sophisticated librarian

Seth Godin’s post this morning resonated with me.

He explains that when you walk into a business, or visit a website, and everything looks and sounds wrong, then you immediately mistrust the organization.

For example, a few months after I resigned from Unicoi County Public Library as its Director, I returned to use their genealogy collection. I was shocked by the change to the interior. What used to be a gorgeous open space: high ceilings and spacious reading room in a converted train station, was now divided by high shelving, cluttered by random papers, and filled to capacity with a four-sided computer carrell. I doubt it met ADA standards. Despite the fact that it used to be my library, my first thought was that the space was being mismanaged which made me wonder what else was being mismanaged.

Another example Godin uses is the salesperson with a weak or non-existant handshake who is unprepared, scattered, and lacks social skills. You’re wary and doubtful that this person can handle their job. Weak, short, or mincing handshakes put me on alert and cause me to look for other signs of incompetence and weakness.

Misspellings and bad grammar turn me off.  Yet I make those mistakes, too, and don’t catch every problem.

Godin explains that it’s about first impressions and levels of sophistication which he calls cultural wisdom. I’ve written before about how people either don’t know how to conduct themselves, or do know better, yet persist in being rude or socially retarded.

This cultural wisdom bit reminds me a great deal of the apathy of Generation X towards advertising and how marketing to that demographic is tough because we are jaded, skeptical. We catch whiffs of  inauthenticity and tune out.

It’s no secret that library webpages are hideous. No wonder users bypass them. Is [see, here, I left out the, bad writer/editor!] stereotype about librarians being socially inept true? And does that get translated into their approach to webdesign?  Don’t many stereotypes have a kernel of truth from which they’ve grown? And given its origins with the first generation of fusty librarians and staying power, is it true today, too?

There are many reasons that librarians and libraries are discounted, but one may be their lack of sophistication. There are sophisticated libraries out there. I’ve visited a few. But they are not the rule. Godin also points out that what appeals to one person won’t appeal to another.

It’s all rather circular, don’t you see? We are unsophisticated. How do we become sophisticated? Should we bother aiming for sophistication when there are so many different kinds of sophistication? Being all things to all people is impossible.

Here’s a radical idea: Let’s be ourselves, and those who appreciate our unique type of sophistication will find us.

And if they don’t find us, and librarians across the nation become jobless, there’s always Google to work for. Their digitization project needs librarians. There might be some job security in a project that size.

Godin closes with this:

Who’s in charge of cultural norms at your organization? Does someone hire or train or review to make sure you and your people are getting it right? At Vogue magazine, of course, that’s all they do. If they lost it, even for a minute, they’d be toast.

It’s funny that we assume that all sorts of complex but ultimately unimportant elements need experts and committees and review, but the most important element of marketing–demonstrating cultural wisdom–shouldn’t even be discussed.

I wish I wasn’t so hampered by my lack of experience, because I simply don’t know where other libraries are “at.” Surely, the larger libraries, say, the ones who employ a PR person to only do that job–a rarity in libraries– may have a bit of oversight about the cultural norms at their library. And our library webpages were locked down long ago to prevent anyone from erroneously screwing up code or content. It also functions as a means to present a version of our culture norm. It’s unsophisticated, very Web 1.0.

The takeaway: Your sophistication is displayed for everyone to see and your patrons make decisions about you, your organization, and your level of skill in a split second. If it needs tweaking, then so do it.

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