Self-Check Machines for Libraries: A Marketing Nightmare

I was listening to a comedy podcast called UH Yeah Dude when one of the hosts complained about a bad experience at Starbucks that cast a shadow over his whole day. He said: “That is the one sort of bright spot in my day, when I come in and they start making my favorite drink and know who I am.” I think they got his drink wrong. Of course, he has amplified his feelings for comedic effect but a positive interaction with the staff is what he is buying on an emotional level. The least important thing Starbucks people do is ring the register and operate the machines.

That’s why I cringe when I see self-check machines at libraries. For political reasons, I abhor the machines when I see them at Safeway and OSH because people are on their way out. In libraries, I cringe because self-check machines are a marketing opportunity lost in terms of building awareness and controlling the brand: the "idea" of the library that best serves its aims.

I am not saying that libraries should reinforce the perception of antiquation, but rather that the machines don’t do enough marketing-wise (providing convenience, showing modernity) not to melt them with blow torches.

Is Dewey Destructive?

Libraries seeking to be just “like any commercial site or business” have lost a touch of their brand. That mantra is destructive. Is modern always good? I am not saying that libraries should reinforce the perception of antiquation, but rather that the machines don’t do enough marketing-wise (providing convenience, showing modernity) not to melt them with blow torches. The little sentinels communicate “only stuff matters” rather than “#librariesmatter.” I’ll take the antiquated person over the self-check machines when it comes to a marketing – and real – impact for libraries. Self-check machines are not helping the brand any and the financial gain may not be worth it. It’s clear that mobile access, social integration, and great search interfaces modernize the library image just fine.
The Marketing Opportunity

I heard a library director say that the circ desk can be the one and only point of contact with a patron. That is precious time.

At markets the checkers ask: Did you find anything you need? At banks they use the title “sales associate” for what used to be called tellers. At Wells Fargo, they are way into relationship selling. Greeters try to make you feel good and find out if you are a loan prospect; and clerks refer you to a loan agent even for administrative tasks.

This is an aggressive, corporate tactic (Hustling people to a reference librarian is absurd.) but striking up a conversation with a library user at the circ desk can lead to more interactions. In a piece I wrote about outreach at Brooklyn Public Library, a comment about a man’s natty attire turned in to his artwork going up in the library and later a fortuitous meeting with the Humans of New York blog photographer.

Breaking down the barriers between the outreach librarian, reference librarian, and circulation experts might lead to more and better conversations with users. I’d say everyone should check out books no matter what professional or pay barriers have been erected. I see librarians as the best marketing channel.

One can post library collections to Facebook all day, but libraries have librarians, which embody values and provide information “plus.”  The plus is a community connection, and I’d argue that community – the idea – is an appropriate brand for the library endeavor. I think framing library information around librarians (like Spenser’s Picks) is better than “stuff marketing.” Self-check machines make libraries look like stuff places, with nothing more to offer. One that you should leave as quickly and efficiently as possible!
Inviting Conversation is a Sound Marketing Tactic

In one of the worst ideas in Marketing History, Starbucks instructed their clerks to engage patrons in conversations about racial issues. Was abortion taken?

However, the principle holds. The 
ALA Libraries Transform Campaign is a wonderful springboard to starting conversations. Their Because statements are provocative and might prompt patrons to ask what they mean.

For example, the search vs. research "Because" statement (above) can be an invitation to talk about reference services and internet classes. If patrons ask about the signs at the circ desk, the staff will have some talking points ready. This may be an unwelcome tactic for staff (or even cheesy), but if you think about it a library user may leave the library thinking differently about the library and learning more about what it has to offer. I believe in giving librarians freedom to interact with a campaign like this is a marketing opportunity seized.

"Welcome to your community library” might suffice at the circ desk. You don’t need a big campaign for this.

There was once a study of reference librarians that said the interaction quality was more important than finding what they needed in terms of satisfaction. A self-check machine cannot provide this – yet. But time is running out; the singularity is approaching and libraries need to get ahead of the game.

Four Ways to Market from the Circ Desk
  1. Start conversations
  2. Reference Librarians check out books to capture helping opportunities
  3. Develop a marketing message to frame interaction. Your library already has a fabulous culture. Can you agree on its one idea and bring it to life?
  4. Everyone at the circ desk knows everything that the library is currently offering in terms of services or events and makes referrals when appropriate.


At any rate, it’s time to scrap library self-check machines, hopefully in the manner of disgruntled workers smashing the printer in Office Space. Cue the gangsta rap music.

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