, more people want to declutter their lives and invest in experiences rather than things. He refers to this new consumer as the “Simplifier”. Of the four characteristics of the Simplifiers one is of particular relevance: “they want to collect experiences, not possessions..experiences do not tie you down, require no maintenance and permit variety seeking instincts to be quickly satisfied”. Then I came across an essay by Umair Haque, also affiliated with HBS, in which he writes about the coming economic crisis and why traditional recession tactics won’t work. He writes that the over-consumption era is finished, and that consumer purchases cannot be counted on to revive the economy. He sees a new competitive advantage based on the capacity for tolerance and difference, one that accrues to all and not just hyper-driven corporations. Is this another way of saying that creating meaning could be a new competitive advantage?

There is a growing school of thought in user experience design that promotes the idea of the experience as being about creating something meaningful for people, something that gives them intrisic value that can help them lead a better life. If what Godin, Quelch and Haque see on the horizon comes to fruition then I believe that libraries of all types will be well positioned to deliver the type of experience that will deliver meaning to people. Of course, to capitalize we have to understand how to design an experience that delivers meaning to the community. Business as usual is not likely to get us there. I gave a talk about user experience a few months ago, and I was describing this idea of the experience as making meaning for people. A librarian spoke up and explained how students came to visit her in her office for assistance with research. Nothing that unusual, but she related how that made the students feel good about having someone provide them with personal, caring help.From her perspective that was how she created meaning in their lives. It was great and I responded that SHE was the library experience – that the user community derived meaning from her support. She didn’t create or give “stuff”. She delivered a meaningful experience.

Could it be that librarians can be the leaders of tribes in our communities that seek us out for the meaning we can provide to them? As Godin said to us at the end of his talk, “This is your obligation. You must market by leading. You have no choice”.

Author: StevenB

Steven J. Bell - StevenB is the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University. In addition to contributing to ACRLog he maintains Kept-Up Academic Librarian and the Keeping Up Web Site. Steven is also the co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. He is an active member of ACRL's College Library Section. Additional information about Steven can be found on his personal web site.

2 thoughts on “Shift From Stuff To Meaning Is An Opportunity For Libraries”

  1. I recently read “Tribes” as well. One of the things that struck me is the way we in public libraries spend a lot of time defending business as usual. Circulating books, offering the same programs and business we’ve offered for decades is not innovative. What Godin says about defending the status quo resonates. We are building libraries to house books as quiet spaces with limited space for programming or unique partnerships. Tribes is a call to action, but hopefully it will initiate some thinking about new directions for library buildings and the activity that takes place inside them as well.

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