What Does This Mean to Me, Laura?


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What Does This Mean to Me, Laura?

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Your building is not your product

4th April 2019

We spend a lot of time in our buildings. We sweat the smallest detail when they are renovated. Their quirks and unique features are likely familiar parts of our workdays. The elevators that creak, that door you have to push extra hard to latch, the amazing mural that was painted by a local artist. We can easily fall in love with our buildings. After all, they’re an integral part of a library’s work and our own experiences. I’m not writing today to diss the library building.

However, I want to talk to you about when you try to make that building the biggest feature on your library’s website. It’s not unusual for me to work with a library, and they want to use a major piece of prime home page real estate for a photo of the building. I often have to talk them down from the idea, and here’s why.

The building isn’t the library, but it is part of the library’s identity.

This is actually a concept that many other businesses and organizations have already grasped. They know that they need to feature what they’re selling or people happy with what they’re selling–not the front door of the business. This idea is harder for libraries, because we often don’t perceive ourselves as “selling” anything. Make no mistake–your library is promoting services, programs and collections. That’s selling, even when no money is involved. Your product isn’t the front door.

Of course, your building is essential to most of the things a library does. But, chew on this: what happens if your library’s building has to go through a heavy-duty renovation? Oftentimes, the library moves to another location. And, here’s the important part: it’s still the library. We like our buildings, but its not as if we’re totally incapacitated when they’re not there. Library buildings are merely shells for the reality of what a library is.

Even very cool buildings aren’t the product.

There are a lot of fantastic library buildings. Curb’s 2018 list of the 20 most beautiful libraries in the U.S. will provide a look at some of the best the country has to offer. Yet, if you look at the websites of the majority of these libraries, they don’t usually feature a huge picture of the building on the homepage. Many will include a picture on an “About” page or in conjunction with their hours or locations. And, that makes total sense. If someone wants to visit the building, it’s logical to include a photo of it as a visual reference.

Think about this: The New York Public Library has one of the most iconic library buildings in the world. The Seattle Central Library building has won awards. It could be argued that people might go to these places, just to see the building. But the websites of these libraries quietly acknowledge that’s not the main reason that their institutions exist, or why people might want to come. If libraries like these don’t feature their building as a big part of their homepage, why would less awe-inspiring buildings be OK?

So what is the product?

Everything that your library does as an institution, is the product. The programs, the services, the collections, the staff, the outreach…absolutely everything. All (or almost all) of those things can usually happen without the benefit of a specific physical building.

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I know, your library might be the best-looking building in town, or on its campus. But there’s a lot to learn from how more recognizable institutions handle their web presence. They get it: it’s not about the building.

It’s about what’s inside it.

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